Villeneuve at Le Mans

Having already won the Formula 1 world title and the Indy 500, the mercurial Jacques Villeneuve turned to the 24 Heures du Mans for another stab at glory

By Rob Widdows. Photography: James Burns

Jacques is back. On track and on form, complete with baggy overalls and Peugeot shirts that are far too big for him. The man has been back to his cave, to his private paradise, since being rather abruptly fired by the BMW Sauber Formula 1 team. He has licked his wounds, recorded an album and spent time with his wife and baby son. Back in the spotlight, he’s at ease with himself if not the entire world around him. There is still plenty that irritates, bringing restless impatience to those so-straight grey eyes. You sense that, if he were a bird of prey, he could spot a mouse from 1000ft.

“I’m really not so keen on all these interviews,” he says, emerging from the motorhome where he, his wife Johanna and eight-month-old Jules will live for much of the month of June. “I get angry when you print just what you want to hear, just a few quotes you’re trying to make me say. That’s pointless, you know, and why should I waste my time?” The eyes are drilling me from behind those wiry spectacles, the clipped consonants of the Québéçois adding a sting to the sentences. “I don’t understand why drivers say they don’t mind all the interviews when they’re racing, that it’s all part of the job, then when they retire they say the one thing they won’t miss is all the interviews. Crazy.”

So, Jacques is back, which is very big news indeed. And never has car number seven, the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP, been the centre of so much attention. 

The Automobile Club de l’Ouest has published a list of 24 reasons why you should have been to Le Mans this year. Number eight advised that you be there to witness Jacques Villeneuve take on a big challenge. And so it proved, starting with a preliminary test day at the beginning of June.

Walking along the pitlane that Sunday at the Circuit de la Sarthe you could be forgiven for thinking that Jacques was the only show in town. While other teams went quietly about their business the Peugeot garage was surrounded by chattering reporters, photographers and not a few fans who had slipped through the ropes. Jacques signed a few autographs, seemed at ease chatting with his fellow drivers.

“Yeah, I feel good, actually. I feel comfortable and it’s good to be back, especially with my family here. It would not be so good if they were not here with me. It’s better for me to handle the race weekend this way.” He clasps his hands, cracking his knuckles, still a little fidgety about all the faces peering in at us as we talk. His driver’s wristband is bugging him, too tight underneath the Nomex. “I can’t take it off or they won’t let me in,” he smiles. “Anyway, it’s nice to be back. I’ve been around racing since I was five-years-old – it’s what I always wanted to do. I know my way around. We went racing with my father this way, as a family. This is my environment; I’ve been doing this for 17 years now.”

This was manifestly not the case in the summer of 2006 when Jacques was summarily dismissed by BMW Sauber, effectively bringing his grand prix career to a rude and painful halt against the barriers at Hockenheim. The official line from Munich was that his employment had been terminated by mutual consent. “I was not happy about that, of course, but there are no regrets.” He pauses, decides to expand a little: “I knew anyway that they were not going to keep me, that they had other plans. It was clear from the start of the year. It was just a shame because I was driving well, the car was getting better and we scored points in Malaysia. There was no point in having big arguments: you always end up where you started. It would have made no difference if I’d won the next two races – they wanted me out so I went. It would not have happened that way at Williams with Frank and Patrick, there was more human nature there, and no, it was not a nice experience.

“But I wasn’t happy about the way Formula 1 was going: the paddock was a clinical place, no fun. The atmosphere was medical; antiseptic. And the team owners now, they have so much ego, so much more self-importance; some of them just wanting to take all the glory for themselves when they should not be the stars of the show. I could not speak my mind any more in that environment, in that atmosphere, and I say what I think. You asked me if I am a maverick – well, I’m not sure what you mean; it was never a deliberate thing for me. I have said things which have gone against me in my career, sure, but that was normal for me, it’s how I am. So it was not such a big deal at the end with BMW; I just thought, OK, my Formula 1 days are finished, time to move on: that’s the way it happens. If it’s not meant to be any more, then it’s not meant to be; life changes. 

“What is important to me is to be the best at everything I do, to find the perfect way. You have to shoot high because you will never be as good as what you aim at, you always have to shoot higher than what you can achieve if you want to achieve your very best. To me, anything you do, you have to sweat for it. If it’s just easy, then it means you didn’t work hard enough at it. It’s important for me to keep pushing the envelope, keep going to the edge. I’ve always been this way. OK, Formula 1 is behind me – I guess if I had the chance of a really competitive car, I’d be interested – but I’m not going to win more F1 titles. Schumacher has seven and I’m not going to better that, am I? There are many other things in my life now.”

