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Villeneuve’s Indy 500 return trumpets the past, not the future IndyCar needs

Feb 26, 2014, 7:30 PM EDT

Photo: IndyCar Photo: IndyCar

For four years, Jacques Villeneuve was one of the world’s best open-wheel drivers.

From 1994 through 1997, the talented and sometimes tempestuous Canadian dazzled on both a North American and international stage.

He was a star in CART for two years, and in 1995 was the young upstart threatening the iconic names of Andretti, Unser, Fittipaldi and Rahal.

A year later he was off to Frank Williams’ Formula One team, in 1996. He almost won his first Grand Prix in Melbourne, and he took the title chase down to the last race in Suzuka. He won the championship a year later after surviving a lunge from Michael Schumacher at Dry Sac corner in Jerez, Spain.

From there, Villeneuve’s F1 career was never able to reach the same heights. He worked with Craig Pollock, and was his first driver in the new British American Racing team. But results between 1998 and 2006 with Williams, BAR-Honda, Renault, Sauber-Petronas and BMW Sauber were few and far between.

Eventually he made a few NASCAR starts, where he occasionally upset the establishment. He made a record, to show off his musical stylings.

He’s talked. He’s talked some more. And he’s talked again, most recently expressing doubts about F1’s newest era.

He’s returning to a full-time rally seat in the new FIA World Rallycross Championship, which has 12 rounds from May to November. But one of the rounds is May 24-25 at Lydden Hill in England, which happens to fall on the same weekend as the Indianapolis 500.

Assuming he takes the green flag at the ‘500 in Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ third car, he’ll set a new record for the longest gap between starts, with 19 years in-between that 505-mile race win and May 25, 2014.

Villeneuve is 42 now – 43 at the time of the ‘500 – and he’ll join a field that will include former ‘500 winners Buddy Lazier, 46, Tony Kanaan, 39, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya, both 38. Scott Dixon, 33, is the youngest former ‘500 winner in the field.

All of the above preamble can lead to one of two overriding opinions:

  • It’s great for the sport, and great for Villeneuve, that he’s choosing to come back to the ‘500 after such a long absence. He’s a marquee name, former winner, and still attracts both discussion and sponsors.
  • It’s a joke, a PR stunt, reeks of desperation and denies a spot for a young talent to have a shot.

While social media tends to skew toward either extreme, Villeneuve’s presence really lies in the middle, albeit skewing slightly more to the latter than the former to me.

The good, first: Villeneuve is a big name, no question. The prestige associated with his past accolades is still something commercial partners can hang their hat on.

He seems to think IndyCar, as an organization, has made strides from where it was when he last left (albeit, it’s been through CART, Champ Car and the Indy Racing League monikers and separate series since 2008’s unification). And he wants in.

“It looked extremely exciting with the new cars, to the point where I was angry and jealous that I wasn’t racing. So that got me going again,” he said during today’s teleconference.

He has “villainous” tendencies, because of his handful of NASCAR starts occasionally featured controversial endings. He sometimes used his Team Penske Dodge as a battering ram at the Montreal circuit named after his father, Gilles.

But there are the questions as to either: A: Does he know what he’s getting himself into and B: What is really in this for Jacques?

He’s set himself up for a challenge. He hasn’t driven an open-wheel car since 2006, but he should be able to reacclimate quickly. At least he hopes he will.

“The power levels are the things you get used to the fastest,” he explained. “Possibly downforce and also driving a car that once again will be quite stiff compared to the cars I’ve been driving lately and very reactive. You can’t manhandle as much. When you get sideways at Indy, the chances of you catching it are quite slim compared to most other cars. You can catch it, but it’s not something you want to push.”

As far as expectations go, the word used today multiple times was “opportunity,” that stemmed from the discussions that have taken place quickly over the past few weeks.

But opportunity to do what? Just to start? To throw himself in the middle of the field and hope he can beat the full-timers to be a serious top-five or top-10 contender?

And then here’s a part I found interesting: the mention of kids. Ironically, Villeneuve’s hoping his appearance in this year’s 500 will be proof he’s still got it to his kids, while he’ll be in a seat that some in the IndyCar world hoped would have gone to – you guessed it – a kid.

“I don’t want to be for my kids just the guy that used to race that they can see in books,” he said. “I want them to see and live what I’ve already lived, to see it through my doing it actively. It’s actually a positive effect to have kids.”

Yet it’s IndyCar’s kids – a Sage Karam, Gabby Chaves, Peter Dempsey, Conor Daly, Stefan Wilson or whoever else – who now have to work even harder to find the funding opportunities to achieve the same opportunity as a guy who starred as a kid in the 1990s.

Go figure.

Without a commercial partner announcement to go with today’s official confirmation, and yes, Schmidt Peterson co-owner Sam Schmidt is confident one will be announced in “not too long of an order,” it all doesn’t particularly add up yet.

You can trumpet the past winner argument all you want, and you can say it puts another car on the grid, and you can say it’s going to be cool to see how someone who raced in another era of open-wheel racing takes to the modern incarnation. All fair points, and yes, they will be interesting to watch.

But when you’re embracing your history books rather than the young students who are reading them, you miss the chance to write some new, fresh chapters with new, fresh characters.

