Which member of the Villeneuve dynasty is best? Mark Hughes illuminates the debate
At his first attempt, Jacques Villeneuve has already enjoyed a more successful Grand Prix year than his legendary father, Gilles, ever did notwithstanding the four-and-a-bit years Villeneuve Snr spent dazzling the F1 fraternity as possibly its most exciting performer ever.
There is a paradox in those bald statistics: there are paradoxes everywhere you look in the Villeneuve family’s legacy. Take Gilles: he polarised opinion like no driver before or since. You either thought him too wild and undisciplined to be ranked among the greats, or you saw in him the purest, most sublime essence of what a racing driver is, towering over his contemporaries.
Or look at the paradox of his son. So overshadowed by his father’s fame as a child that he became nervous and clumsy in his presence, he went on to become not just a racing driver, but one of F1’s coolest (and fastest) customers after fulfilling a similar role on the 200 mph-plus ovals of Indycar. He may have inherited some of his father’s speed genes, but he utilises them in a totally different way: smooth, undramatic, learning by playing himself in gently. Yet there’s even a paradox there because, very occasionally his slide across the grass in Adelaide, or most memorably of all, passing Schumacher round the outside at Estoril he does something that leaves Gilles’ fans all dewy-eyed with nostalgia.
A commonly held contemporary view is: Gilles – fast, but wild and undisciplined; Jacques – unflustered, Prost-like, the complete package. An alternative view is: Gilles – the quickest, most daringly talented driver the world has ever seen; Jacques – a competent pilot who has benefited from the best equipment in every formula, thus creating a false perspective. And in this year’s Williams, he has generally not qualified as well as Damon Hill. Where does the truth lie?
The paradoxes hint that truth does not reside in a definite place, and that it may change in time. Yet each of these viewpoints have their adherents. Both Emerson Fittipaldi, one of the few drivers to have raced against both Gilles and Jacques, and Jackie Stewart have been quoted as saying they believe Jacques to be the more complete driver; Stewart maintains that, “his thinking is better compartmentalised” than Gilles’. Certainly, whatever criticisms have been levelled against Villeneuve Jnr during a season which, best car or not, has been a remarkable debut in F1, they do not include rashness.
This is something about which the man who has worked closest with him year his race engineer, Jock Clear, is quite adamant. “He’s still on part of a steep learning curve.” says Clear.
“He’s a very bright bloke and he’s quickly worked out that driving the best car in the field, he doesn’t need to be pulling off the sort of adventurous moves you might see if he was in a McLaren or a Benetton, say. With the car he’s got, there’s no need: he has the capability and obviously the car has the capability of winning races, so why take the risk?
“If you look at it from his side, the only thing which would have jeopardised his future at Williams is not even poor performances, it would solely be doing stupid things in the car. Even if his performances had been less impressive than they have been, we’d still be saying, ‘Oh well, he’s a rookie, let’s give him another year and see what he’s made of’. If he’d been trying to keep up with Damon every qualifying session and putting it in the barrier every time, his position would have been looking a bit shaky.
“He’s pretty sharp in working out where he wants to be at any given time in his career and he doesn’t want to run before he can walk.” So will he get faster then? “Towards the end of this season and certainly at Estoril I think he’s started to realise that he can actually run a bit faster than he thought he could. That manoeuvre round the outside of Schumacher was just the first glimpse of some of his confidence which I think will come through next year. Estoril is the circuit that he knows the best he’s done 3,000 kilometres round there so he was in a position where he had absolute confidence in what the car was going to do and was quite happy to take chances other drivers weren’t. Next year, when he knows all the tracks. you’ll see that much more often.
That dramatic overtaking of The World’s Fastest Driver’ at Estoril was part opportunism (Lavaggi had compromised Schumacher’s entry into the corner) and partly the result of weeks of planning. The latter lends some credence to Stewart’s point of view.
