Gilles Villeneuve’s son and brother are both called Jacques. You might expect the F1 star to be quickest. History suggests otherwise. Mark Hughes finds out more
There’s a little town in Quebec, situated in the nub where three rivers meet, hence the name Trois Rivières. There, they race round the streets once a year and though less famed than many European or American circuits, for aficionados it’s a place of legend. Some 22 years ago an unknown called Gilles Villeneuve blew away world champion elect James Hunt in a Formula Atlantic race there and kicked off a raring dynasty that’s with us still. But there’s a third member of that dynasty, less known than Gilles or his son Jacques, but a formidable racer. In 1992 Gilles’ younger brother Jacques, then 38, was destroying the field in a one-off Atlantic race at Trois Rivières before the car gave up. The field included Jacques junior. He did the same again the following year.
He made brief headlines a couple of years ago when he was critical of young Jacques, by then a major star, for not keeping in touch and for not being half the driver his father was. It was news only as a function of Jacques Jnr’s fame and was perceived – in the main by people who have had no idea about races in a far-off place called Trois Rivières – to be sour grapes from a driver who’d failed to make the F1 grade himself. After all, he’d failed even to qualify in his three attempts at F1 in the early ’80s. But the truth is this: he was almost certainly more than good enough and the chance to prove it did once come his way. So how come he is not the household name?
Jacques Villeneuve Snr – or ‘Jacquo’ as he’s known in the family is one of motor racing’s best kept seems. An enigma, there are those who have worked with him who tell of colossal talent, who swear he was as quick as Gilles. And for each such story there’s another telling of decisions which border on career self-sabotage. And that’s why his achievements are modest by his family’s standards and why today those few who have heard of him tend to shrug and dismiss him as a kind of Gilles-lite. In fact, he just might have been the biggest talent of all.
The reasons he took up the sport at all and why there’s so little correlation between his talent and achievement is inextricably tied to the legend of his big brother. Born four years after Gilles in modest financial circumstances, he displayed similar spirit as a child in the wildness of north-eastern Canada, though their activities rarely co-incided “Gilles always hung out with other older kids,” remembers Jacques today, “and I was always with kids younger than me, so it seemed like there were eight years between us.”
Did he hero-worship Gilles? “Yes,” says Jacques immediately, “completely.” There’s never the least hesitation in his answering such questions, adding to the impression that this man speaks from the heart and shoots from the hip. It’s a trait he shared with his brother, though those who knew both confirmed their quite different personalities. Gilles’ widow Joann says, “Jacques liked lots of people around whereas Gilles was more solitary. Jacques was more sociable than Gilles.” Gaston Parent, who managed them both, says: “Gilles was all work; Jacques is all play.”
Yet there’s a paradox here: Outside of their own environment, Jacques withdrew while Gilles exuded charisma. Chuck Matthews, Jacques’ engineer for five seasons, comments: “Outside of the paddock, Jacques has a basic shyness and I think that really hurt him because it meant he didn’t like talking to or working with sponsors. Yet with the team he was effervescent and would relate well to the guys. But he’d park his motorhome as close to the truck as he could and wouldn’t venture much away, though he’d talk happily with fans and sign autographs.” In short, he seemed to lack Gilles’ worldliness.
Whatever these differences though, there were many parallels in their early lives. Both married young to local girls, Jacques’ bride a nurse called Celine. ‘Gilles took up racing snowmobiles, mad two-stroke motorbikes on skis, in the late ’60s, Jacques followed a couple of years later. Both were awesome, both as brave as hell. Would Jacques have raced had he not had his brother’s example to follow? “I guess I might have raced snowmobiles, I’m not sure, but I don’t think I would’ve raced cars. Gilles opened the doors and I sort of followed through. Unlike Gilles, it wasn’t really in my mind to race, but it just felt natural for me to do what he did. But I was always good at going fast and trying things, whether on a bicycle or in cars or whatever, the same as Gilles.”
The approach was much the same as Gilles’ all-out attack. “That’s in me the same as it was in Gilles. It’s not something you can copy. He wanted to be quickest every lap; the championship wasn’t really a big thing for him. That’s how I feel. You have to satisfy yourself; try your hardest on every lap.”
Their snowmobiling careers briefly overlapped, though Gilles was on a works machine, Jacques on the dealership team that Gilles had left when the works offer came up. “There was one race,” Jacques gleefully remembers, “where we were battling like crazy for the lead and left everyone else so far behind. One said afterwards that he just wanted to stop so he could watch us.” Even when his motor racing career was in full swing, Jacques still competed on the snow during the winter, and does so to this day, adding his name to that of his brother’s as the sport’s world champion in 1980, ’82 and ’86.
