It says a lot about Gilles Villeneuve’s character and ability, when 1976 world champion James Hunt recommended the young Canadian kid to his bosses at McLaren as a must-sign prospect. Hard to imagine, but ego didn’t account for much of Formula 1 back then…

The year he won his one and only title by beating Niki Lauda to the championship in ’76, the great Brit was over in Canada for a minor race and saw Villeneuve dominating in his Formula Atlantic car, demonstrating the driving talent he became famous for, all exuberance and opposite lock. Hunt reported back to base about a kid who could barely speak English, but could drive like a demon. McLaren did wisely take their champion’s advice, and the following year entered an extra car for the 1977 British Grand Prix inviting Villeneuve to guest star in the race. Gilles got on the next flight to Heathrow and showed up at McLaren’s door with his suitcase in hand, ready for duty. His immaturity and inexperience, coupled with an undying passion for racing, fit in perfectly well with the young McLaren team, who were at that point still five times smaller than Ferrari and raced around the world as one of the ‘garagisti’ that Old Man Enzo so loved to hate. Villeneuve blew the team away with his speed, however in selecting his drivers for the 1978 season, team manager Teddy Mayer wanted to play boss — Villeneuve sorely wanted to stay within the homely atmosphere of McLaren and drive for the team, but the Canadian was in a predicament since Ferrari also came calling. Mayer decided to call the ‘bluff’, believing Ferrari was just toying with the idea, right until it was clear the Italians were serious and Villeneuve signed for the Scuderia, slipping through McLaren’s hands after making his F1 debut with the British outfit.

The rest is tragic history — but who knows what might have been had Hunt’s original tip off ended up with Villeneuve staying at McLaren? Because of Mayer’s arrogance, this was one that sadly got away from them…