Jacques Villeneuve

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Busman’s holiday

Part of a sportscar line-up that would nowadays cost a fortune, the Canadian made an instant impression at Mine. He may yet make it to Le Mans, too

Words: Adam Cooper. Photography: i-dea

In November 1992 TOM’S Toyota created a three-man ‘junior’ team for the finale of the Japanese Sports-Prototype Championship at Mine. This obscure domestic event saw the only appearance of one of the most extraordinary driver line-ups in sportscar history. But no one would have guessed this when TOM’S called up an F3000 driver who had done a few races in a private turbo car, and two of its F3 protégés. At the time they were all nobodies who’d gone to Japan because doors had been slammed in their faces in Europe. Their names? Eddie Irvine, Tom Kristensen and Jacques Villeneuve…

The trio shared a Toyota TS010, Tony Southgate’s 3.5-litre V10 ‘two-seater F1 car’. Aside from a few races in a Group N Alfa Romeo in Italy back in 1989, Mine remains the only time that Villeneuve has raced with a roof over his head.

Kristensen recalls that the adventure started the day after he won the F3 support at the Japanese GP, when he and Villeneuve travelled from Suzuka to a test day at Mine. Unfortunately they changed to the wrong train in Osaka and ended up at midnight in Hiroshima, still a two-hour-plus taxi ride from where they were supposed to be, looking for somewhere to spend the night.

“Jacques had this long hair and these most incredibly stupid glasses,” recalls Tom. “And I had a lot of curly hair in those days. It took us quite a long time to find a hotel because they were all suddenly full when they saw these two guys! Finally we asked someone to call another hotel, so the room was booked before they could see who was going to stay in it. We slept for five hours in a double bed!”

Irvine was the senior man in the team. He was fast from the start of the wet event, but frustratingly the V10 needed an extra pitstop compared with the turbo cars.

“Eddie had F3000 experience,” says Jacques. “And we were two young kids trying to figure it out. I had tested the turbo car, and out of F3 that was physical. The V10 car was also heavy to drive. The stint I did was in the wet as well, so it was hectic. But I was holding my own until I spun. The wet tyres were knackered, and the track was drying.” A broken gear made things even more difficult. Nevertheless the trio finished fourth.

“It was still a great experience,” admits Jacques. “You drive the small cars and you see the big ones and ask yourself, ‘How will I ever be able to drive these things?”

Villeneuve was supposed to do Le Mans with Toyota in ’93 but infuriated the company by backing out. Irvine did the race and impressed a spectating Eddie Jordan, who then offered him his first F1 chance at Suzuka. Kristensen’s second outing in a pukka sports-prototype was at Le Mans in 1997 with the TWR Porsche. He won, and has done rather well since then! He may yet be reunited with Villeneuve.

“It would be nice to do Le Mans,” says Jacques. “It’s a tough race to win so Tom’s record is really impressive.”

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