Racing drivers in Formula 1 today are glamorous figures in a sport in which image is everything, where the corporate culture and ever-intrusive media have turned these icons into bland, PR-speak mouthpieces.
It’s a cynical view perhaps, but one encountered and experienced with too many of today’s drivers on the grid.
Whether by accident or intention, Jacques Villeneuve has always been an exception to this rule. His grunge appearance, baggy overalls and periodically-bleached hair were something of an odd sight during his racing career, but the look and his outspoken nature appealed to a new generation of racing fans.
The Canadian is rarely one to be shy about what he thinks, and while you might not always agree with his perspective, you can’t help but stop and listen – as Wojtek Paprota of the Polish motorsport website SwiatWyscigow.pl was to discover.
Jacques was the son of Ferrari legend Gilles Villeneuve. Supremely talented and admired by fans worldwide, he would tragically be killed in 1982 when Jacques was just a small boy. Such a loss would shy many sons from following in their father’s footsteps, but for Jacques it was all he knew.
“I grew up with him as a racer. Since I was 5 years old, I was wanting to race,” he recalls.
“But since a little kid I was playing with cars. That was something that I was doing all day. Play with cars, building race tracks, nothing else existed anyway, so I was also made for this. My father’s influence is that Formula 1 wasn’t a natural world for me. He wasn’t doing another job and being a fan of racing in his spare time. He was actually racing so for me being in the paddock was like going to school, it was a natural environment.
“The affect of my father’s death was that it taught me how to respect your opponents, respect the risk and danger, how to push it to the limit – as well as racing just for the joy of it.”
Without their father and breadwinner, the Villeneuve family disappeared from the limelight for the 1980s until the younger Villeneuve started to explore his own racing ambitions.
“If you are Villeneuve, you can only be a racer, so maybe that was inside my head anyway,” Villeneuve said. His iconic surname certainly helped play a part in getting his fledgling career off the ground, particularly after an inauspicious three seasons in the Italian Formula 3 Championship between 1989 to 1991.
While the initial perception was that his father’s talents had not passed down to the next generation, that was to change when Villeneuve moved to Japan. Three race wins and finishing championship runner-up in the All-Japan F3 series started to get him noticed. An invitation and another podium at the Trois-Rivières Formula Atlantic race in Quebec propelled him into a full-time career in North America.
“When I started out in Formula 3, I was already a name,” he recalls. “When I started from my first race I was judged as an experienced driver would be, so the pressure was always there from the beginning.”
He fought a three-way battle for the 1993 Formula Atlantic championship, and although he didn’t claim the title honours, Forsythe Racing co-owners Jerry Forsythe and Barry Green decided to bring him along when they moved their team into the top-tier IndyCar series in 1994.
Villeneuve acquitted himself tremendously on debut, winning at Elkhart Lake and finishing runner-up at the Indianapolis 500. The following year, he went even better at the ‘500’. coming back from being two laps down to claim a sensational victory en route to becoming the youngest ever championship winner.
By now the Williams F1 team was interested in this son of a famous Formula 1 driver, and Villeneuve needed little convincing to join the team that was the dominant force of the sport throughout the 1990s.
Villeneuve defied recent history suggesting that IndyCar drivers can’t cut it after moving to F1 with a scintillating debut season in 1996. He came close to winning his first Grand Prix in Australia until an oil leak forced him to finish behind teammate Damon Hill, and over the course of the year he emerged as a credible threat to the Englishman’s quest for a long awaited Drivers’ Championship crown.
The 1997 season saw Villeneuve deliver on his undoubted promise. Some brilliant drives were interspersed with embarrassing gaffes, and that kept the title fight with Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher alive until the very end of the season that culminated in a controversial finale at the European Grand Prix.
“The intensity was extreme. All the week before, all the weekend,” Villeneuve recalled.
“Everything was really intense, you could feel it in the air. It was very electrical and everything was being done to beat Michael. It wasn’t about winning the race, it was about finishing ahead of Michael, because I was one point behind coming into Jerez.
“The battle was purely against Michael all weekend and it was about preparing how I could surprise him if I was behind him, so that he wouldn’t take me off.
“He’d already developed the odd habit of taking drivers out to win the championship [after colliding with Damon Hill in Adelaide to win the 1994 title]. And that is how the race went as well this time.”
