Changing tracks

As he turns his back on Formula 1 for the cut-and-thrust of NASCAR, Jacques Villeneuve reflects on life away from the track, and muses on why music nourishes his soul

By Rob Widdows

The more you talk to someone, the more of someone you talk to. This is very much the case with Jacques Villeneuve, son of Gilles.

Behind every great man, there’s another man. Behind the image of Jacques Villeneuve, feisty racing driver from Quebec, there lurks a deeper soul, a creative force that has recently been released to the world in the form of a compact disc. Talking to him about his music reveals the influences that have shaped his life, from growing up with Gilles, to jousting with Michael Schumacher, to picking up his first guitar on the way to the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos in the spring of 1996.

“I was passing through London on the way to Brazil, and I saw this guitar in the window of a music shop,” Jacques explains. “I’d always wanted to learn to play so I bought it and took it with me to the race, along with a guitar tuition book. I’d learnt four chords by the end of the weekend at Interlagos, then I started writing my own songs.”

There was music in the family. Jacques’ grandfather was a piano tuner and Gilles played both trumpet and piano, while his sister Melanie spent six years at New York University studying music and composition. Born in the Canadian city of St Jean–sur–Richelieu, Jacques spent most of his early years in Monte Carlo, Gilles and his mother Joann moving to Europe when Gilles broke into grand prix racing. But his early musical influences came as much from Quebec as they did from his teenage years in Monaco.

“I was into Erasure, that was my first album. There was a Canadian band called Glass Tiger that I liked a lot,” he recalls, “and later I was into The Cars, Foreigner, Crowded House, Tracy Chapman, people like that. I was always buying CDs – hundreds of them – and they were always my thing. Some people buy watches, I was always into collecting CDs, and anyway it was cheaper. Now I listen more to the Scissor Sisters which is, you know, 1980s stuff really well done. And Beautiful South is one of my favourites: I like their songs very much. I don’t like noise – music needs to be clever for me to enjoy it. Very simple, but clever.”

His antipathy to what he calls noise comes partly as a result of having had a huge noise just behind his head for most of his life. Interestingly, however, he cites parallels between his music and his race driving.

“Yeah, as racing drivers we get an ear for the revs, the way the engine is performing, and we sense those noises and engine vibrations through our bodies. It’s the same for me with the guitar. I like to hold it close to me, to feel the sound if you like,” he explains, “and I always play acoustic. I don’t seem to get on with the electric guitar, so with the acoustic I can hold the body of the guitar close to me and that way I feel it as much as I hear the sound.”

He likens playing in a band, or jamming with other musicians, to being on the grid surrounded by other cars. “After 17 years of racing I think there are elements of my hearing that have been affected,” he explains. “I mean, I can’t take in lots of information all at once; like if you talk to me in a crowded restaurant I probably won’t hear you at all – just too much information coming at me. On the grid for a race you can hear all the other engines and sometimes you can’t hear your own. It’s strange, a bit like in an orchestra, hearing everyone else as well as your own sound. I prefer to play on my own: I get lost when I’m just jamming with other people.”

Jacques Villeneuve is in many ways a loner rather than a rebel, a man who likes to do his own thing whatever the restraints imposed upon him by others. Some of this may have come from his father, from whom he inherited his passion for racing cars.

“I was brought up with it, and now I can talk about it,” he smiles, “but when I first went into Formula 1 I didn’t want to talk about my dad, you know. Everybody wanted me to talk about him, to tell them stories and stuff, and the media wanted to know why I didn’t wear his helmet colours and all of that. But I just wanted to do my own thing, make my own way, and I thought, when I’m winning – when I’ve won a title – then maybe I will talk about him. But this would be on my own terms, not just feeding people the stories they wanted to hear.”

We are talking in the family motorhome in France. Jacques, his wife Johanna and baby son Jules are on the road, working up to Le Mans. Just like the old days with Gilles, racing kit and baby clothes, guitars and toys spread around their home-from-home.

“Yeah, well, there was always lots of travelling with my dad, living on the road from track-to-track. There was this speed and excitement in my childhood with him,” he says. “I remember when I was five years old he sat me on his lap behind the wheel in the car and we went flat out everywhere, the tyres screeching and sliding on the snow and the ice. We went snow-mobiling a lot, and he took me in his helicopter, let me fly a bit, stuff like that. There was always speed, always some excitement, but that’s how we lived. He was always pushing the envelope, stepping out to the edge, and I have inherited some of that. I need that edge, I need that speed, like my dad did, and I relate to it now because I push myself in everything I do. I want to do the best possible job whatever it is I’m doing and I believe you have to work, always work at things. Second-best is not acceptable.”

The song in memory of Gilles was originally conceived by Jacques’ sister Melanie and on the album she sings it as a duet with him. “It’s the only really private song I’ve written,” he explains. “My sister started it but she couldn’t finish it at the time. She just couldn’t face it, and I think maybe she was keeping dad alive in her mind by not completing it. So I wrote some new lyrics, not my own feelings about him, but new words to blend in with the feel and the sound that she had created. It became a work-out, a real puzzle, because I had to work all the words together, hers and mine. She was happy with the result and in my mind it’s always her song – I was just happy that I could close that song for her, you know. But, yeah, it’s a song for my dad and I can talk about him now. I can say how much I admired him, how much I respected him, especially now more people understand that I did my racing for me, won my championship for me, and not just because I was a Villeneuve.”

At the height of his grand prix career there was much talk about his feisty relationship with Michael Schumacher. The mention of the name causes him to tense a little, knowing what’s coming. “Look, it never was such a big deal for me. I mean we weren’t friends; we are not friends. We had some big arguments but it’s history. There were dangers with him but mainly it was racing. We knew each other on the track, you know. I knew what he would do – what he could do – and he knew the same about me. But weaving or braking on the straight is never acceptable and I can’t accept that in any driver so yes, we had our fights, and of course I always wanted to beat him. It was a battle of minds as much as anything else, knowing what the other guy will do. You have to show the guy that you won’t be driven off the road.”

I decide to push further. Passing Schumacher in the Parabolica Ayrton Senna at Estoril in 1996. Any thoughts? “Yeah, I wish there was more video pictures of Estoril,” he laughs. “It wasn’t such a big thing at the time for me. In testing there earlier in the year, I said to the Williams engineers that I reckoned it was possible to pass on the outside of that corner and we worked on the set-up. Maybe it was an Indycar thing but I knew it was possible and I was pretty happy to pass him there. I knew it could be done.”

He’s not going to expand on Jerez a year later when he and Schumacher collided at the Curva Dry Sack, another fracas recorded by the Ferrari’s on-board camera. “Well,” he shrugs impatiently, “I can say that the young drivers now think they are bullet-proof, that they can do anything, get away with it and not get hurt. There’s too much weaving and blocking, and that’s not allowed. The new guys don’t seem to get this and somebody’s going to get hurt: motor racing, including Formula 1, is dangerous.”

So, the past is the past and the future is, well, the future is more motorsport. Jacques plans to return to the Le Mans 24 Hours, keen as ever to add the endurance race to his F1 and Indycar titles, but the big push – the big thing – is NASCAR. In August, Jacques signed for Bill Davis Racing and he will spend the latter half of the season in the Craftsman Truck Series before graduating to the premier Nextel Cup in 2008. “It’s not as easy as people seem to think it is,” he insists. “It’s far more technical than it appears to be. We’ll see what happens.”

What happens will not be dull, will not be without the hard edge that underpins his life. His fans – and there are many – will relish seeing him take on the hard nuts of stock car racing. Jacques will do what he wants to do, and on his terms. The story is by no means finished.