Wednesday September 14, 2022 by René Fagnan
Several very serious accidents have occurred over the years at the Enzo & Dino Ferrari circuit in Imola. We need only think of those of Ayrton Senna, Gerhard Berger, Nelson Piquet, Roland Ratzenberger and Gilles Villeneuve.
The Quebec driver very nearly died there during the 1980 Italian Grand Prix presented, for the first time in history, at Imola and not at the legendary “temple of speed” that is Monza.
The reason was that major safety work had to be carried out at Monza following the accident which claimed the life of Ronnie Peterson at the start of the 1978 Grand Prix.
It was during this Imola event in 1980 that Villeneuve had the brand new Formula 1 turbo Ferrari, the 126C, debuted in public. Although fast, it was sorely unreliable and the turbo Ferrari only appeared on the track once before returning to Maranello in a Scuderia truck.
Villeneuve and his teammate, Jody Scheckter, the reigning World Champion, continue the weekend aboard the disastrous 312 T5 with naturally aspirated 12-cylinder engine; inefficient cars with unpredictable handling.
On Saturday, qualifying begins and Scheckter is the victim of a big accident in the big right curve which precedes the slow corner of Tosa. The South African was warming up his tires when his T5 slipped from his hands at 220 km/h and smashed against the concrete wall.
Scheckter, who is three races away from retiring, is unhurt but suffers from a severe headache. The Ferrari is destroyed and Jody, courageous, gets behind the wheel of the mule to continue the session. But his heart is no longer there and he would like to be somewhere else.
Villeneuve qualified eighth in his T5, almost two seconds behind pole position holder René Arnoux in a Renault RE20 turbo.
A violent impact
The race started and on the fourth lap, Villeneuve overtook Bruno Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo 179 to take fourth place. The order is therefore Nelson Piquet (Brabham) in the lead ahead of Jean-Pierre Jabouille (Renault), Arnoux and Villeneuve.
We are in the sixth round. As Villeneuve’s Ferrari negotiates the right-hand bend before Tosa at more than 280 km/h, the right rear tire disintegrates in a fraction of a second. The Ferrari spins on the track then almost hits the wall, ironically at the same place where Scheckter had his accident!
The T5 explodes into pieces under the force of the impact. If the engine remains attached to the hull, the entire rear axle separates from the rest of the car. Villeneuve is knocked out by the torn off left front wheel. After the impact, what remains of the single-seater rebounds and the hull comes to a standstill at the edge of the track where the rest of the peloton arrives.
Very shaken, Villeneuve raises his arms to the sky to show that he is conscious and to signal his presence to the other pilots. However, for about thirty seconds, he no longer sees anything, which worries him. He is also very afraid of being harpooned by another car coming at full speed.
Help finally arrived on site and helped the unfortunate pilot to extract himself from the wreckage. The visor of his helmet is broken on one side. He is seriously stunned and will undergo a first examination at the circuit’s medical clinic. Afterwards, he goes to a hospital to undergo a brain scan which reveals nothing to worry about.
During the weeks that followed, Villeneuve however had difficulty sleeping and later, he will need to wear glasses to read.
The Quebecer, however, was reassured by the stupendous sturdiness of the T5’s hull, as the passenger compartment and the pedals were almost undamaged. This solidity most likely saved him from serious injuries, just like it did with Jody Scheckter.