One of his biggest strengths is that he thinks about a lot more aspects of racing than any driver I’ve come across,” adds Clear. “He thinks about all sorts of weird what-ifs, he’ll talk over possible pace car situations, for example, all the time and 99% of the time they don’t come to be, but sometimes they do and when they do he’s ready. We’d talked about setting the car up for that corner onto the straight at Estoril for two weeks. He’d said ‘I want to be able to pass people round the outside there’. We’d agreed how to set the car up that way and because he’d already gone through the scenario, when the moment came he didn’t even have to think about it.”
In that move, he did something to Schumacher that Hill has been unable to manage in four seasons of wheel-to-wheel racing with the German, make a genuine passing manoeuvre that stuck. In fact, there are other indications that his approach is closer to Schumacher’s than to his team-mate’s, such as the way in which he sets a car up.
Clear: “Jacques’ preference is to run the car a lot stiffer than Damon. When Damon and JeanChristophe (Bouillon, the Williams test driver) have tried Jacques settings, they’ve found it virtually undriveable. When Jacques tries a Damon set-up it’s less critical, but there tends to be too much understeer for him, it’s less responsive. We don’t really know what Michael used to do at Benetton in absolute terms, but we all know that if you talk to Herbert, Verstappen or Berger, the Schumacher set-ups are supposed to be undriveable and swap ends too quickly.
“These sort of comments tie in more with Jacques, and this was part of my and Jacques’ arguments for persevering with this route at the end of the day, if you ended up with a car similar in set-up to Michael’s you wouldn’t be so alarmed. It can be made to work.”
So there you have the pro-Jacques view. A driver quick enough to make very effective use of the best car in the field straightaway, thanks to a combination of natural talents and astuteness. A driver who looks to be getting quicker all the time, yet who already shows signs of greatness.
And there’s more. Mario Andretti raced against both generations of Villeneuve (his final season in lndycars, 1994, coincided with Jacques’ first), and was impressed by the son’s mental acuity. “He’s demonstrating his focus and abilities, but the impressive thing from such a young man is how he’s learned from his mistakes,” he says. “By that I mean that when he came to IndyCar there were a few pretty big accidents. Like the one in Phoenix, where he wasn’t used to seeing yellow lights and he ploughed into a situation where it could have been the end of everything. But he learned from those sorts of things very quickly.
“He’s also been intelligent enough to see certain opportunities such as with Williams, and made certain demands which have assured him of good support. In this I think he learned a lot from Michael’s situation,” he adds, referring to Michael Andretli’s brief and unsuccessful spell with McLaren in ’93.
Yet contained within these words are a germ of the reasoning which those less impressed with Jacques repeatedly use: namely, that his name and thus his backing have assured him the best equipment in every team he’s ever driven for, and a controlling say in how things are done around him. He is bound to look good, they say, racing against others without access to such luxuries.
These same people tend to be fervent Gilles Villeneuve fans, admirers of his spirit against the odds. Sure, he sometimes had a competitive car and when he did he was invariably impeccable, a point often forgotten but more often he didn’t, and yet still achieved things with them which should not have been possible. Cars like the 1981 Ferrari 126C, of which then-Ferrari designer Harvey Postlethwaite has said, “I know how bad that car was it had literally about one quarter of the downforce of the Williams or Brabham.” This and appalling throttle lag didn’t stop Gilles winning in the tight confines of Monaco, or holding off a train of superior cars for almost the entire distance to win at Jarama.
They are the sort of performances on which the whole Villeneuve legend rests. Virtually every time he stepped into a car he added lustre to the folklore. In wet qualifying at Watkins Glen 1979 he was fastest, ahead of his (World Champion) teammate Jody Scheckter by 11 seconds. Or that seminal moment at Trois-Rivieres in ’76 when, as a Formula Atlantic driver unknown outside North America, he had guesting World Champion elect, James Hunt, as his team-mate. Dissatisfied that he couldn’t get near Villeneuve’s first session time, Hunt asked if they might swap cars. When they did, Gilles was even further ahead.
