Shutter Speed: Returning Home

It was Tuesday before I could get a flight home. I had planned to stay over for Monaco. By then Gilles had been home several days and was lying-in-state in the vestibule of the local arena in Berthierville. The lines to view his body just went on and on. He was dressed in a white, what I thought was a driver’s suit, but I have heard conflicting reports since. When I went to pay my respects, there were so many people there I almost turned for home. I was undergoing such a range of emotions I had never felt so intensely before. I wanted to comfort the family, but was not sure it was just me I wanted to comfort. Gaston was in hospital under heavy sedation. He had lost the son he never had. He and Gilles were closer than a Father and son. Like many Fathers, Gaston had pulled Gilles out of many of life’s ditches. I drove directly to Berthierville from the airport. After paying my respects I headed for home in Ottawa. I had seen my friend for the last time.

I am still in a fog about most of that week. I am not sure if it was the Thursday that the funeral was held, but I drove to Berthierville with my good friend David Morgan-Kirby, an avid race fan and sometimes journalist who, like I, had watched the rise of Gilles from Formula Fords to Formula One. He had taken the time to interview Gilles when he was in the lower ranks and still would get a good reception from him even though Gilles was now at the top of his game. David and I and my wife at the time sat in the loft to the right of the chequered flag draped coffin. We were within fifty feet of Jody when he gave the eulogy. David, a stoic Englishman was rock solid. My wife was a blithering mess. I was just stunned. In less than a week I had done the final negotiation for our Grand Prix book, received a significant advance against royalties, ventured overseas and returned home broken, but I was in better shape than my friend who was now the centre of a different type of attention.

After it was all over Gilles’ body was taken to Montreal to be cremated. Joanne would then take the ashes back to Monaco. We followed the black Cadillac to Montreal on our return to Ottawa. I thought of the ‘Red Cadillac’ on this drive. David and I reminisced about all we had seen. There was a lot of laughter and tears on that drive. We got seriously drunk that night.

It was late the following week that I was shooting fashion in Montreal. I was running late. I phoned home to tell my wife that I would get dinner on the road, but could get no answer. When I arrived home I found my home dark and naked. Every stick of furniture was gone. She had packed up and taken my youngest son with her while leaving my oldest son to fend for himself. I did not expect this second emotional upheaval at this point. She had somehow succeeded in getting the bank to give her the advance from the publisher. Fortunately I had given half of it to Gaston who was now back in the office. He had given it to Joanne who was now in a waiting game with the insurance company. She would not do without.

Professionally things seem to be going from bad to worse. When I called my publisher, who I had two advances from, one for my downhill book and the other for the Grand Prix book, I found that they were having problems on two fronts. The agreement to do the downhill book was on the skids as the same agreement with the National Ski team had been given to two other publishers. One for a kids book and the other to produce a book on the Crazy Canucks. Both were to be on the shelves by the fall. They also felt no one would be interested in a book that did not have Gilles as the writer, even though Len Coates was to ghost-write the text for Gilles. They did not even consider the new direction the book should take. Gaston and I discussed this problem and it was decided to pay off the first publisher and find a new one. We found two in General Publishing out of Toronto and Trecarre for French in Montreal. We knew the book was now to be about Gilles. Gaston had been in touch with Jody and Jackie Stewart. Both wanted to do the Foreword. It was decided to have them both. Jody would do the Foreword and Jackie the Epilogue. Things turned around again. We would give the fans something to hold on to.

It is amazing how many people came out of the woodwork to help with the research and any images I could not provide. It was not without it’s problems. Len was going through a severe family crisis and bundled with his loss of Gilles he went into seclusion. He could not be reached in any manner and was, after much soul-searching, dropped as the author. A new scribe was hired and he got to work. When I was handed the editing job I could not believe what I was reading. There were so many errors I just looked at Gaston and shook my head. He looked at me sadly and passed the manuscript to me and simply told me I had the weekend to clean it up in re-write. I was far from a writer! I could not spell! Spell-check did not exist! I got the limited text together and presented it to the publisher. The book was almost entirely photographs. It was as it should be. Just working on the project helped me get past many of my insecurities over what was going on in my life.

