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.
Mar 9, 2014, 11:30 AM EDT
Heavy rain forecast for Australian Grand Prix; would be first wet race in almost 18 months.
Mar 9, 2014, 10:30 AM EDT
Australian driver ready to race in front of home crowd for the first time as a Red Bull driver.
Mar 9, 2014, 9:47 AM EDT
Spaniard laments lack of testing ahead of new era for Formula 1.
Mar 9, 2014, 7:30 AM EDT
Finn returns to Ferrari after five years away; hopes to repeat win on debut from 2007.
Mar 8, 2014, 10:19 PM EDT
In one moment, the former Sprint Cup champ goes from battling for the lead to battling to save his skidding Toyota.
Mar 8, 2014, 9:09 PM EDT
NASCAR says both issues will be dealt with early next week.
Mar 8, 2014, 8:32 PM EDT
Plus: Dale Jr. is pleased with the work from his JR Motorsports teammates and RCR has more than a few speeding issues.
Mar 8, 2014, 7:30 PM EDT
“Rowdy,” lapped traffic, and a failing alternator were all unable to keep Bad Brad from taking the win.
Mar 8, 2014, 6:20 PM EDT
The Nationwide Series driver is the first NASCAR racer to take part in a major anti-bullying program.
Mar 8, 2014, 6:00 PM EDT
After finishing seventh in the season-opening NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway, Jeb Burton will be back behind the wheel for ThorSport Racing later this month at Martinsville.
Mar 8, 2014, 5:00 PM EDT
Although a number of Sprint Cup drivers were quite vocal Friday about NASCAR’s new “knockout” qualifying system, particularly when their cars enter pit road and how to keep their motors cool, NASCAR will likely keep the format as is for the time being.
Mar 8, 2014, 4:36 PM EDT
Neither Joey Logano or Brad Keselowski have ever won at Las Vegas.
Mar 8, 2014, 3:47 PM EDT
Jamie McMurray was the fastest driver in Saturday’s final practice for Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. McMurray’s best lap was his first of the final session, covering the progressively-banked 1.5-mile surface at 186.942 mph. A close second was Daytona 500 pole sitter Austin Dillon at 186.896 mph. Third through fifth were Clint…
Mar 8, 2014, 3:25 PM EDT
The F1 supremo and the Russian president talk in Sochi, site of this fall’s Russian Grand Prix.
New online network prepares to launch, will feature lower-tier NASCAR series, sports cars, motorcycle racing
Mar 8, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT
A new online-only network that will focus on some of NASCAR’s lower-tier series, as well as similar series in sports car and motorcycle racing, will make its debut this Wednesday, March 12.
Mar 8, 2014, 2:30 PM EDT
The 2012 Sprint Cup champion writes about perhaps the most critical opportunity of his career.
Mar 8, 2014, 2:10 PM EDT
Ty Dillon will pace the field in this afternoon’s 2014 Boyd Gaming 200 Nationwide Series race, having earned his first career NNS pole Saturday morning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Mar 8, 2014, 1:30 PM EDT
First his truck made it into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Now, NASCAR Camping World Trucks Series driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace hopes someday he’ll be reunited with the truck if he is fortunate enough to make the Hall of Fame as an inductee.
Mar 8, 2014, 1:30 PM EDT
The cars mark the 25th anniversary of the partnership between the department store giant and the legendary race team.
Mar 8, 2014, 12:51 PM EDT
Michael Waltrip Racing teammates Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer were fastest in Saturday morning’s first of two Sprint Cup practice sessions for Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
- Instead of significant improvement, 2014 starting off the way 2013 ended for Danica Patrick (10)
- Kurt Busch gives IndyCar chance to show they’ve learned lesson on promotion (10)
- Chrysler orders nearly 100 pristine Dodge Vipers destroyed (7)
- Alonso discovers an F1 take on Ellen’s Oscar “Selfie” (6)
- Busch news kicks off what may be a busy Tuesday for IndyCar (5)