One of the biggest things in his life right now, in France in June, is the job he’s being paid to do by Peugeot Sport. The French manufacturer knows how to win Le Mans and Jacques knows to how to win races but life is never that simple, especially when the car is still not fully developed. The 908 HDi FAP is a beautiful piece of kit, a highly sophisticated new-generation endurance racer that looks like a cross between a jet fighter and an F1 car in a designer suit. Within its slippery carbon-fibre flanks, the black material left unpainted, sits a 5.5-litre, twin-turbocharged V12 diesel which produces more than 700bhp and monumental amounts of torque at extremely low revs. This motor from Peugeot’s technical centre at Vélizy is shrouded, literally, in secrecy. Every time the body is lifted a red cloth is draped over the machinery. There is much at stake here, Peugeot palpably keen to put one over the Audis in the battle for supremacy in the lucrative diesel road car market. Jacques is enthusiastic, animated on the subject of his latest toy.

“Yeah, it feels like a real racing car,” he grins, “and you can attack with it, slide it in the corners, find that rhythm, which is nice. But it’s sharp also, like an F1 car. You can be millimetre-perfect with it as well; you can be accurate, and I like that. I always liked that about F1, the need to be precise; exactly on the lines. The 908 is working at low revs, sure, but inside the noise is good, you know you are in a real racing car and it goes up to 5000 quite quickly. All that torque takes you out of the corners very fast, not Formula 1 but it demands your attention. There is some turbo lag but you get used to it. Anyway now you have the lights for changing up the gears, you’re not so much listening for the revs. Being shut inside the cockpit, that’s new and quite different; it’s like your own little world in there. You don’t get so much the feeling of the world rushing by, like in a Formula 1 car, but still it’s quite physical to drive. At night, especially, it’s like being flat-out on the autoroute at three o’clock in the morning with the radio playing; you get a rhythm going, there are no distractions. It’s a good feeling.”

Not since Graham Hill won at Le Mans with Matra in 1972 has a racing driver won what they call the Triple – the World Championship, the Indy 500 and the 24 Heures du Mans. Of this Jacques is very much aware.

“Sure, and for me it would be four actually,” he grins, a glint in those sharp grey eyes, “because I won the Indycar Championship as well, so yes, it’s a big ambition for me. I want to give it my best shot, I want to win because maybe next year I won’t be able to be here. I worked with French engineers before at Williams with the Renault engine, so I know Peugeot can do the job. It’s not a big connection for me, the French part, but I do think in French more than English most of the time.”

Veterans of the 24 Heures du Mans will tell you that to win the race, first you have to beat the place. Just as the Indianapolis 500 takes up most of the month of May, so Le Mans takes up a large part of June. Since the testing at Paul Ricard, the cars have been re-built for this, the opening scrutineering and test weekend at La Sarthe. Then there’s the very Gallic theatre of further scrutineering in the town square, the qualifying day, the night-time qualifying, a further complete re-build and finally the race itself. Three weeks of pressure for team and drivers. For a rookie, especially one from Formula 1, there are many challenges, not least of which is sharing your racing car with two other people. Jacques is partnered with Marc Gené and Nicolas Minassian, while in the garage next door there’s another bespectacled Indycar champion. There has been much talk about whether Sébastien Bourdais, teamed with Pedro Lamy and Stéphane Sarrazin, will be quicker than Jacques.

He won’t be drawn into any of this just yet. All will be revealed on the track. “Of course, yes, you must work with your team-mates at Le Mans and there is no big thing about who will be quickest. Pole would be good, though.” JV on pole would do no harm at all for Peugeot, that much has been evident. Gené is a bit more forthcoming. “Jacques will have no problem,” says the Spaniard, also racing here for the first time. “He’s a world champion; the driving will be no problem but many things can happen in 24 hours. But the quick guys are quick wherever they go.” 

Johnny Herbert, the 1991 winner who similarly returned to chasing honours in the great race after leaving F1, adds: “The biggest problem for JV will be the traffic. The Peugeot is maybe 30mph faster on the straights, and it’s very hard to read what the slower guys are going to do.”

Another man who knows a bit about this place is Stefan Johansson. “I’ve had one clear lap here in 11 years,” he laughs. “It’s so frustrating. Jacques will have to be patient, and keep out of the pits, of course. Otherwise it’s not a big deal for him. The top guys will always be quick straight away.”

