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.
Sep 22, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
The FIA WEC headed to Texas this weekend. Here are some thoughts on how it went down.
Sep 22, 2014, 11:15 AM EDT
Both the TUDOR Championship and Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge put on a show in Austin this weekend.
Sep 22, 2014, 10:21 AM EDT
Audi 1-2 leads FIA WEC winners at COTA.
Sep 22, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT
Reliability woes have left Nico Rosberg reeling. If he doesn’t respond at Suzuka, it could be game over.
Sep 22, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT
German driver does well to keep his anger in check in his post-race video blog.
Sep 22, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT
Vijay Mallya delighted as Force India makes 2014 its most successful season since entering F1 back in 2008.
Sep 22, 2014, 7:00 AM EDT
Lewis Hamilton has put himself back in control of the 2014 F1 world championship after a great win in Singapore as teammate Nico Rosberg retired.
Sep 21, 2014, 8:43 PM EDT
Millen scores his second win of 2014, while YouTube icon Block takes an 18-point lead in the championship with two races left in the season.
Sep 21, 2014, 7:51 PM EDT
Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Courtney Force (Funny Car), Dave Connolly (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were the winners in Sunday’s final rounds of the NHRA FallNationals in Ennis, Texas.
Sep 21, 2014, 7:00 PM EDT
The talented rookie continues to duel with the Chasers at New Hampshire before finishing second to Joey Logano.
Sep 21, 2014, 6:36 PM EDT
As the Chase for the Sprint Cup moves to Dover for next Sunday’s third race of the playoffs, nine drivers will be fighting elimination by vying for five advancement spots there.
Sep 21, 2014, 6:09 PM EDT
Brad Keselowski started from the pole, led the second-most number of laps in the race (78), overcame a late wreck and still almost won Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Sep 21, 2014, 5:49 PM EDT
Prior to last week’s opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Kevin Harvick said it would take wins and uncanny consistency to advance to the final four, winner-take-all battle in the season-ending race at Homestead.
Sep 21, 2014, 5:36 PM EDT
The Connecticut native joins Penske teammate Brad Keselowski in the Contender Round with his victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Sep 21, 2014, 5:13 PM EDT
Kenseth was running in the Top 10, when Paul Menard washed up into him and sent him spinning into the wall with 31 laps to go at New Hampshire.
Sep 21, 2014, 4:38 PM EDT
Kurt Busch had a tire rub on his Haas Automation Chevrolet when the right front tire appeared to blow on Lap 222 of the 300-lap Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, sending him hard into the wall and suffering right front end damage.
Sep 21, 2014, 4:20 PM EDT
Several drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup suffered damage to their respective race cars in a wreck that involved Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman with just over 100 laps to go in Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Sep 21, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT
4 p.m. ET – Already several laps down, Hamlin was caught in a multi-car crash that also involved Martin Truex Jr., David Ragan, and Cole Whitt.
Sep 21, 2014, 3:42 PM EDT
Kevin Harvick is the halfway leader of Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Joey Logano is running second, followed by Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers and Jamie McMurray.
Sep 21, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT
Spanish driver still pleased with the race weekend in Singapore, feeling that Ferrari has made a step forwards.
- Joey Logano avoids “yellow fever,” wins at N.H. to advance in Chase 2
- Wreck involves several Chase drivers; Keselowski spins, suffers minor damage 1
- Rosberg reflects on a tough day in Singapore (VIDEO) 2
- Reports: 2015 Sprint Cup rules package expected to be released on Tuesday 2
- Hamilton rules in Singapore to re-take championship lead as Rosberg retires 1
- Rosberg forced to retire in Singapore after electrical glitch 2
- Brendan Gaughan takes lead with 6 laps to go, wins Nationwide at Kentucky 0