The balance changed dramatically for 1997. Long before Hill secured the title he was dropped by Williams to make way for Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who Villeneuve knew from his days in Japan. “When Williams signed him, they signed him to be the next champion, and that’s how they promoted it. That was enough to just make me mean. At that point I just knew that I had to destroy him. And that’s what I did. I didn’t want to fight him in the championship, as I had to fight Michael…
“The car was designed with me in mind obviously, because I’d been working on it in ’96. It fitted me and I could do almost what I wanted with it. The only times it was difficult was in low-downforce trim, where it was too nervous. Then it was a question of who between Michael and I had more influence on choosing the tyres from Goodyear for the following races.”
Villeneuve enjoyed a superb season, taking 10 poles, winning seven races and generally leaving Frentzen far behind. After a controversial penalty in Suzuka he went to the finale in Jerez just a point behind Schumacher.
“It was a strange qualifying, with three of us on the same lap time. We had imagined a million plans, and obviously none of them happened. I got into Turn One with Heinz-Harald, we didn’t know what to do or who should be in front, and it didn’t work out well.
“Then it was just a crazy race. I almost crashed a few times, getting closer to Michael, losing a little bit, catching the [Ferrari-powered] Saubers who were told by Ferrari to slow me.
“I could see all race that I was braking a lot later than Michael, so I could attempt a kamikaze move. If I got a metre closer at the end of the back straight, I could go for it. I knew I could surprise him, and the only way to overtake him was to surprise him. I made my pit stop after him, put on new tyres and I knew I had two laps on fresh rubber to do it – that was it.”
On the 48th lap, he saw his chance. “On that lap I came out of the high-speed corner before the back straight, I stayed on it, and even went into the dirt. I took a risk. Then I saw that I was one metre closer to him than every other lap, so I just went for it. Suddenly he realised I was there, so he turned away and then he turned in again. He did it badly, because he didn’t hit my wheels, he hit my sidepod.
A champion’s elation – the Jerez podium in 1997
“The car jumped in the air, I still managed to stay on the track luckily, but then I slowed down because I thought something was broken. In fact the battery mounts were broken, and it was only hanging on by the electrical cables. I was just kissing the brakes, hitting them slowly, just to drive the car softly. It’s a good thing I did, because otherwise I would not have finished.”
Third place was more than enough to secure the title, while having ended his race in the gravel the disgraced Schumacher was later penalised by the loss of his second place in the championship.
At 26 Villeneuve he had the world at his feet: a world championship, a strong Williams team and a worldwide profile other drivers could only envy. Things couldn’t have been going more right, and he fully expected his golden run to continue: “At that point I thought I will win five more championships, and it didn’t happen! Everything had been going the right way. Then Craig had this idea of building a team, and I got pulled into that…”
British American Racing was announced just weeks after Jerez. In conjunction with Adrian Reynard, Pollock had persuaded BAT to try to repeat the Indycar success and start an F1 team from scratch, although they initially bought Tyrrell as a short cut to owning a franchise. Meanwhile Villeneuve spent one more year with Williams. Renault had pulled out, leaving the team with customer engines, and he finished a low-key fifth in the ’98 world championship.
“That was bad, because Adrian Newey had gone away, the car was undriveable, it just didn’t work. I had a couple of podiums, but the car was really a pig. We had to do some weird things on the set-up sometimes just to make it survive. It wasn’t fun, it was stressful.”
And Villeneuve’s attention was already on the future: “It was exciting. I built a team basically, and for five years I was an owner of an F1 team, even thought it wasn’t promoted like that. That was the next challenge.”
With Sauber in Japan 2005, trying to stave off a recovering Alonso
The brash BAR approach did not go down well, amid claims that the team would follow Reynard tradition and could win its first race. Even Villeneuve didn’t believe in the hype.
“Not in the first race, that was a little bit extreme. But I don’t know many teams who started F1 being as competitive as we were. We got criticised, but when you see other new teams afterwards… That was when only the top six scored points. Many times we qualified eighth or ninth, so it would actually have been a good season with today’s points system. The car was quick.”
In fact he started as high as fifth at Imola, but the car was hopelessly unreliable and he scored no points. For 2000 the team switched from customer Supertec to Honda power, and another voice was added to an already complex management structure.
“The sponsor was also the owner, and at some point that won’t work. It was all promises that were made that couldn’t be kept, basically. And when you make promises that you cannot keep, it goes wrong. In the second year the car was less quick, but we got some points, so we were on the way up. Then the politics started, and then it just went to shit. Actually it went to shit when Honda joined.”
Despite his concerns Villeneuve decided to sign a new two-year deal in 2001. “Staying for the second contract was a mistake. At the same time I had a contract available from Flavio Briatore, and he had promised Renault that I would be signing there, which I almost did. But there was also pressure from Honda, ‘We need you, you have to stay.’ Then as soon as I signed, they changed their minds.”
Just weeks after Villeneuve agreed to stay, Pollock was ousted and replaced by David Richards, who had enjoyed a long relationship with BAT. “Too many egos, so it was bound to implode. I wasn’t involved, I was kept away a little bit on purpose. I didn’t see everything that was going on the background. I should have, because by that point, when David Richards replaced Craig, I protected Craig instead of being nice to Richards.
NASCAR on home soil, Montreal 2010
“By then it was too late, by then I’d taken sides. When Craig was pushed away I felt obliged to protect him. He had become my father figure basically, so I had to prove to him that he could trust me, and so on. That was a mistake, but it was a social mistake.”