Predictably, Villeneuve took victory, beating not only Hunt but fellow F1 visitors Alan Jones and Patrick Depailler. Hunt subsequently raved about the French-Canadian’s potential to McLaren, which set Villeneuve on the road towards Grand Prix fame and fortune.
To hear of an F1 star eulogising about a rival may sound odd, but Hunt was by no means the only driver left struggling for superlatives. Recorded quotes from contemporaries of Gilles at the time include the following: “He was the fastest and the best driver of all.” (Niki Lauda); “The fastest driver there has ever been.” (Jody Scheckter). “No human can do a miracle, but Gilles, you know, sometimes he made you wonder . . He’s on a different level from the rest of us.” (Jacques Laffite); “I don’t know what it is that makes some drivers just that little bit more special, I just know that Gilles had it.” (Patrick Tambay).
The racer who can surely offer the most insight, however, is a third Villeneuve Gilles’ younger brother, Jacques Villeneuve Snr. Earlier this year, on the eve of the Canadian Grand Prix, he fed some pointed comments to the press regretting that his nephew no longer kept in touch and suggesting that young Jacques was not the sort of driver his father had been. This was seized upon and interpreted as sour grapes from a driver who hadn’t made the grade which is to underestimate just how talented Jacques Snr was.
As well as giving as good as he got racing head-to-head with Gilles in snowmobiles, he went on to star in Formulae Ford and Atlantic, winning two consecutive North American titles (in 1980 and ’81) just as Gilles had. His only two F1 opportunities came with one-off drives in a second-string Arrows in ’81 and a hopelessly uncompetitive Ram March in ’83. Entering lndycars the following season as the reigning Can-Am Champion, with a team new to the series, he grabbed pole at Phoenix. In ’85 he won at Elkhart Lake and in the second half of the season was on the pace everywhere. These are not the accomplishments of a second-rater, and his attitude was very reminiscent of his brother’s: all-out attack.
As recently as 1992 Jacques Snr climbed into an Atlantic car at Trois-Rivieres, and without testing proved himself the fastest man in the field. A field that included Jacques Jnr …
In that race Villeneuve Snr was closing on the leader, having established a new lap record, when he retired. His nephew, making his Atlantic debut, was third. “After that race,” remembers Uncle Jacques of the reception Jacques received, “Everyone is saying ‘isn’t he great? He’s the next Gilles’. He did OK, but he wasn’t Gilles: nothing spectacular, but that’s what everyone wants to see in him. He’s a different person, that’s all, not Gilles. He’s not doing it the way Gilles was doing it.
“He’ll maybe get quicker because he’ll know the circuits and the car, but he’ll never be a spectacular driver: he will never try to make a difference the way Gilles did. He is more like Prost. I have no doubt in my mind that Jacques could be as good as Prost, he’s smart enough to be able to do that sort of job with the right equipment, just as Prost always had. But then I don’t see why people are so impressed with Prost! Put them in a shitbox and you wouldn’t see them carrying the car on their shoulder, trying to make a difference. Senna was a guy who would try to make a difference, Schumacher is, Gilles was probably the most impressive of them all at that sort of thing.”
Listen carefully. It sounds more like the impassioned reasoning of one who admires the nocompromise approach of a Gilles Villenueve or a Senna than it does bitching about the boy who doesn’t write home. His nephew may well become statistically more successful than his revered brother, but that tells us little as far as many observers are concerned.
In the end, who is better rather depends on the measure of greatness. Some might say it is about success, in which case Jacques Jnr is on the verge of a remarkable career. Others might say that if you impose a mathematical framework on the contest and a driver as patently great as Gilles Villeneuve doesn’t figure prominently, then that framework (that is, the World Championship) cannot have any serious worth. That sort of greatness drama, striving for the stars has far more real meaning than any totting-up of numbers. There’s the paradox.