Gilles Villeneuve, 40 years old: a first phone call to Georgette and Sevilla

At the end of the line, Christian Tortora still speaks with emotion about this May 8, 1982 that he lived locally in Zolder, in Belgium.

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This journalist, who has just over 550 Grands Prix under his belt, was the voice of Formula 1 for the radio stations CKVL and CKOI in Verdun. He was the first to announce in the air that Gilles Villeneuve had been the victim of a serious accident. At a time when qualifications were not presented live on TV and the internet did not yet exist.

“First of all, I had to warn the parents of Gilles, Georgette and Sevilla,” he said in an interview with the Log. I didn’t want them to find out on the radio. Which I did before starting my long series of reports. †

Though he knew Villeneuve was seriously injured, Tortora never lost hope.

“I thought he would make it,” he says. I had received information that a Belgian surgeon caring for Gilles at the hospital was in contact with a professor emeritus based in the Laurentians to try to save him. But, we heard a few hours later that there was nothing more that could be done. †

Tortora initially had a business relationship with Villeneuve, but they soon became friends. His European colleagues only spoke well of Gilles.

“He had a charisma like no other,” says friend Torto. His manner of addressing and his candor were unique. It was a huge loss. †

A great radio moment

When the first information came from Zolder, Richard Morency and Tom Lapointe, who co-hosted the weekend edition of “World of Champions” on CKVL, decided to push the show forward.

“We were supposed to go on air at 9:00 AM, but we started a little earlier,” Morency recalls. Tom arrived at the station earlier than I did, because he lived closer to the station. We were the first to spread the news of his accident. Then everything fell apart. We were the reference.

“We relied a lot on Tortora,” says the former announcer of the Expos baseball club for 17 years. He was our correspondent in Zolder when it happened. Everyone wanted to know more about Villeneuve’s health, but that was difficult at the time. The means of communication were not those of today. †

“We had the big end of the stick, to chase Morency, because Tortora started calling us more and more. So much so that our competitors reached out to us to find out more.

“If motorsport wasn’t my specialty, of course I knew who Gilles Villeneuve was. It was a big blow to the station and a great radio moment. We bragged for a long time, even though it was a very sad situation. †

At that time, there were no continuous information networks in Quebec. But given the importance of the news, Télé-Métropole (TVA’s ancestor) had interrupted regular programming to present a special program about the accident in Villeneuve.

“At one point the propeller was on its side…”

Tom Lapointe and Richard Sévigny had unforgettable moments with Gilles Villeneuve in 1981, and above all a memorable walk aboard his helicopter.

“I was tasked with covering the press conference of Nelson Skalbania, who had just taken over Montreal Alouettes football club,” Lapointe recalls. And the new owner had organized a drawing among the season ticket holders and journalists present [c’était une autre époque…] the price of which was a trip for two, all expenses paid, to attend the Monaco Grand Prix. And I won! †

The former radio host contacted his then-friend and neighbor, Richard Sévigny, to offer to accompany him. Which, of course, the former goalkeeper of the Canadiens and Quebec Nordiques accepted.

“It was Gilles’ manager who looked after us when we arrived,” said Lapointe. After that it was a series of secular activities. It was fun. †

“And on top of that, Gilles won the Monaco Grand Prix while we were there. But despite his achievement, he had kept his promise to spend time with us. He knocked on our hotel room at 9am the next morning and said to us, “Tabar…you’re still asleep, get up!” †

Three in one… two seater

The sequel is by Sévigny who, he says, was not a good friend of Villeneuve. But soon he got to know him.

“Despite the celebrity, he says, Gilles was incredibly generous. I remember two funny moments that marked our journey. The first is when he invited us to sit in his car, which only had two seats, as we sat with his friends.” three were on board.

“We were arrested on the streets of Monaco. The police officer didn’t recognize Gilles, but by arguing, he let us leave without issuing a ticket. The second, to add Sévigny, is our famous helicopter adventure that took us from Monaco to Saint-Tropez.

“At one point the propeller was on the side, when normally it should be above us! I can therefore confirm that Gilles was an acrobat in every sense of the word, and not just at the wheel of a Formula 1 car.”

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