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.
Kyle Busch roars back to win Truck race at Texas; Matt Crafton gets closer to clinching championship
Oct 31, 2014, 11:45 PM EDT
Kyle Busch rallied from ninth place with five laps left in regulation time, then roared up through the pack and “set sail” to a green-white-checker victory in the Truck Series race Friday night at Texas Motor Speedway.
Oct 31, 2014, 8:57 PM EDT
16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force will make a major sponsorship announcement Saturday in Las Vegas, and is expected to follow that up Tuesday with what major auto manufacturer he’ll be aligned with in 2015.
Oct 31, 2014, 8:23 PM EDT
Kenseth says the only way he’d feel a little better about it is if Harvick manages to make the Championship Race.
Tony Stewart sets fastest qualifying speed ever on 1.5-mile track (200.111 mph), but Matt Kenseth wins pole at Texas
Oct 31, 2014, 8:17 PM EDT
Matt Kenseth won the pole Friday at Texas Motor Speedway, but Tony Stewart lived up to his nickname and smoked the field with the fastest qualifying speed ever on a 1.5-mile track.
Oct 31, 2014, 8:00 PM EDT
Complete with news and analysis, here is all of the action from the COTA paddock on practice day for the United States Grand Prix.
Oct 31, 2014, 7:15 PM EDT
Speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton, America’s great F1 hopeful speaks about recent events at Marussia and his hopes for the future.
Oct 31, 2014, 7:00 PM EDT
An on-the-ground perspective of the speed, sound and crowd from Austin second practice.
Racing legend Dan Gurney earns one of rarest and most prestigious awards for lifetime achievements (video)
Oct 31, 2014, 6:59 PM EDT
Very few race car drivers deserve to be called “legendary.” Dan Gurney is most definitely one of those, and was honored this week with the Edison-Ford Medal for his incomparable lifetime achievements.
Oct 31, 2014, 6:30 PM EDT
17-year-old Toro Rosso driver continues to prove that age is simply a number in racing.
Oct 31, 2014, 6:10 PM EDT
Austin Dillon was the fastest driver in Friday’s final Nationwide Series practice at Texas Motor Speedway. The defending NNS champ who is now in his rookie season in Sprint Cup, Dillon is making his first NNS start this season in Saturday’s race.
Oct 31, 2014, 6:00 PM EDT
Gauging the pulse of the fans on site at Austin.
Oct 31, 2014, 5:45 PM EDT
The Outlaw attempts the “Candy Corn Challenge” – fitting 100 pieces inside his mouth.
Oct 31, 2014, 5:30 PM EDT
Is there more to Fernando’s future than just McLaren?
Oct 31, 2014, 5:00 PM EDT
Administrators still hoping to get the team racing in Abu Dhabi, but will aim for the grid in 2015 if this is not possible.
Oct 31, 2014, 4:45 PM EDT
Reddick captures his second Truck pole in the last three races.
Oct 31, 2014, 4:32 PM EDT
British driver finishes just 0.003 seconds ahead of Rosberg in FP2, equating to just 6.7 inches around the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.
Oct 31, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT
The six-time Sprint Cup champion is driving the No. 48 Lowe’s “Red Vest” Chevrolet this weekend.
Oct 31, 2014, 3:45 PM EDT
Finnish driver has endured a difficult return to Maranello in 2014 after five years away.
Oct 31, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT
Chase competitors Kevin Harvick and points leader Jeff Gordon crack the Top 5 speeds.
Oct 31, 2014, 2:45 PM EDT
Can Lewis Hamilton double up in the second practice session in Austin? Join us from 3p ET to find out.
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