I missed Monaco for the first time in a number of years, but I thought I would turn up at Montreal and the Grand Prix and see if I could still shoot cars. I needed to shoot, but could I shoot racing cars again? The wind had been so totally taken out of my sails, I needed to know. I needed to be with my friends. Montreal’s Grand Prix without Gilles was a very somber affair. The track had been renamed Le Ciruit Gilles Villeneuve. The crowd that turned out to pay homage to Gilles was massive. The raw fans and Formula One family would again be assaulted by another accident, this time at the start of the race.

I had only been on a start-line-photographers-stand twice in my career, once in Indianapolis when there had been a big accident and that Sunday. I stood on the stand about fifteen feet high just outside Turn One. It was about 100 yards from the start/finish line. From my vantage point I could see the whole grid clearly. I was up there with about ten other shooters. Just before the start a cold wind blew down the straight. Several with me remarked on it. When the start lights turned green there was a problem right away. Didier, who was on the pole, had his left hand over his head indicating he had no power and would be standing still should the start be given. Given it was! Didier hung on with one arm held high. The first few rows got around him and then the melee began with cars spinning into each other and slamming the guard-rails. From the very back row of the grid, accelerating blindly into the dust thrown up by the roaring field was a blue and white Ossella. Riccardo Paletti, in his second Grand Prix, plowed into the stationary Ferrari. The impact crumpled the front of the Ossella. Paletti’s helmet slammed into the rear wing. The ferrari spun away from the force. Didier jumped from his car and ran to the stricken Italian motionless in the car. The impact was determined to be around 130 mph. Rescue crews were on the spot immediately, but the car erupted in flames. Didier tried in vain to help. He got very close, but Paletti was beyond help.

After many years I looked through the resulting book on Gilles and found an image I had taken that morning during warmup. It was a simple shot of a marshal on a safety stand beside the track. She had a black armband on her left arm…a tribute to Gilles. A single flower was stuck in a hat on the stand beside her. In the background was a blue and white car…an Ossella. Riccardo Paletti was the driver of the car. He had less than two hours to live. A shiver went up my spine.

Grand Prix racing would suffer again when Didier was severely injured in an accident much like Gilles’ fatal accident in Zolder. He ran run into the back of Alain Prost’s Renault on a warmup lap. The Ferrari climbed the Renault and catapulted through the air. The severely wounded Pironi was cut from the car and rushed to hospital. Ferrari did not withdraw from the race. Patrick Tambay, Gilles very close friend and replacement, would take the famous number ’27’ to the top of the podium. Didier would never return to Formula One. He would die in a boat racing accident several years later.

[nggallery id=479]

In late November the book, now titled ‘Villeneue’, would come off the presses in Montreal in both French and English. Political considerations were made to my name being on the book cover with the French Version having just ‘A. de la Plante’ rather than the full ‘English’ spelling of Allan as on the English version. There was another glitch in the book process. The new publisher had recently hired the head of a major music company to become CEO. At a meeting to decide how the fall list of books should be dealt with he calmly said, ‘…let’s let Villeneuve die with Villeneuve’. Now single, I had been having a little excitement with his secretary who was taking the minutes of this meeting. While out getting coffee, as good secretaries of the era did, she got on the phone to me and told me about this new developement. I called Gaston and could not reach him. I called the French publisher and related verbatum the comment from the very meeting he had just attended. He was astonished that I knew what had been said. He knew I would be all over the sports press with this story and promised me books for a launch later in the month. The decision to put the Villeuenve book on the market in the remainder box at five bucks a shot was eased until after the launch in Montreal and the book signing in Ottawa. The reaction from the press and the buying public showed the publisher that to remainder the book would be stupid. The book signing in Ottawa took place in a small book store owned by an old friend. The press was out in droves! The fans were out in droves! There were people lined up around the block waiting to get in to get a book. It was a very cold November night. We moved the event to the ballroom of the Holiday Inn around the corner. We fed and drank until the night was gone and the sun, if there was to be one, would show it’s head. We told many lies and toasted Gilles many times that night with again many a tear being shed. ‘Villeneuve’ became an instant bestseller and still can be found on eBay today at a considerable price.

Next: What now?

Read the rest of the Shutter Speed Series.


  1. says

    Another wonderful reminiscence. Thanks again, Allan.

    I had the pleasure of standing next to you briefly in the turn 1 photo hole at the Toronto Indy last year. Any chance you'll attend in July?

    • says

      It's in the program. Since I have no idea what you look like, give me a smack up the side of the head. It will wake me up…! Look forward to chatting with you after I return the wake up call. :-)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *