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Indy 500: Experience is a virtue for former champ Jacques Villeneuve

May 24, 2014, 10:45 AM EDT

98th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race-Qualifying Getty Images

After running around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval for the first time since his 1995 Indy 500 triumph, Jacques Villeneuve needed a moment to get himself together.

But eventually, the experience from all those years ago kicked in.

“The first 20 laps was a big shock to the system because I hadn’t been in an open-wheel car since 2006,” he said of the experience last month. “If I had jumped from F1 directly to Indy, it would’ve been a non-issue. But the first 20 laps – your body, your brain, your eyes – they’re just not used to those speeds anymore and it’s a big shock.

“You just need to do a few laps, get out of the car, take a breather and then when you get back in, it’s business as usual. The muscle memory is there. It’s like riding a bicycle. You start doing a few set-up changes and you settle in.”

19 years later, Villeneuve – who also became a Formula One World Champion in 1997 – is returning to the ‘500’ this year in a third car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

A lot has changed in 19 years, and Villeneuve doesn’t seem to like some of those changes such as the shift to a “fixed” chassis formula with the Dallara DW12. He says he understands why IndyCar did it, but in his mind, it doesn’t attain the obvious goal of cost-containment for its competitors.

“If you open it up, people will start making cars again,” he said. “It’s never been a bad thing. If you look at every series through history that went to one manufacturer, one engine, one tire, they never made things cheaper.

“It’s supposed to do that but it doesn’t, and it just stops the evolution. When you’re a world series or a top-notch series, it needs to be open to be respected.”

He also believes the level of respect that drivers gave each other on the race track has decreased as well.

“Some younger drivers didn’t even grow up seeing real racing as being dangerous,” he mused. “A lot of drivers, when they break their little finger, they’re surprised. I’m like, ‘Be happy!’

“Sometimes you see things happen that you’d never see in the past, because the drivers back then knew you needed to respect the danger, and they don’t.”

Villeneuve is hoping not to be around those particular drivers if and when they have a problem Sunday. He also hopes to use the first half of Sunday’s race as a chance to gauge his car’s capabilities in the draft.

That could prove to be the biggest challenge of all for the 43-year-old Canadian.

“Once you back out a little bit, it’s similar to throwing a parachute,” he said. “If the guy behind you has managed to stay close to you without backing out of it, you’re done. When one car gets you, the car behind him will get you and so on, and you can never get your rhythm back and that’s what’s tough.

“Early in the race, it shouldn’t be an issue and you can run wide. But as soon as the marbles get on the track, then you really have to be careful in how you let guys pass you if they’re getting a run on you.”

You certainly can’t be passive in a situation like that. But that should be the last problem we’ll expect out of Villeneuve now that he’s re-acquainted himself with the Brickyard oval.

“It feels as if 19 years ago is yesterday and that is weird. 19 years is a long time and suddenly, the speeds felt normal,” he said. “…You get to the point where it doesn’t feel fast anymore and that’s where the danger lies.

“You become too complacent and you get caught out. The good thing is I’ve been here before, I hit the wall here before, so I know not to get caught with that.”

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