Jacques was still in local Formula Ford by the time his brother made his impact on the F1 world in 1977. But Gilles kept an interest in his progress. “They talked a lot about what Jacques should do next,” says Joann, “though he didn’t always do what Gilles thought.” Towards the end of 79 they agreed Jacques should try Formula Atlantic, the arena where Gilles made his name. Team owner Doug Shierson, a good friend of Gilles, was contacted.
Chuck Matthews was the engineer and saw the first time Jacques tried a car so much more powerful than anything he’d driven before: “We went to Savannah and it was raining hard. We had two guys who were experienced in the cars and sent them out, hoping it would ease off and then we could put Jacques in. But it just rained harder. So eventually we let him out, telling him to be careful, to get a feel for it. He was quicker than them straight away and on the fourth lap beat their time by 14 seconds. We called him in and yelled at him, saying ‘we told you to take it easy’. He simply said ‘I was.'”
Jacques did a full season with Shierson in 1980 and won the championship at the first try. Matthews, who has worked with a succession of Indycar stars in the last 12 years, says: “As far as driving and car control goes, I think he was the fastest I’ve ever seen.”
“I’d asked around,” recalls Shierson, “and people said he was still a little wild. So I was anxious but there was no need. He was just flat good right from the off; wham-barn. I’d watched Gilles from the start and, for example, in 76 when I ran Bobby Rahal, initially Bobby was maybe half a second quicker than Gilles. But Gilles came along and worked at it and was so focused in his purpose, you could watch him literally evolve race by race until he was fantastic. But Jacques… well he came straight in and performed. I was most impressed. He had marvellous car control, just unbelievable. You know I’ve worked with the top guys in Indycars and stuff and I’d say Jacques is one of the best I’ve seen. No question.
“He made only one goof the whole time and that was due to the pressure of racing at Trois Rivières. He took off from pole but the lights hadn’t changed and everybody else stood still. So he stops, sticks it in reverse and is backing up when the lights change and everyone else is going forward! He got going, came flying through the field, then flew into the wall. It was kind of funny. So I had these T-shirts made up with stop lights on them, red and green, and, at the next race, when he was at the drivers briefing I got the crew to put them on. When he saw them he just cracked up, all smiles. Then the green light comes on and no-one even saw which way he went. He damn near lapped the whole field.”
By this time Gilles had asked his manager and benefactor Gaston Parent to watch his kid brother to see if he could help. “I had long talks with Marlboro,” Parent recalls. “They were supporting a team in Italian F3 and were interested. We arranged a test at Monza, he came over and he did very, very well.”
Matthews enlarges on just how well Villeneuve went on a circuit he’d never seen, in a type of car he’d never driven: “The F3 lap record fell on his seventh lap. When he came in, Marlboro’s people were pushing the contract into the car. It was a good contract” A point which Parent confirms: “He would have been well paid and I’d fixed a deal with Giacobazzi. They were going to get him an flat in Modena, Agip were going to back him and we’d arranged a ship to bring his motorhome over. But the best part was that in year two the contract said he would be part of the Alfa-Romeo F1 team.”
Jacquo turned it down.
“He didn’t like Italy,” sighs Parent. “He didn’t like the ambience, didn’t like anything. They didn’t live the same as we do in Canada and he wasn’t ready to accept the displacement within that context. At night the eateries closed at 9pm which he didn’t like. They served him Parma ham and he was saying .look, they can’t even cook ham right’. He wasn’t interested. It was self-indulgent, I thought. It goes back to him racing to please himself, not to attain a goal. It’s a funny attitude and completely different to Gilles.” Mauro Baldi duly got the F3 drive and in due time was installed in the Alfa F1 team…
“I didn’t see why I needed to Europe to get to Formula One,” says Jacques simply. “Gilles didn’t”
Parent, exasperated, temporarily walked away. Jacques hooked back up with Shierson who was keen to attempt the Atlantic championship double. Villeneuve duly delivered, dominating the ’81 series. It was a season Shierson enjoyed immensely: ‘That was so satisfying. Everyone was real comfortable with each other and we went out there and smoked ‘ern again, and had a lot of fun doing it. Celine was a critical part of Jacques being happy there too. She’s a delightful person and she was an integral support mechanism for him. Just little things, which are so important for a driver’s well-being. He was a bit of a junk food junkie and she’d make him chips, make sure he was happy. He was very lucky there.”
According to Matthews, “The March we ran was definitely not as good as the Ralts most of the field had. Yet Jacques just won anyway. He was great to work with too. He’s got excellent feel for the car and gives great feedback. He can tell exactly what the revs are at any point on the circuit and what the car is doing in any part of a comer, describe perfectly the car at any point on the lap in a lot of detail. He can’t tell you if it needs different springs or whatever, but as long as he’s got someone who can translate his feedback, he’s extremely good technically.”