Matters came to a head in the race, and as Villeneuve predicted, Schumacher outrageously attempted to block him as he dived up the inside of the Ferrari for the lead.
“It wasn’t a surprise,” was Villeneuve’s description of the incident.
“I just didn’t know how he would hit me, but he did it wrong. The key was to surprise him, not to allow him to see that I was coming and that is why he made a mistake.
“When I saw him at the gravel on the next lap I was happy because if he hadn’t done that, he could have overtaken me again, because we were doing the same lap times, so he could have overtaken me later in the race.”
Incredibly that proved to be the peak of Villeneuve’s Formula 1 career.
His title defense in 1998 was hampered by a recalcitrant car that proved no match for the speed of the McLarens and Ferraris, who headlined the title fight. Villeneuve was little more than a bit player scrapping for points and the occasional podium.
He earned plenty of praise for his efforts, but elected to follow his manager Craig Pollock who, with backing from British American Tobacco, had acquired the Tyrrell team to form a new venture: British American Racing.
History will show that the team’s first season was an embarrassing failure. Villeneuve retired from each of the first eleven races of the season and never came close to finishing in the points in 1999.
Despite constant rumours that he would throw in the towel and return to Williams, Villeneuve stayed on. He returned to the points and showed occasional flashes of his former glory days, but the Honda-powered cars were rarely up to the mark.
Pollock was dismissed from the team at the start of the 2002 campaign, and the under-contract Villeneuve remained with the team under the new leadership of Prodrive boss David Richards. With the Englishman lobbying the BAT paymasters to dispense with him at the end of 2003, Villeneuve quit before the season was out.
The 2004 season was largely spent on the sidelines, but he secured a surprise multi-year deal with Sauber to join the Swiss squad in 2005. An early comeback invitation came from Renault, where he drove in the final races of the season in place of the sacked Jarno Trulli, but the months away from the sport had sapped his fitness and pace.
Rarely competitive in 2005, his contract meant he was kept on for 2006 in spite of the team’s sale to BMW. It was an unhappy time.
“It was awful,” Villeneuve said of his time there.
“During the BMW years, even before the first race I knew that I was unwanted there. The team already wanted me to not do the first race anyway so the atmosphere was not really good.”
While he generally matched the pace of his younger teammate Nick Heidfeld, a heavy crash at the German Grand Prix sidelined him for the following race in Hungary where Robert Kubica deputised in his place. The Polish driver performed well enough to be offered further drives, and Villeneuve was squeezed out.
He joined Peugeot in an attempt to emulate Graham Hill’s ‘Triple Crown’ achievement by adding a 24 Hours of Le Mans title to his CV. He unluckily just missed out, finishing second in 2008.
Stints in NASCAR, the V8 Supercars Championship, RallyCross and the Formula E Championship over the following years all proved short-lived and rarely awarded him success.
“I love racing and I love new challenges,” he answered, when asked about the sheer variety of categories that he tried after Formula 1.
“I love also finding a way to get better in something. For that, when you jump to another category, you need to adapt again. I just love competing at the highest level. When my F1 career stopped, I had to drive somewhere else, because I wasn’t ready to stop. I am still not ready to stop, but there is just no opportunity to keep racing.
“Racing is a way of life, the way of surpassing yourself,” he added.
“It’s a way of doing something and showing that you can do it better than others. In difficult situations it is not only physical, it is also a psychological challenge.
“And when you are not good enough – finding solutions, finding tricks, finding all the ways to make yourself always better – it is also a domain where you are never good enough. There is always somebody better than you at some point.”
Today Villeneuve works for Italy’s SKY Formula 1 channel as a commentator and pundit, where he hasn’t backed away from his forthright and direct approach.
“[Being part of the media] is all relative. There is no stopwatch. It’s not a situation where you win or lose, so it is very different. It is exciting, to try to do it well.
“I don’t have unfinished business and I don’t have any regrets,” he concludes. “My goal was to win an F1 championship. As a kid, it was always my goal.
“Of course there are some things that could have gone better, like winning Le Mans instead of finishing second. It is just one of those things.”
This interview quotes were first published on SwiatWyscigow.pl and have been reproduced with permission.
Images via Allan de la Plante, Rainier Ehrhardt, Taringa, Williams, XPB Images