  1. testover6370 - Feb 26, 2014 at 8:44 PM

    I agree, this doesn’t really interest me that much, but it probably comes down to something as mundane as SPM thinking they have a better chance at landing sponsorship for the endeavor with his name than with one of those up-and-comers. The sad reality is that sponsorship dollars are hard to come by for talented young drivers on their way up, but some of these old champs still can get backing, so this is what comes of it. Nothing sinister or cynical, just “meh, that’s the reality of racing today”.

  2. midtec2005 - Feb 26, 2014 at 8:56 PM

    I think both of your points are pretty valid. It could be a PR stunt, but it’s still exciting. How cool would it be if he was actually fast? It would be really cool if he could run the road course race too. No where was that suggested, but a guy can dream. That would help him get acclimated to the car. 43 years old isn’t too old to be competitive, especially on an oval. Dario was 39 right? Some guys have won in their 40s, and I bet he has a little more passion left than Al Jr. or someone like that.

    One more point… my god I love that car from 95. I stop and stare at it every time I go in the museum.

  3. midtec2005 - Feb 26, 2014 at 9:11 PM

    The older “has been” drivers that come back like Lazier are part of a larger problem too. But one that could be fixable. Already some positive things are happening, such as Kurt Busch racing (probably).

    One of two things can make the entire 33 car field competitive. 1) The series gets a lot more popular. This could happen, but obviously it isn’t easy. The product is great though, that marketing department on the other hand….

    or 2) As Robin Miller said, go back to Aluminum and fiberglass bodies. Then there would be 70 entries, it would be so much cheaper. This isn’t at all practical though, carbon fiber might be the single greatest safety advancement ever. Going back to aluminum would be begging for driver deaths. Could they possibly stand up to a crash at 230 mph?

    • indycarseries500 - Feb 27, 2014 at 11:15 AM

      Yeah, it’s possible but it’d be incredibly heavy and probably not that much cheaper than Carbon Fiber.

  4. Jeff - Feb 26, 2014 at 9:22 PM

    This …
    “It’s a joke, a PR stunt, reeks of desperation and denies a spot for a young talent to have a shot.”
    And the second part of that – denying younger drivers – is the worst part of all.

    • crunge4461 - Feb 27, 2014 at 4:03 AM

      This is not a PR Stunt, that is such a ridiculous thing to say. SPM and Villeneuve did this cause there was a funding deal together. To say it is a PR stunt suggests that IndyCar put this together for business purposes, there is no evidence to suggest that. Jacques wants to run the 500 so let him, I think it is great! In the past the drivers were always on the older side, rookies typically were at least 30 years old….let the young guys wait and earn their spot, I like seeing the old established drivers race as much as possible. Honestly, the fact that so many people are chatting about this is proof that it is great for the 500, it is buzz. If this was an announcement that some 19 year old kid that no one has heard of was racing, what, would there be two comments? but with a former champ coming back everyone is clamoring and intent on giving their opinion….it is great, this is so great! Hmmm, maybe Michael Andretti will say he is gonna race then the talk will explode (kidding, I know he is done). Things get big because people talk about them, whatever makes them talk about them, minus a terrible tragedy, is good. This is fantastic!!!

  5. manik56 - Feb 26, 2014 at 10:48 PM

    I love this announcement. A guy like JV should do one-offs at Indy. A guy like Daly should be full-time. Anyone claiming to be qualified because they stared in Indy Lights last year would have been better off spending his or her time in Europe with a field that small, but that is another story for another post.

  6. givemethehighgear - Feb 27, 2014 at 6:14 AM

    Excellent column.

  7. indycarseries500 - Feb 27, 2014 at 9:13 AM

    JV doesn’t strike me as someone who would care to partake in something that was just a PR stunt, if it was Eddie Irvine, yes, but not JV.

  8. kitnamania13 - Feb 27, 2014 at 11:27 AM

    Jacques Villeneuve was the last driver ever to win the Indy 500 when it truly mattered as a race. Maybe his return is a symbol that Indycar is finally getting past the mess that has been going on ever since he left.

    • f1fan1 - Feb 27, 2014 at 2:23 PM

      Nope, the mess that “Indycar” is in can’t be fixed unitl the H-G “braintrust” (lol) decide to sell off the series. They destroyed the sport in the first place and it can’t truly be rebuilt until they have nothing to do with it anymore, except as a track owner. As long as they own it, nothing they do matters.

      • bigdcart - Feb 28, 2014 at 10:31 AM

        I agree with Tony’s sentiment and he’s correct about the Lights drivers having even a tougher job. And f1dfan1 is also right about the Hulman’s grip on the Series. This is a group that, by it nature, lives in the past. New ideas like the Delta Wing have moved on to another Series and the new Formula E may very well be more popular than IndyCar this season. The IndyCar seat count is now down to 22. So hey, maybe the Indy 500 needs a guy like JV in the field to help generate some interest.

  9. worknman24hours - Mar 3, 2014 at 11:09 AM

    I have to laugh at all the hoopla about Jacques getting back in an Indycar.

    He’s a professional, had a heck of a lot of experience in the cars-things have’nt changed that much,if anything the cars have gotten slower and slower to turn.

    Jacque will do just fine, this isn’t the end of anything.

    Maybe he’ll show the youngin’s a thing or two.

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