Villeneuve remained with BAR through 2002 and 2003, but towards the end of the latter year things began to get increasingly difficult with Richards. When Takuma Sato was announced for the following season, Villeneuve left his car to the Japanese driver for the finale in Suzuka. It was almost a year before he was back in F1, called up by Flavio Briatore to replace Jarno Trulli at Renault for the last three races of 2004.
For 2005 Villeneuve was back full-time with Sauber, but it was to prove an unhappy relationship. “That was tough, because when I started to work on the car, I was told ‘We know how to make the car go fast; shut up and drive.’ That was the habit they had with their young drivers, I guess. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.”
In the middle of that season BMW bought the Swiss team, and he was fortunate to hang onto his drive in ’06. In the summer, however, he was unceremoniously turfed out in favour of reserve driver Robert Kubica after a crash in the German GP. “I almost didn’t do that half year with BMW because I was told by Mario Theissen, ‘We don’t want you to drive.’ I had to change my contract so that he was allowed to kick me out for any reason. Which is why I stopped when I stopped.”
Craftsman trucks in Avondale, 2007
With no realistic chance of returning to F1 Villeneuve and Pollock instead looked to America and NASCAR, but the strain was beginning to show on their relationship: in 2008, after more than 15 years, the Pollock/Villeneuve business partnership and friendship unravelled amid recriminations on both sides.
Villeneuve’s second stint in the States met with mixed success. He has made sporadic appearances since 2007, racing mostly in trucks or the second-string Nationwide series – which had a round in front of his home crowd in Montréal – but it hasn’t been easy: “I had to find some sponsors, and one race I paid out of my pocket, in Talledega. Then I had to find some sponsors to race in Montréal the first year, and then after that because people could see I could drive then the offers started coming to the point where I got to race with Penske. Then I had the misfortune of running into Danica Patrick, and that was it – I subsequently lost my sponsor.”
Since then he has done his own deals, and he’s spent the past decade dipping in and out of a bewildering array of races including ice racing, the Spa 24 Hours, Australian V8s, Speedcar and Brazilian and Argentinian stock cars. In 2007 and ’08 he raced for Peugeot at Le Mans, finishing second in the latter year. It was not a happy experience.
“It was an amazing car to drive, a very professional team, but it was our race and we managed to lose it. We had the quickest car, and it was overheating. And some pathetic decisions were taken. It was better to finish second safely than to win for example, and that made me angry. So I wasn’t smiling on the podium, and then a month later I received an email saying your services are not required any more. You are not an endurance driver, and we need somebody French.”
Villeneuve shared second place with Peugeot at Le Mans in 2008
In 2014, aged 43, he returned to the Indy 500 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. “The first half-day I did I couldn’t cope with the speeds, my brain wasn’t used to it any more. I thought I was going fast and I was doing 180mph. I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ But I took a break and got back in the car, and it was easy. You just needed the brain to assimilate again and go get the information from 19 years before. The race was really, really cool, it was aggressive. But I don’t want to go back just to be the extra car.”
That same year he also briefly sampled the World Rallycross Championship, while his most recent experience came in Formula E with the Venturi team in 2015, but the relationship lasted just three events. “I went for it because for the first time in many years it was a full season. That was the plan, but it was a mess, so at that point with the team we decided, ‘OK let’s move on and do something else’.”
Villeneuve has not competed in anything in 2016, but he has far from given up on racing and is still looking for drives. “It’s always last-minute things. It’s frustrating, but you do what you can. You know that people take you because they want to use your image and not necessarily the rest, so you’ll never end up having a career out of it. But at least you drive a bit and it’s fun, it keeps you in shape.
“The few NASCAR races I was doing, at times it was one race a year, without practice. It makes it a little bit tough. What is difficult is not to get to invited to a race, that’s the easy bit, it’s to concentrate on a full championship. That’s what becomes difficult. Right now, the opportunities are not there.”
Pressing on in 2011
Tellingly he doesn’t have one now, but the recurring theme through Villeneuve’s career is the presence of father figures, or perhaps big brothers, be they trusted engineers like Cicale or Clear, or the svengali-like Pollock. Given the absence of Gilles from his life, that’s perhaps not surprising.
“Maybe I was trying to replace that somehow, because even when he was alive, he wasn’t a father. When he died it didn’t really make a difference, apart from being hurt and so on. He had already been away for two or three years, anyway. Maybe that’s why I’m very involved with my kids. It is a huge responsibility, but a lot of fun as well. It does make you tired, it does take your life away, but it’s all worth it.”
His F1 TV work aside, Villeneuve is kept busy by those family duties at home in Switzerland, where he lives with Brazilian wife Camilla. The man who lost his own father so early now has four sons, Jules (aged nine), Joakim (eight), Benjamin (three) and Henri (two). The older pair, from his first marriage, have shown more interest in ice hockey than following the family trade.
“I never say to them there’s only racing in the world, because it’s not really a good job to get into any more. When I got into racing you could still kind of make it, even if you didn’t have a millionaire father. Nowadays I just don’t know how you get into this business. If you have only one son I guess you can focus on him, but when you have four, you can’t!
“All I want is for them to be passionate for something, and to go for it – whatever brings them happiness, and for which they are willing to sacrifice everything to make it happen. Then they’ll have success in whatever they do. That’s all I want.”
As for Villeneuve, after nearly 30 years in motor sport he has no regrets – even about leaving Williams for BAR. “I went for building a race team; that was just another challenge. I had accomplished my goal, which was winning the F1 world championship. I always need new challenges. Career-wise that was probably not the best decision, but it was fun and it was exciting, and today that team turned into Mercedes. So at the end of the day, it wasn’t bad.”