Jacques Villeneuve's F1 return: 'I left the pits and my brain went back 17 years'


Driving a Formula 1 car is just like riding a bike — you never forget. At least that's Jacques Villeneuve's view after he blasted out of the pits in a 2021 Alpine and found his brain was instantly back in the groove... even if his body wasn't

Jacques Villeneuve on track testing 2021 Alpine F1 car

Villeneuve was reportedly only 0.8sec behind Alpine regular Esteban Ocon


Next week is the 25th anniversary of the 1997 European GP, an event that saw Jacques Villeneuve clinch the world championship for Williams after surviving an infamous assault from Michael Schumacher.

A few weeks ago former Williams engine supplier Renault gave Villeneuve a chance to celebrate his title success by giving him an outing at Monza in the 2021 Alpine A521. It was also a return to the Enstone outfit that Villeneuve drove for briefly at the end of 2004, as team-mate to Fernando Alonso.

It might not have been a current high-downforce car, but it certainly wasn’t a worn-out old street demo machine as used by various teams.

The model with which Esteban Ocon won last year’s Hungarian GP, the A521 has been maintained in operational use mainly to allow Alpine young drivers Oscar Piastri and Jack Doohan to gain F1 mileage outside the tight restrictions imposed on testing of current machinery.

After Villeneuve’s outing it was driven by Nyck de Vries and Antonio Giovinazzi in Budapest before the team settled on Pierre Gasly as a 2023 driver.

Jacques Villeneuve on the grid in the 2006 Renault F1 car

Villeneuve on the grid in Shanghai, 2004

Jacques Villeneuve in the 2021 Alpine F1 car

In the Monza pits with a 2021 Alpine

Monza was in essence a promotional stunt put together in conjunction with Canal+, one of the channels for whom Villeneuve serves as a pundit. He wasn’t the only man associated with the network to have a go, while Ocon also did a few laps.

But given that this was the first time he’d driven a near-contemporary car since he was dropped by BMW Sauber in the middle of 2006 it was a big day for the Canadian, who never officially retired from F1, and still races whenever he can find a drive.

In total he ran 15 laps, in three batches of three flying laps bracketed by in and out laps. It was just enough to give him a taste of what a current F1 car is like – and was also pretty much the limit physically for a 51-year-old who has stayed fit but is not embedded in the sort of training regime that drivers undertake these days.

Villeneuve has raced in multiple disciplines since 2006, and in 2014 he even had a return to single-seaters at the Indy 500. But an F1 car is something different.

“You get out of the pits and your brain goes back to 16 years ago, or 17 years ago, because I didn’t do Monza in 2006,” he told Motor Sport. “And the habits, braking, lines, how the car should react, it’s as if you haven’t been away.

“It’s really strange, how those memories that you don’t know are there suddenly they just come out on their own. But if you try to get those memories by themselves, they don’t exist. It needs to happen on its own.”

Jacques Villeneuve speaks to Esteban Ocon after testing the 2021 Alpine F1 car

Villeneuve debriefs with Ocon


He clearly enjoyed every minute of the experience: “I knew it was going to be fun. I knew that the cars were mental in the high-speed. And that’s exactly how it was.

“What was nice was the ride was good, the cars weren’t as stiff as the ones I used to drive. The straight line was quite smooth, you could see the corners coming, and it made it a bit easier to concentrate.

“The low-speed was fine, and I trusted the car in the high-speed. So it was just a question of pushing the body limit more than the car limit. And it was fun, because it’s been 16 years since 2006, and I’ve been driving mainly NASCAR lately. It’s two opposite worlds.”

“I was on the limit physically, which wasn’t the case in the past”

So just how much more could he have got from the car?

“It’s hard to say, because I wasn’t on the ragged edge. When I was racing, I was on the limit of the car. I still had a little bit to go there. Not much, I was close to it. And also physically, I was also on the limit, which wasn’t the case in the past.

“I probably would have gotten in a painful state, before I could get the most out of the car. That would have been the limiting factor.”

Steering wheels have become far more complex pieces of kit since 2006, but Villeneuve didn’t have the distraction of having to make adjustments.

“Yeah, there’s no point to go through the dials. That’s more when you fine tune a little bit. I could actually just focus on driving. These cars are big and heavy. But the aero is killer, and all the systems, everything is just perfect.”

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Was it harder to drive than the cars he was used to back in the day?

“I don’t know about harder, but it was a lot of fun. Now, was it fun because I didn’t drive them for 16 years? The thing is, the car was really well set. It was responding well. It doesn’t matter how fast the car is, if it doesn’t respond well to you, it’s hell.

“I’ve gone to do some racing in Australia in the V8s. One year running at the front, the car was nice to drive. I went back, was running at the back, doing quali laps on the ragged edge to be last, and sometimes there’s just nothing you can do. And those are not fun and they’re difficult.

“So it just depends. And the car I drove was with the set-up they used in the race last year, and it was just perfect. It was balanced, it did what it was supposed to do. You can’t detune these cars with all the hybrid and all that. When I braked, it responded.”

The word was that Villeneuve’s best lap was just 0.8sec shy of Ocon’s on the day.

“Someone said that so it must be true!,” he joked. “It was about that, I didn’t look exactly, but it was within a second. But how seriously did he take it as well?

“I was happy with the ride I did. It felt good, and it was always under control. It was nice that there was more in it as well. It was also nice driving it. I’ve done laps before in different cars where your heartbeat is at 180 the whole lap and you’re hanging on for dear life. And that wasn’t the case.”

Jacques Villeneuve celebrates winning 1997 F1 championship with his Williams team

1997 champion but, like his predecessors, Villeneuve didn’t stay

Grand Prix Photo

Did his short stint make him think that his F1 career had ended too early?

“As if there were a bunch of wasted years?,” he responded. “Of course, I’ve never stopped racing. So there’s always been that in the air. But I didn’t decide to stop F1, remember, I was kicked out! So it’s not like suddenly I decided.

“A lot of people also say I should never have left Williams [to join BAR in 1999]. Williams did not keep their champions! So there was never an option for me to stay at Williams, either. It’s just the way it is. And sometimes when you don’t play the political game, you get caught out, and that’s it.”

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Villeneuve’s current focus is on NASCAR, but he concedes that he’d jump at an IndyCar chance if one ever came up, however unlikely that may be. After all, the 2022 Indy 500 featured two drivers aged 47, and two others who were 46, so he’s not that far off.

“I did the Daytona 500 this year in NASCAR, which is a big race. It doesn’t matter what kind of racing it is, I just love it. And I still perform. So it’s great. IndyCar, why not? But it’s the same thing. You just don’t get in there anymore. I’m 51, so that’s not how it works.

“The thing is, and it’s understandable for a team, it always needs a big gamble. Because normally at a certain age, you’re just not hungry anymore. But then look at Alonso and it’s not an issue, and look at Vettel and it is an issue. It’s not the physical age, it’s how tired you are in your head…”