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.
Jul 23, 2014, 10:46 PM EDT
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. and Kyle Larson put on a spectacular battle in the final 40-lap segment of Wednesday’s second MudSummer Classic at Eldora Speedway, but it was Wallace holding on for the win.
Jul 23, 2014, 10:19 PM EDT
Darrell Wallace Jr. continues to lead after 110 laps (at the time of a second and final mandatory competition caution) in Wednesday night’s MudSummer Classic at Eldora Speedway.
Jul 23, 2014, 9:42 PM EDT
At the end of the first segment of Wednesday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series MudSummer Classic at Eldora Speedway, it’s Darrell Wallace Jr. in the lead.
Jul 23, 2014, 9:06 PM EDT
Thanks to a statistical quirk, Kurt Busch is ranked in the same place in the points standings in both the Sprint Cup Series and Verizon IndyCar Series.
Jul 23, 2014, 6:52 PM EDT
On Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America, Aric Almirola and Sam Hornish Jr. discussed some of the biggest wins of their careers and talk about the importance of the Brickyard 400 on the NASCAR calendar.
Jul 23, 2014, 6:42 PM EDT
On Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR AMERICA, 2014 Coke Zero 400 winner Aric Almirola took a look at the Chase for the Sprint Cup grid and also evaluated Richard Petty Motorsports’ performance through the first 19 races of the 2014 season.
Jul 23, 2014, 6:37 PM EDT
On Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR AMERICA, Aric Almirola and Sam Hornish Jr. previewed Sunday’s 21st running of the Brickyard 400 at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Erik Jones takes first career Truck pole — and does it in first time racing on dirt — for MudSummer Classic at Eldora
Jul 23, 2014, 6:27 PM EDT
Before Wednesday, the only dirt Erik Jones ever raced on was back in the tiny rural town he grew up in, little Byron, Mich., population 561. On two feet, too. But that didn’t stop Jones from winning the pole for tonight’s MudSummer Classic NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway.
Jul 23, 2014, 5:43 PM EDT
Indianapolis Colts WR Reggie Wayne, healthy, rides into training camp as a passenger in a two-seater IndyCar driven by Ed Carpenter.
Jul 23, 2014, 3:26 PM EDT
Hey there, NASCAR AMERICA is back! After a brief vacation just like the Sprint Cup drivers enjoyed during the last off-weekend of the 2014 season, we’re back in the studio and at the shops, ready to give you the latest news in the world of NASCAR.
Jul 23, 2014, 2:50 PM EDT
Erik Jones and Ryan Blaney recorded the top speeds in the two practice sessions for Wednesday night’s second annual MudSummer Classic NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event at Eldora Speedway.
Jul 23, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
Video highlights from the Honda Indy 2 in Toronto on Sunday.
Jul 23, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT
Sage Karam fills in for Memo Rojas at IMS for the TUDOR Championship race this weekend.
Jul 23, 2014, 10:15 AM EDT
University student gets to interview Joey Logano at New Hampshire, and fortuitous timing before his day ended early due to contact with Morgan Shepherd.
Jul 23, 2014, 9:43 AM EDT
Eldora Truck race tonight seeks to be as good as the original.
Jul 22, 2014, 8:33 PM EDT
Time has not lessened the significance of winning at Indy for these three NASCAR standouts.
Jul 22, 2014, 7:13 PM EDT
The Outlaw returns to Indianapolis for the first time since his Indy 500-Coke 600 double back in May.
Jul 22, 2014, 5:54 PM EDT
The Team Penske pilot is putting up his six-bedroom Miami penthouse for a cool $14 million. Better start saving up…
Jul 22, 2014, 4:10 PM EDT
Seeking to catch up with their Ford stablemates at Team Penske, Roush Fenway Racing’s trio of Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have been searching for speed in a two-day test session at Michigan International Speedway.
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