Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Jochen Mass was essentially an innocent bystander in the devastating crash that killed Villeneuve. (Mercedes-Benz/Mercedes-Benz)
Jochen Mass was essentially an innocent bystander in the devastating crash that killed Villeneuve. (Mercedes-Benz/Mercedes-Benz)

Motorsports

F1 driver Mass explains why he quit racing after fatal Villeneuve crash Add to ...

The accident that took the life of Canadian racing legend Gilles Villeneuve 30 years ago Tuesday ultimately ended the Formula One career of Jochen Mass – but not for the reason that many might think.

While the death of another competitor and friend was difficult to accept, the German continued racing after the fatal two-car crash in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix on May 8, 1982 that robbed the sport of one of its greatest talents. But it was seeing the toll Villeneuve's death had on his young family that weighed heavily on Mass after he escaped a violent accident of his own two months later.

More related to this story

His crash 11 laps into the 1982 French Grand Prix hammered home the stark reality that his own family might have to go through the same ordeal if he stayed in F1. That day, Mass decided to walk away from grand prix racing.

“Gilles was the racing driver and he took the risks he took, but I felt desperately bad about the children – it's not hard for the one who suffers the accident; it's hard for the people left behind,” said Mass, 65, who is now a driver for the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart, Germany.

“When I had a similar accident at Le Castellet [during the French Grand Prix] in the same year, I felt very strongly that somebody was pointing at me from up there and I thought I better quit because it was too close and too similar. While I flew through the air, it was like it was in slow-motion and it was beautiful – it sounds perverse, but it was beautiful emotion, at that moment: I was being knocked about and I didn't feel any of that, I just had a slow dream of my life and my kids.”

Mass was essentially an innocent bystander in the devastating crash that killed Villeneuve. It happened in the final seconds of qualifying at Zolder, when the scarlet Ferrari sped up behind Mass, who was touring around the circuit as he headed to the pits.

Villeneuve approached Mass' March at the Terlamenbocht corner, where the experienced German moved to the right to give the Ferrari driver room to pass. Unfortunately, fast-moving Villeneuve also chose the same piece of tarmac and the two cars touched wheels, tossing the Ferrari into the air. Villeneuve's car disintegrated as it cartwheeled, throwing its driver from the cockpit. He died in hospital later that day.

In the blink of an eye, Canada lost its first real international racing superstar and a supreme talent who many feel was one of the best ever to sit in a racing car. Villeneuve's style can only be described as sensational; he drove every lap on the razor's edge between glory and disaster.

A few weeks after his death, wheel-on-wheel contact with another car in July's race in France resulted in Mass' March flipping over a catch fence, landing upside down and bursting into flames. A dazed Mass escaped with only a few minor burns, while the other driver in the accident, Mauro Baldi, was unhurt.

Mass never raced in F1 again, ending a grand prix career that saw him score one win and eight podiums in 104 races between 1973 and 1982. His best season was 1977, when he finished sixth overall in the world championship, driving for McLaren. After leaving F1, Mass went on to have a successful career in sports car racing, winning the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1989.

As most motorsport fans around the world stop on Tuesday to remember Villeneuve on the 30th anniversary of his death, Mass will think about his old friend and the crash.

“You often wonder what would have been if certain things would have been fractions of a second different,” he said. “It's not something you just shrug off – it always lingers somewhere in the back of your mind.”

While F1 has not seen a fatal accident in a race since it lost three-time world champion Ayrton Senna 18 years ago in a high-speed crash during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, the era when Mass and Villeneuve competed was much bloodier. Between 1970 and 1982, 15 drivers lost their lives in F1 races.

During his career, Mass always knew a fatal accident was possible in every race and each driver simply hoped that it wouldn't be him. The priority in those days was clear: Stay alive.

“You accepted it and it made you aware of life differently. Of course, that also works on your frame of mind and your life philosophy. It was different racing.”

Part of the problem was the cars, which were the pinnacle of safety at the time, but would be considered extremely dangerous at best by today's standards.

“Gilles' car was a joke,” Mass explained succinctly.

In Villeneuve's accident, the seatbelts ripped from their mounts, which is why he was thrown across the track and into a catch fence. He also lost his helmet in the crash because, as Mass explained, “they were not very good either.”

Although Mass sometimes wonders whether things could have turned out differently, Villeneuve's son Jacques has no doubt about what went wrong.

Villeneuve understands the dangers of racing firsthand after a successful career of his own, which included the 1995 Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) title, a win at the 1995 Indianapolis 500 and the 1997 F1 world championship title.

“It wasn't [Mass']fault; he had nothing to do with it,” said Villeneuve, who was 11 when his father died.

“It was racing, and everybody gets into racing knowing the dangers. You can't blame someone else for someone's mistake. They were both racers, and that's it. It's not as if they had been in a race and one driver had purposely done something nasty.

“No one has ever said: ‘Here is the culprit,’ not even my mother.”

Villeneuve almost bristled at the suggestion that Mass might have a difficult day on the anniversary, citing that the accident happened three decades ago.

The only reason the day might be troubling, Villeneuve suggested, is because Mass keeps being asked to relive the crash once a year – something that he experienced too.

“It's only tough for him if people keep calling him. That's the only reason that people remember or it's tough for people is because on that day – and it was the same for me – a million people would start calling and ask: ‘So how do you feel today?’” Villeneuve said.

“It's just people that make sure that it's heavy on your shoulders for no reason, and I am sure it would be the same for him.”

For his part, Mass understands exactly why racing fans, and especially Canadians, want to talk about Gilles Villeneuve on May 8.

“He was a Canadian hero and a wonderful guy – I admired him for his guts and attitude. It was tragic,” Mass said.

“These things don't go away, these pictures haunt you all your life and you look at it partially with regret because you aren't able to change anything. But it is something which is part of the quality and misery of life. I look back at it with humility in a way, and feel that they were precious years, dangerous years, and lucky years.”

Canadian Bruno Spengler celebrates his DTM win.

Spengler wins

Canadian Bruno Spengler surprised many when he took pole position in qualifying for Sunday's Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) race at the German Lausitzring Circuit. The St-Hippolyte, Que. driver slackened even more jaws when he fought off all challengers in the 52-lap race to take BMW's first DTM win in almost two decades, and its first since returning to the series this year.

It wasn't easy for the 28-year-old, who had the Mercedes of 2005 series champion Gary Paffett nipping at his heels for the entire race, trailing his BMW by less than a second for most of the 52 laps.

“I had to give 100 per cent on every lap and could not afford to make even the slightest of errors. The Mercedes behind me was piling on the pressure and just kept on attacking me,” said Spengler, whose margin of victory was 1.019 seconds.

“I always felt that I would be able to challenge at the front of the field this season, but I would never have dreamt that I would claim pole position and pick up my first win with BMW at just the second race. That was a big surprise to me.”

The win pushed Spengler into third overall in points behind leader Paffett and his Mercedes teammate Jamie Green.

Canadian Robert Wickens had a rough day in his second race for Mercedes after his car broke down with five laps to go while he was in the final points-paying position of 10th. Wickens had started in 15th.

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

In the know

Top videos »