Jacques Villeneuve’s maiden Formula One test for Williams opened the door for him to join Damon Hill in 1996…
Eighteen years may be a long time in motor racing, but it’s a short time where memories of legends are concerned.
That’s why the buzz at Silverstone at the beginning of August was tangible as Jacques Villeneuve, son of the great Gilles, emulated his father’s inaugural F1 test (at the wheel of a McLaren in 1977) with some stunning laps for Williams. Villeneuve Jnr was a boy of 11 when his dad already feted wherever F1 cars raced perished in that terrible accident at Zolder in 1982. Now 24, he has the world at his feet, victory in the Indianapolis 500 tucked under his belt and the overall Indycar crown within his grasp.
“I’ve been asked that many times!” the young French-Canadian says in response to the inevitable question. “A lot of times after Indy and Miami, when we had good results, a lot of the questions were ‘Did you think of your father on the finish line?’
“That’s not the reason I’m racing. When you’re driving, testing or racing, you’re really busy and you’re working hard, so you don’t have the time to think about stuff like that anyway. It’s really unimportant.
“When you think about family or anything like that, it’s more about things that happen in normal life it’s nothing to do with the work side of it.” Unlike his spectacular, powersliding father, who won races through his all-out seat of the pants style, Jacques drives smoothly and picks up wins from stealth and racing nous. His driving is more redolent of Prost’s than Villeneuve Snr’s: “I didn’t try to copy him [his father], I don’t know if we drive similarly or not and I never really paid attention to that.
“I drive like I drive and if it’s like him then great, but if it’s not I like it the way it is anyway!”
Another contrast between the two generations is the relative levels of their careers. Whereas Gilles came to Silverstone as the hotly-tipped Formula Atlantic champion, desperate to break through into premier level single-seaters, Jacques arrived as a man seemingly destined for the Indycar title and already at the top of his sport. “It’s not because I won the 500 that I can say ‘There’s no point staying in the States, I’ve got to do F1’,” he claims. “That’s not the key element. Where I go depends on the interest, how you get along with the people in the team and whether it’s a winning combination and a lot of other contractual points as well!
“My ambition has been to be a professional race car driver and win races and, if possible, championships. Not to be in Formula One at any cost.”
That seems to have been reflected in his wandering career path to date. Having started on the Italian saloon car scene, Jacques raced Italian F3 before moving to the Japanese championship, in which he placed runner-up to TOM’S Toyota teammate Rickard Rydell, In 1993 he upped sticks and returned to North America to race Formula Atlantic, finally moving into Indycars last year.
Now, in addition to his blistering record with the Team Green Reynard-Cosworth, Villeneuve has virtually wiped out at a stroke the awkward memories of the last man to try the Indy to F1 route, Michael Andretti.
“A race car is a race car – once you’re on the limit it’s hard to work, whatever series it is,” he ponders. “I knew that the car was going to brake harder and that it would corner faster than an Indycar that wasn’t a great surprise because I was expecting it. But the car is also lighter so it’s going to be more driveable you can get it sideways and still drive it easier than an Indycar.
“The down force level is now closer to an Indycar compared to what it used to be. I heard before that the grip was so much, sometimes you could go into a corner with a lot of speed and you couldn’t feel where the limit was, but if you trusted it, it would stay there. Now from what I can tell its sliding a little bit.”
So confident was Villeneuve that he felt the quickest time of the three-day Silverstone test was easily within his grasp.
There was perceptible tension as Jacques and David Coulthard both accelerated out of the pits with 10 minutes to go, the Scot having just slashed his British GP qualifying time in sweltering heat. The disappointment as the Canadian ground to a halt on the circuit, having forgotten to switch the fuel pump on, was immense. During the morning, he had been a fraction faster than the Scot; during the previous two days, he had lapped within half a second of Damon Hill. And Williams’s regular drivers both had use of the latest specification Renault engine, the RS7B. Villeneuve was entrusted with the previous generation RS7A.
“The run before then I was trying some different gears and so on and it wasn’t better, so I was going back to normal settings for that run. For sure it was gonna be quicker.”
It wasn’t just pride that was at stake, either. Nobody believed that Frank Williams was going to let the French-Canadian drive an FW17 for three days purely for the hell of it. This was make-or-break: time to prove that he was ready for Formula One…
Even without the unfortunate fuel pump incident, the answer was already affirmative. On August 8, Villeneuve’s manager Craig Pollock formally notified Team Green that the current Indycar series leader would not be staying in 1996.
In the short-term, the son of one of the sport’s most charismatic figures was committing himself to F1, and Williams. M J S