As Jacques Villeneuve walks through the hotel lobby, he smiles, says hello and shakes hands. “Looking forward to today?” I ask. “Yeah, but it’s only a few laps.” “Maybe you should just keep going round.” He grins. “Well, that’s what my dad would have done, eh?”
At Fiorano, Jacques has changed out of his T-shirt and jeans and is now wearing a typically baggy bright red race suit. He is climbing into his father’s Ferrari 312T4, the car in which Gilles finished second in the 1979 World Championship. It’s May 8 2012, 30 years to the day since the fastest driver of his era – perhaps of any era – crashed to his death in qualifying at Zolder.
Ferrari has pulled out the stops to honour its fallen hero. President Luca di Montezemolo is here, and so too are Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, taking pictures on their phones. Grey-haired ex-mechanics cluster, sharing memories in their bright yellow Prancing Horse jackets. There’s Ingegnere Mauro Forghieri and Enzo’s loyal secretary Brenda Vernor. And standing quietly in the crowd is Jacques’ mother Joann, beside her daughter Melanie.
A crackle erupts from the garage as the flat-12 is coaxed into life. Slowly the T4 noses out and Villeneuve cautiously accelerates, then blips the throttle with obvious glee for the first (good old-fashioned heel-and-toe) downchanges.
In front of such an audience, the lack of late-braking tyre smoke is understandable, as Jacques dutifully makes a couple of short runs, even stopping on the circuit once out of respect for the engine’s low oil pressure. “I guess there’s no spare,” he says with a smile later on.
But once or twice out of the hairpin, the car squirms sideways and the grin as he removes his helmet confirms that Jacques has enjoyed the experience.
“It was great because the car was actually driveable,” he enthuses, as we stand in Enzo’s old courtyard. “You could slide it. The tyres were nice and hot, and it felt like a real race car. What was weird was that I could see the front wing. In a way it makes it safer because you know where you are at, but it makes it feel like you’re going faster. It was great fun.”
Given the place, the car, the day… was anything spiritual going on in that cockpit? “No, I’ve never been like that, I’ve never been overly spiritual,” he says. “But I’m super proud, and it was very important for me to try and feel what he felt, what was going through his mind when he got in those cars.
“I was actually sitting in his seat and his belts. Nothing had been touched. It felt like it had been made for me, it was perfect. And it was the only way I was going to get in a red suit as well – it had to happen one time…”
Safety was never a priority for Villeneuve, but respect, among his fellow drivers as well as for the past, is a subject he always warms to.
“It’s like you’re in a can of tuna!,” he says. “There’s no protection and just a piece of plastic on top of you. I’m just amazed that not more drivers got hurt. There were quite a few crashes, of course, but they had more respect to what the limit was and towards other drivers. They weren’t driving dirty. They were taking risks, but they were not putting each other on the grass in a straight line as you see nowadays.”
He’s beginning to sound like he was born in the wrong time. “No, because in that era I would have been dead, so I’m quite happy I raced when I did,” he returns. “I raced in a time when there were still some elements of risk, so when you did something special there was some kind of pride in it, but your chances of surviving it were very, very high. So it was the perfect time for me.”
He has memories of his father’s career: Dijon ’79 and that battle with René Arnoux, sitting with his mother watching dad on the edge though the Bosch curve at the Osterreichring, and at Monte Carlo beside his grandfather. For Jacques, it was nothing out of the ordinary.
Then when his own racing career kicked in, he refused to talk about his father. Why? “The only question I used to be asked was ‘so, you’re continuing what your father was doing’. And I’d say ‘no, I’m racing for myself because I love it’. Suddenly they would say ‘ah, so you hate your father!’ Ok, let’s forget it, let’s move on to something else. There was no point in having the conversation. They already had their romantic idea of why I was racing. It was falling on deaf ears, so I decided to block it.”
What he says next is fascinating. “I wouldn’t have had a career had he been alive because he would have controlled it,” he states. “I wouldn’t have been allowed to be myself. So in a way it helped that he passed away. As a kid, it was the saddest moment of my life. But as a racer, as a man, as a human being, it was really helpful. “And whatever happens in your life, you should never wish to change the past. Because everything that is good that has happened to you would change as well.”
Cold, clinical? Perhaps. But this was never an emotional journey for Jacques Villeneuve to come to terms with his father’s death. It was simply an opportunity to understand and experience his father’s world, to look down that Ferrari’s nose and see the view ahead through his own eyes. We didn’t need to see him cry to know it meant a