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.
Apr 20, 2014, 1:30 AM EDT
He has come close before, but Hamilton finally can make it three wins in a row today in China.
Apr 19, 2014, 7:25 PM EDT
In a just-released video interview, 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski – looking perhaps as somber as we’ve ever seen him, at times seemingly ready to break into tears – discusses how heartbroken, if not potentially betrayed he felt in 2009 when team owner Rick Hendrick picked Mark Martin to drive the No. 5 Chevrolet instead of giving Keselowski the opportunity, even though Bad Brad insists Hendrick had previously promised him that ride in 2010.
Apr 19, 2014, 4:30 PM EDT
The former Red Bull F1 competitor will start sixth on tomorrow’s grid at Silverstone.
Apr 19, 2014, 3:30 PM EDT
If it has wheels and tires, it typically can be raced down a dragstrip. But take a pickup truck, throw in a high-power diesel engine in it, and you have a rolling battering ram that will take down anything in its path – even guard rails that are supposed to prevent that very thing from happening.
Apr 19, 2014, 3:20 PM EDT
The former GP2 competitors qualify up the grid in their respective classes for tomorrow’s WEC opener at Silverstone.
Apr 19, 2014, 3:03 PM EDT
While we don’t condone street racing whatsoever, the video below is one of the best we’ve seen in a long time. Even better, it’s more of parking lot racing, with radio controlled cars burning up the asphalt and concrete — so no actual humans, animals or real-life vehicles were put in jeopardy. An added bonus is this is an outstanding homage to the Fast & Furious series, with particular emphasis on actor Paul Walker, who was killed last December in a tragic street racing crash.
Apr 19, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT
If the Indianapolis Motor Speedway isn’t *the* coolest place to hold an Easter egg hunt, we figure it’s at least one of them.
Apr 19, 2014, 12:13 PM EDT
The future of Swan Racing in Sprint Cup racing is not looking good.
Apr 19, 2014, 10:30 AM EDT
Toyota takes the pole for Sunday’s FIA WEC opener in Silverstone.
Apr 19, 2014, 10:09 AM EDT
Couple new sponsors for GTD team within TUDOR Championship.
Apr 19, 2014, 7:45 AM EDT
All smiles for Daniel after qualifying for the Chinese Grand Prix.
Apr 19, 2014, 7:00 AM EDT
Massa and Bottas both make the top 10 despite wet conditions playing against them.
Apr 19, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
Jim Clark’s record that has stood since 1968 has now been broken by Hamilton in China.
Apr 19, 2014, 1:45 AM EDT
Could Fernando Alonso or Sebastian Vettel take advantage of the wet track to snatch pole position?
Apr 19, 2014, 12:45 AM EDT
Report reveals that Red Bull failed to supply accurate data, and what was supplied actually undermined the team’s argument.
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