On the eve of the first test day there are myriad jobs to do. Comfort in the narrow 908 HDi is always going to be a compromise. The seat and pedals are adjusted for the tallest driver, in this case Gené, while the others must fit in as best they can. The best part of an hour is spent on this and Jacques is not happy with the position of the pedals. He is not tall but he is powerfully built, stocky like a boxer, and he must install his own seat at each pit stop. “Sharing a car with other drivers is not a problem for me. I am not getting involved in any setting-up work today, and the others are far more accustomed to this car than I am anyway. First I need to learn the track, which has quite a few interesting corners, and then do some longer runs to see how the tyres evolve.”

Jacques must complete a mandatory ten laps this weekend to satisfy an ACO regulation for all who race at the circuit for the first time. Time to go to work.

“My biggest worry is the amount of traffic,” he says, looking concerned, not knowing who most of the other drivers are. “This is something new to me, and some of the cars are taking some pretty bizarre lines. What do you call them, gentlemen racers? That is the danger here, but for us as the professional drivers whatever happens will be our fault because it’s for us to judge what can go wrong and not put ourselves in a position where it can happen. The key is to finish the 24 hours, not to try and do qualifying laps all the time. It’s like driving on the road; these people will not react in the same way as proper racers, so don’t assume they have seen you. You have to be pre-emptive, pass before or after a corner in case he closes the door on you. But once you get in the race you forget that and you end up driving too aggressively. But you don’t want to be too defensive or you’ll end up falling asleep! 

“Always leave yourself a margin: if he chops me off, is there room to go through on the grass or is there a guardrail? If there is a guardrail, then you lift; you can always go through on the grass if you have to. When you’ve driven for 17 years it becomes natural, you know in advance what to expect. You always imagine subconsciously what could go wrong and then be prepared for it. But you only know that if you’ve made mistakes, if you have learned from that. Lots of people don’t learn, they make a mistake, then they come back and say they did nothing wrong and they make the same mistake over and over again. It’s like everything: it’s head over body. It’s the brain that controls all this. It’s a matter of when you make the move – that has a bigger effect than the move itself.

“It’s what is happening in Formula 1 now. That is why I always said just take the mirrors off – you will have fewer accidents because the guy behind will know that you have not seen him, so he will not put himself in a position where you will drive into him. The danger is when the guy behind you thinks: ‘He must have seen me, I’ll just put my nose in there’ and that is just not always the case.” 

He warms to this subject. “A lot of these young drivers now think that if they get their front wing next to the rear wheel of the guy in front, then it’s their corner. Well, no, it isn’t their corner; they were not alongside so of course they get driven off the track. The line belongs to the car in front; they don’t seem to understand that. So that’s why I said to take the mirrors off. People said ‘You’re crazy, you’re so stupid, how can you block the other guy?’ Well, yeah exactly, you’re not supposed to block.

“Another aspect of today’s Formula 1 is that the young drivers do not seem to realise that the sport is still very dangerous. Because the cars are strong, and because there’s not been a really big shunt recently [JV was talking before Robert Kubica’s horrifying crash in Canada], they drive as if it is impossible for them to be hurt any more. This is just not the case; speeds are high, and F1 is still a dangerous sport.” 

By the end of the test weekend Jacques had come through unscathed, not at the top of the timesheets, but fastest rookie. Peugeot described the start of the month as “rewarding”, Bourdais setting the best time on race tyres, with the sister car fifth, three seconds away. 

I first met Jacques at the Macau Formula 3 race in 1992, packing his ponytail into his helmet to do battle around those narrow streets. The spectacles were more student, less designer then but here was somebody just a little different, as you might expect from Gilles’ son. He was clearly very much his own man. Never one to suffer a fool for longer than necessary, he remains that man today. Older and wiser, but the smouldering is still there, as is the raw intelligence; the willingness to take a pace into the danger zone. And now he’s ventured out from his mountain hideaway in search of new prizes.

“It’s the hunter in us.” He looks me in the eye: “It’s deeply ingrained. It’s too easy to be lazy. Life is good, there’s always something positive out of anything. Don’t look at the dark side of things, look at the bright side, whatever is happening.”

And the interview? “They don’t all have to be hateful,” he smiles and walks smartly away. There is work to be done. Then he turns. “We should talk about the music,” he says. “You going to mention the album?”