At the end of the season the F1 circus visited America for the final two Grands Prix at Canada and Las Vegas. There was sufficient local interest for Jacquo to rent a drive in the second Arrows at both races. In retrospect, climbing into an F1 car with no preparation, with a team whose resources were stretched tight, desperately trying to make money last until the end of the season, was probably not the smartest move. It was certainly something that Gilles advised against. But Jacques gave it a try anyhow. “It was a spare car and it didn’t work properly,” recalls Jacques. Despite picking up a tow from his brother’s Ferrari at Montreal, he failed to qualify at either event It was the final nail in his coffin as far as F1 went The fact that the engine would barely run long enough for him to complete a lap without it cutting out counted for next to nothing.
In the space of 12 months Jacques had gone from being perceived in F1 terms as the ‘next big thing’ to a slightly sad pale imitation of the revered Gilles. There was another F1 attempt at his home Grand Prix two years later, this time in the hopelessly uncompetitive RAM. Again he missed the cut and the perceptions were sealed.
By then Gilles had been killed and such strange career choices could no longer be tempered by the advice of the one man who could sometimes sway him. There was an emotional ground swell within the family to get Jacques into Gilles’ Ferrari in the aftermath but it was never a serious proposition as far as the team were concerned. By this time Parent had returned to work with Jacques again and hooked him up with Canadian Tire, with whom he ran in the 2-litre class of Can-Am in ’82 and the big capacity class the following year when he took the title.
The team took the plunge into lndycar racing in 84. Predictably Jacques was fast on the road and street courses, taking pole at the savagely demanding Phoenix oval. But generally his oval performances were characterised by big accidents. Team owner Dave Bilks is adamant he had the wrong technique on such tracks: “On a road course or in a Can-Am car he was fantastic. But he just did not get the hang of being smooth and not attacking the ovals. He crashed trying to qualify at Indy and couldn’t race, then at Michigan he hurt himself badly and ended up with pins in his foot.
Matthews, who went with Jacques to Canadian ‘ire, thinks the problem lay elsewhere. “Jacques took a lot of flak for crashing on the ovals but the real problem was that there was not a single person on that team, myself included, who’d ever run a car ‘d an oval. We didn’t know what we were doing.”
Villeneuve took his maiden Indycar win the following season at Elkhart Lake but it was too late to save the programme. Canadian Tire’s pull-out — a decision probably helped by Villeneuve’s failure to appear at agreed appointments — marked the end of his mainstream career. An annual outing in the Trois Rivières Atlantic race would be the only remaining direct racing connection from now on.
It was during this period of his life that he spent the most time with his nephew Jacques Jnr, who would return with Joann to Canada during the school holidays, and it was uncle Jacques who oversaw the youngster’s course at the Jim Russell race school at Mont Tremblant. “He had the talent,” recalls Jacquo, “but not the attitude. Even before we went to the race school, you’d put him in a kart and he’d enjoy it but when it was done he’d go and do something else like any other 12 year old kid. If that had been Gilles or me we’d have been, give me more, give me more, you know.” The roots of the future tensions between the two are easy to picture…
They were probably heightened by that ’92 Trois Rivières race. Jacquo’s one-off deal in a car which Matthews maintains “was not good” didn’t even include Friday testing. Yet, after passing and pulling away from his nephew, he was blitzing the field in it and shattered the lap record before retiring. Jacques Jnr took third and was the post-race star at what is unofficially ‘Circuit Villeneuve’. “Everyone was saying that he was the new Gilles,” says Jacques, “but he wasn’t that good. He did okay.”
“I don’t think he liked that at all,” says Matthews of Jacquo’s reaction to the plaudits for the young Villeneuve, “I think he was a little jealous.”
“Young Jacques didn’t stay in touch with the uncle,” says Parent, “and Jacquo didn’t like that. He wanted to be the one to give him advice. Young Jacques didn’t want that and I can quite understand that. He’s got nothing to learn from his uncle. Jacquo had his chance and didn’t take it.”
So does Jacquo have any regrets? “No, not really,” he answers, his speech fast, sing-song and frank as ever, his reasoning as simplistic, “I wish it had lasted longer and I’d kept on winning and got into good cars later on. I loved doing it, just stepping on it and trying to win. I wish I could’ve got the break my nephew got. He never sat in a shitbox.”
“For sure had a fantastic talent,” says Parent in summary, “racing wise, possibly just as much as Gilles had. But it was not a directed talent. Gilles had a mission in life to race, Jacquo didn’t.”
In the meantime Jacques, now 44, continues to play, happy in his homeland, sliding around on his skidoo racer. His concerns aren’t multi-million dollar deals, but what he might try in the next snowmobile race. “It’s been up and down a bit recently. I try lots of things and sometimes they don’t work, I’ve had a couple of crashes in the last couple of years, broken bones here and them. But I’m always fighting, I always try to make a difference. I think that is my job as a driver. I’m not a smart guy, I just do my best.”