Perhaps it’s coincidental that we’re talking about Jacques Villeneuve today, but it is also the French-Canadian’s 41st birthday!
Villeneuve was Formula 1’s second second-generation driver to join the ranks of World Championship-winning status by winning the 1997 crown for Williams.
Son of the acclaimed Ferrari driver Gilles, Jacques’ rise through the motorsport ranks was not particularly spectacular early on, marked by some fairly middling performances in saloon cars and the Italian F3 championships.
He started to earn more success when he began racing in Japan, and his profile rose even further when he started to achieve great success in the North American racing scene.
Kickstarting with the Formula Atlantic championship, backing from Players cigarettes propelled him into IndyCar racing in 1994. He showed promise early on, and in his sophomore season he took the title and brilliantly won the Indianapolis 500.
His performances earned him the attention of F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, who helped ease Villeneuve’s passage to Formula 1 as the next ‘American’ Formula 1 import with Williams for the 1996 season.
He earned pole position on his F1 debut at the Australian Grand Prix, and would have won the race but for a late-race oil leak that forced him to cede the win to team-mate Damon Hill. He claimed three wins in his debut season, and it was his sheer consistency that saw him take the championship fight to Hill right down to the wire. A tyre failure at Suzuka gave the crown to Hill, whose hopes of a successful title defence were nil with the news that he would not be retained by Williams beyond the end of the year.
With Heinz-Harald Frentzen joining the team in 1997, Villeneuve should have cakewalked the championship season. He started strongly, but he suffered some bad mid-season wobbles that allowed Michael Schumacher to remain in the hunt and even assume the lead in the title race.
Approaching the season finale at Jerez virtually neck-and-neck with the German, the battle would be resolved in Villeneuve’s favour when Schumacher unsuccessfully tried to ram him out of the race. The 1997 crown would be Villeneuve’s – it might have been earned the hard way, but it was still earned.
It would be the last time Villeneuve would grace victory lane or even look close to doing so.
He remained with Williams for the 1998 season, but the loss of Renault’s factory support and Adrian Newey’s design influence meant that he struggled to the odd podium finish and a distant fifth in the championship standings.
With massive backing from British American Tobacco and with his manager Craig Pollock at the helm, Villeneuve joined the new British American Racing team for the 1999 season.
The team’s competitiveness and level of results were appallingly disproportionate relative to the investment from BAT, and it was little surprise that Pollock was eventually made the scapegoat on the eve of the 2003 season and replaced by David Richards. Villeneuve was incensed, and quit the team before the end of the year after being summarily thumped all year long by new team-mate Jenson Button.
He remained sidelined without a drive for much of 2004, but made a surprise return to the grid with Renault for the final three races of the year as Jarno Trulli’s replacement. Unfit, his results were nothing to write home about, but he earned himself a two-year deal with Sauber.
It was little surprise that the rather particular Villeneuve didn’t gel with the Swiss team’s regimented set-up, and he was again rather unimpressive on his full-time return to the sport. It was a bit of luck that BMW decided to honour his contract for the 2006 season when they bought out the team during the 2005-6 off-season.
Unsurprisingly, the relationship didn’t last long and Villeneuve was eased out of the team before the end of the year and replaced by Robert Kubica, who finished on the podium in just his third race – an achievement that Villeneuve never looked close to achieving during his time with the team.
His F1 career effectively over, Villeneuve turned his attentions to the occasional Le Mans Series and NASCAR road course outings (immediately displaying the frontrunning pace he’d been unable to demonstrate for the past previous eight years) and touring car appearances.
Ahead of the 2010 Formula 1 season, Villeneuve was – by now, nudging his 40s – again considered a prospect to return to the sport, this time with the mysterious (and ultimately stillborn) Stefan GP operation.