Feb 26, 2014, 7:30 PM EDT
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.
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.
Aug 28, 2014, 8:22 PM EDT
While he’ll be returning to the familiarity of being in a race car and around fellow drivers and race fans Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway after missing the last three races to grieve over the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy, it’s almost as if Tony Stewart will be starting his career anew.
Aug 28, 2014, 7:40 PM EDT
First reactions from the NASCAR community are starting to emerge after today’s announcement.
Aug 28, 2014, 7:00 PM EDT
NASCAR AMERICA has more on the situation surrounding one of the Nationwide and Truck Series’ more prominent outfits.
Aug 28, 2014, 6:17 PM EDT
USA Today’s Nate Ryan calls in to NASCAR AMERICA to talk about the impact of the three-time Sprint Cup champion’s return this weekend at Atlanta.
Aug 28, 2014, 4:38 PM EDT
After missing the last three NASCAR Sprint Cup races following the tragic accident that claimed the life of 20-year-old sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. at an upstate dirt track, NASCAR star Tony Stewart will return to racing this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Aug 28, 2014, 4:21 PM EDT
They don’t call it Hotlanta for nothing. As we get closer to Sunday’s Sprint Cup night race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, things are definitely heating up.
Aug 28, 2014, 3:30 PM EDT
“The Captain” and his crew have not celebrated an IndyCar Series title since Sam Hornish Jr. won it all in 2006.
Aug 28, 2014, 2:45 PM EDT
NBCSN coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ title tilt at Auto Club Speedway begins Friday at 7 p.m. ET with qualifying, followed by the MAV TV 500 on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET.
Aug 28, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT
The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner gets another chance to finally capture an IndyCar Series crown this Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra).
Aug 28, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT
Justin Wilson back at the track where he got injured a year ago, seeking to end 2014 on a high note.
Aug 28, 2014, 12:49 PM EDT
Could Tony Stewart’s three-week absence from NASCAR Sprint Cup racing in light of the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy be coming to an end?
Aug 28, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT
Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes will wait to extend their deal until after the season ends.
Aug 28, 2014, 10:33 AM EDT
IndyCar banks a night of testing before this weekend’s MAVTV 500.
Aug 27, 2014, 11:03 PM EDT
It’s pretty simple and straight-forward what Jamie McMurray must do in the next two races if he has any hope of making this year’s expanded 16-driver field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Aug 27, 2014, 6:19 PM EDT
On Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America, Jeff Burton spoke with Rick Allen and Frank Stoddard about the spectacle of racing at Bristol and just how difficult Joey Logano’s victory at the half-mile oval was.
Aug 27, 2014, 6:11 PM EDT
NASCAR driver jeff Burton says there has been no word yet from Tony Stewart on whether the latter will return to the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet this weekend at Atlanta after missing the last three races due to the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy, but it could be a last-minute decision.
Aug 27, 2014, 5:00 PM EDT
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ Turner Scott Motorsports team was reportedly set to close; however, that appears to have changed.
WATCH LIVE: NASCAR AMERICA at 5 pm ET — Burton on replacing Stewart, Logano’s Bristol win, Atlanta look ahead
Aug 27, 2014, 4:11 PM EDT
Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America will be chock full of looking back at Saturday’s race at Bristol, as well as starting our lookahead over the next three days for this Sunday’s night race at Atlanta.
Aug 27, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT
IndyCar will formally confirm the addition of New Orleans to its 2015 schedule later Wednesday.
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