1978 started off rather slowly with just preparations for the coming racing season and finishing up Greg Athans new book Ski Free. I had enjoyed the past season with the best freestyle skiiers the world had to offer and Gilles finally getting a ride in Formula One made it look like a great year was in store. Len Coates also got prepared to head out for the Grand Prix season. His assignment from the Toronto Star was to let Canada know what we had representing us on the Grand Prix circuit. To date he had little to offer but Gilles’ seemingly tough struggle to keep up. We quietly had Clark Irwin Publishing in our pockets. The Italian press was already crucifying Gilles for his apparent reckless attitude in their beloved Ferrari. Formula One drivers were also concerned about the way Gilles approached racing. They could not figure out what he was doing when he would sit on the grid during race morning practice and make several outrageous starts leaving half his tires on the grid. Again on the formation lap, he would tear away from his starting box. It was simple. Gilles was doing what drag racers did before they made their run. He was laying down a nice thick patch of rubber to give his car grip and the advantage from the standing start. When he repeatedly spun during practice they thought he was way over his head. In actual fact he was finding the limit of the car and its tires in many corners. He was fast and he wanted to prove it. It was never about who’d win. It was about who was fastest. Gilles was qualifying in the top ten, but he was leaving hulks everywhere. His accident in Japan was haunting him with every line written about him. When the GP Circus got to California for the GP at Long Beach Gilles proved he belonged. He sat on the front row beside his team leader Carlos Reutemann. At the start Gilles out dragged Reutemann into the first turn and never looked back for the next 38 laps. Then he did it again! Naturally doing his late braking he came upon Clay Reggazoni in a narrow twisting part of the circuit just before the hill that led to the pit straight. As we saw him do at least twice in Formula Atlantic and again in the Japanese Grand Prix of 1977 one of Gilles front wheels came in contact with a rear wheel of Reggazoni’s car. Villeneuve’s leading Ferrari was now air-borne over Reggazoni’s car spinning around and coming to an abrupt halt in a tire barrier. One of Gilles tires had brushed Clay’s helmet on its way past. Clay continued and Gilles climbed from the wreck of his Ferrari. A stern talking to from ‘the old man’ was on his list when he returned to the factory. He had accidents in both his next two outings, but finally got on the points board with a fourth in Spain. He was called everything by the Italian press who demanded his release. He was not spoken of favourably by too many others in the press corps. To Ferrari he was the Crown Prince of Destruction. He finally picked up points in Austria and Holland to round out his year…well almost…we still had the Canadian race on the new track in downtown Montreal.
On one of his stops in Canada on his way to some exotic land to another race he ended up at Gaston’s office. I got the call from Gaston as he wanted an image for a poster he was going to produce for the Montreal race. I had already been commissioned to produce the centerfold for the event as well as the cover of Canadian Autosport magazine. I used my double image technique for all three. The magazine cover was a combination of a Montreal track background with the American Pavillion behind a shot I took in Spain. It looked like Gilles was making the final hairpin at Montreal almost two months before the race was even run there. I also had a nice image of Gilles from Long Beach where he had a visor attached to his helmet a la Ronnie Peterson. It was the only time in F1 he tried the visor. I didn’t have what I wanted for a head shot for Gaston’s poster so Gilles and I walked to the corner of University and Saint Antoine in downtown Montreal where I found a clear sky background and proceeded to take his portrait. There were a number of cars that honked their horn as we walked the short distance from Gaston’s office to the front of the Delta Hotel before we took the shots. Gilles had his helmet in a paper shopping bag! As soon as it came out and he put it on the traffic began to back up. They were getting out of their cars and coming over to wish him well. To hell with the traffic! It was Gilles Villeneuve! It was our Gilles Villeneuve! He was startled at first as it was one of his first times back in Montreal and in public alone since his Ferrari debut. The Montrealers loved him! Quebecers loved him! Canada loved him, at least those of us who even knew who he was. I was enjoying all his attention, but he was glad to get back to Gaston’s office. Gaston wondered what all the fuss was about. It soon became this way wherever he went. One time in Nice we had to have dinner in the kitchen of this small bistro as we were not left alone, but the food was great and cheap. The management refused payment. I was happy with the poster we did. It is now a very rare find. The result of the Montreal race is one of those things fairy tales are made of. I am sure you could hear the crowd as far away as Quebec City when Gilles crossed the finish line for his first nine points. He would finish his first full season with Ferrari in ninth place. Carlos would finish third behind Mario in the Lotus. In second was Ronnie Peterson who was killed in a horrific accident on the startline during the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in early September. Gilles qualified on the front row with Mario Andretti. At the start Gilles and Mario took off. The carnage began just after the start when there were several cars that came together. In the mele Peterson hit the guardrail and bounced back into the center of the track with the front of the car destroyed. His feet were terribly mangled, but he was conscious yet trapped in the burning weckage. The herosim of several drivers and course workers got the flames out and Peterson free. He was taken to hospital, but succumed to an embolism during the night. His loss was heavily felt in the Formula One family. He had treated Gilles with respect even after their Japan encounter, but never felt easy around him on the track.
Several big things happened for me when I was at home during the season. First Greg’s book Ski Free was released. It was my first and I felt good about it. Greg was a wonderful subject and person for me to be around and shoot. Both the front and rear covers had stories. On the front Greg is in a full inverted position. We had travelled to Whistler where Greg built a jump just under the Roundhouse at the top. We wanted the clear sky and mountains as a background. Just before I positioned myself for the shoot the representitive of LOOK products propositioned me. Get the LOOK logo on Greg’s hands in the shot and they would buy it for a poster. I told Greg. He looked after his sponsors well. I had only one shot per jump of which he took four. The front cover and the poster clearly show LOOK on his gloves. I don’t know how he could think of his hands in relation to the camera when he was in the middle of his jump. On our way down the hill a few hours later I suggested I would like to try a double exposure for a possible back cover. I did three where I tried to place him standing on his hands inverted inside a previous exposure. The result of this five minute stop above mid-station at Whistler is on the back cover. Photo Shop certainly would have made it easier, but that was decades away. The other big thing that happened was a Molson Media event. The media got different treatment in those days. I got to try real racing cars. I got to ski downhill courses if I was nuts enough to go on a press run and I got to enter ski races that were celebrity and media events. Since I began doing portraits of athletes I always wanted to see what the event felt like so I got to shoot an Olympic bow and shotgun. I got to sit on the back of and ride a dressage horse. This was after a night of wine and song with the horse’s owners! They just laughed and said I was turning green! I also ran a short luge training course and ran a slalom course wearing a pair of Hart Freestyle skiis at the spring races in Red Mountain BC. My coach was Betsy Clifford. I also did a swan dive off a ten meter platform! Do you have any idea what it looks like from up there! Want to scare the shit out of yourself? Just climb the ladder tough guy. Then lets see you go off with your head down! In one of the Molson media events the print media challenged the film and TV guys and girls in a Giant Slalom race. At the last moment I entered. I walked away with the Gold Medal for the big win and a week for two at Whistler for the downhill! The snow was not so good that year and I wanted to go to Europe. I convinced Molsons that they would get more milage out of me if I went to Europe the following year to shoot images for them for their races in Canada. They liked the idea and I was now on-line for my first visit to the world of World Cup Alpine racing.
Next: The Dempster Dozen, the T4 and the Crazy Canucks!
Red more from the Shutter Speed series.