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Memorials and Sport Heritage: Gilles Villeneuve and Circuit Zolder

Excerpt from Gerald Donaldson’s Gilles Villeneuve: The Life of the Legendary Racing Driver:

“Saturday, May 8, 1982 – Zolder, Belgium

It was 1.52 p.m. in the pine forests of eastern Belgium. There were just eight minutes to go in the final qualifying session for the Belgian Grand Prix. The sky was dull and grey after morning showers, but the track surface was dry. The drivers were trying to improve their grid positions for tomorrow’s race.

None was trying harder than the French Canadian in the red number 27 Ferrari. He came powering through the chicane on full throttle and disappeared over the hill towards Teramenbocht, one of the most difficult curves on the Zolder circuit. It was to be his last lap.

The engine noises stopped. An eerie hush spread around the 4.26-kilomtre track. Spectators whispered nervously at the unexpected silence. Suddenly the track announcer began screaming hysterically about a huge accident involving one of the Ferraris…”

Tragedy is not a particularly common theme in sport heritage. From the academic field, Stride et al for example examined tragedy and memorialization for soccer players killed mid-career while Huggins looked at graveyard commemorations of sporting heroes. Public memorials to, for example, the Busby Babes of Manchester United have been looked at in detail, but most athletes do not die particularly young and rarely while participating in their sport. However, motor sport is perhaps one of the areas where we see the memorials to athletes most frequently, although they provide unique geographical forms of recognition, remembrance, and memorialization.

Gilles Villeneuve was a Canadian racing driver, most famously competing with Ferrari in Formula One between 1977-1982. He was known at the time as one of the fastest and most unrelenting drivers in the series. During the qualifying at Zolder for the Belgian Grand Prix, he hit another car while passing, launching his car into a air and then somersaulting – ultimately throwing Villeneuve from his car. He was sent by air ambulance to the St Raphael hospital in nearby Leuven where he was pronounced dead later the same evening. His son, Jacques Villeneuve, later competed in Formula One, winning the championship in 1997.

Circuit Zolder is no longer used for Formula One races (the Belgian Grand Prix has been at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit since 1985) though it does regularly host races from other racing competitions. Villeneuve is remembered at the site in three different ways. The first is in the paddock area, and is a publicly accessible sculpture which features Villeneuve’s car, helmet, autograph, maple leaves to represent his Canadian homeland, and the Ferrari logo to represent his team:


The other two memorials require special access (in our case, generously provided by one of the Zolder staff). One is the chicane which is named after Villeneuve (was changed from a corner to a chicane in the mid-1980s):


The other is a small memorial at the location where Villeneuve’s body lay after his crash:


Zolder is one of several locations throughout the world where Villeneuve is honoured, including at the Ferrari test track and in his hometown in Quebec where there is a museum about him. Perhaps most notably the circuit in Montreal, where the Canadian Grand Prix is held, is named after him. The geography of memorialization in this case – and maybe it is the case through other motorsports deaths – is somewhat dispersed, perhaps recognizing the rather nomadic nature of the sport which does not necessarily have a “home field” or venue in the same ways as other sports do. In this case, Villeneuve has memorials in three different countries, owing to his citizenship, the location of his death, and his team. Similar dispersed geographies of remembrance can be seen in the case of Dale Earnhardt Sr, who has various locations named after him, as well as a heritage trail in his hometown. Interestingly, the location of his death at the Daytona International Speedway – though having a statue of him – does not appear to discuss his death in their public tours and museum.

An intriguing element to the Villeneuve story in Belgium is that two of his memorials in Zolder – the chicane and the trackside marker – are both inaccessible to the public. In our case, it was only the generosity of a Zolder staff member who took us to the site in his car that made our access possible. In discussions with this staff member, he noted that the track does not really want to promote their association with Villeneuve’s death – noting that it “is already bad enough that he died here.” He also said that the interest in seeing the memorials are sporadic, normally occurring around the anniversary of his death on May 8. He also said that the main people who want to visit are Canadians and Italians, owing to Villeneuve’s nationality and team. He said that very few general motorsport or Formula One fans express much knowledge or interest in the Villeneuve story at Zolder.

A final, and unmarked, location in the Villeneuve story in Belgium is that of the St Raphael Hospital in Leuven, where Villeneuve actually passed-away later the same day as his accident:


There are, as expected, no public markers noting the historical link to Villeneuve. In some respects, Villeneuve “died” at Zolder, with the announcement at Leuven being a mere formality.

Although there appears to still be interest in Villeneuve by some racing fans, his legacy appears to be largely viewed through the lens of nationality and team affiliation. Certainly, Zolder acknowledges his death, but does not publicly promote their track as a place of pilgrimage. Perhaps the closest parallel to Villeneuve is Ayrton Senna, who died at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. However, though Villeneuve and his memory appears to be largely part of the sport’s past, Senna may still be one of the sport’s most popular drivers some twenty-five years after his death. Unlike Senna, Villeneuve’s memory is not necessarily a commodity beyond a select few tourists who make their way to one of his memorial sites in Canada, Belgium, or Italy. Senna name and legacy, on the other hand, are attached to numerous events, products, and tourism experiences. Indeed, one could see Villeneuve perhaps being forgotten by race fans over time.






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