The Villeneuves at Trois-Rivières


Jacques Villeneuve contesting the new World Rallycross Championship is exciting news in itself, but making it historically sweeter and completing the circle is the fact that there will be a round at Trois-Rivières, a venue that resonates deeply to the Villeneuve name.

Gilles leads in 1976

In fact, you could argue that the whole Villeneuve legend grew out of that tough little Canadian town halfway between Montreal and Quebec City. The 40 mile drive alongside the St Lawrence between the Villeneuves’ home town of Berthierville and Trois-Rivières was a well-worn path for the brothers Gilles and Jacques, respectively the father and uncle of the ’97 world champion and soon-to-be rallycross star.

Though Jacques Jr achieved more in his career than either his father or uncle, around Trois-Rivières he definitely only ranks as the third-best Villeneuve. Back in the 1970s with Gilles, and into the ‘80s and ‘90s with Jacques Sr, this race through the streets was the Villeneuves’ home event and their amazing feats there made it their own.

Gilles was a snowmobile racer trying his hand at Formula Ford when his first appeared there in 1973 – and took his two-year-old car to victory in startling style in the heavy rain. His Formula Ford successes led to him moving up to Formula Atlantic in ’74 – slicks, wings and around 200hp – but at Trois-Rivières a troubled qualifying left him a long way down the grid, the trigger to him getting involved in someone else’s accident on the first lap.

Gilles on the way to fourth in 1977

His self-prepared 1975 car was really no match for those of the big budget teams but he qualified it third – right behind the guest-starring F1 boys Jean-Pierre Jarier and Patrick Depailler. He passed Depailler off the start and ran for many laps second only to Jarier until his brakes gave out. This performance and an amazing wet weather victory from the back earlier in the year at Gimli made him hot property for ’76, with the top Atlantic teams keen to get him on board.

He opted for Ecurie Canada where he was run by March’s Ray Wardell. They formed a great partnership and the Canadian racing world began to understand the extravagance of Gilles’ off-the-scale talent. He won virtually every race that year.

Among the wider racing world, however, he remained a nobody as the F1 guest stars again rolled into town for the end-of-season non-championship Trois-Riveries Atlantic race. James Hunt, on the verge of his world championship, and Depailler had been assigned places in the Ecurie Canada team alongside Gilles. James was given a brand new chassis and was a bit non-plussed when at the end of the first session this local team-mate he’d never heard of was 0.5s quicker.

He made some progress the next day, feeling the car better – only to find Villeneuve was yet further ahead! “He’d burn up a set of tyres, come in for another set, then go out and clock another fastest time,” related the team’s Kris Harrison.

“The two F1 guys on our team tried to do the same thing but they simply weren’t in the same league. It was an extraordinary performance.” What’s more, Gilles’ car was not handling properly, courtesy of a practice accident at St Jovite. When Gilles then drove Hunt’s car at the next race (Road Atlanta) he found it much better than his own…

Hunt was a convert. Gilles won Trois-Rivières going away, defeating also his future on-track F1 rival Alan Jones. Hunt returned to the McLaren team raving about Villeneuve – which led to him being assigned the position of reserve driver with the team for 1977, and his sensational F1 debut at the British Grand Prix in an obsolete M23 where he was set to finish fourth before a faulty temperature gauge sent him to the pits. The world at large would finally get to see one of the greatest drivers in the sport’s history.

Jacques Sr

Meanwhile his younger brother Jacques – born four years after Gilles – had followed his path, initially racing snowmobiles then moving into cars, first in a Honda Civic, subsequently Formula Atlantic. Trois-Rivières 1979 was just his fourth race in the powerful single-seater and he did well to qualify on the third row, a couple of places ahead of F1 regular Derek Daly.

Gilles, 1977

In his first full season of 1980 however, he was The Man and won the title in his Doug Shierson March. Trois-Rivières that year didn’t go so well, however. It began OK as he set pole, but as he sat on the grid he was creeping, trying to anticipate the start.

As the lights then didn’t change, so he felt his creep was becoming a bit too obvious – so he selected reverse to get back to his original position! Somewhat inevitably, the lights changed as he was reversing. He completed the opening lap well down the field, came scything through the pack, then crashed. He made amends in 1981, winning by 25 seconds from pole on his way to a second consecutive title.

He should have been racing in European F3 that year as part of the Marlboro team, with an F1 Alfa Romeo drive at the end of it. But he’d walked away from it. Gilles had asked his manager Gaston Parent to see what he could do to help the career of his kid brother – and Parent had organised a Marlboro test with Euroracing at Monza during the off-season of 1980-81.

Within seven laps Jacques Sr had broken the F3 lap record. “The Marlboro guys were literally pushing a contract into his cockpit as he sat in the car in the pits,” related his former engineer Chuck Matthews.

“He would have been well paid and I’d fixed a deal with Giacobazzi,” recalled Parent. “They were going to get him a flat in Modena, Agip were going to back him and we’d arranged a ship to bring his motorhome over. But best part was that in year two the contract said he’d be part of the Alfa Romeo F1 team.”

Why did he walk away from that? He had neither Gilles’ ambition nor his worldliness. He remained a small town boy that loved his home comforts. “It was a curious attitude,” reflected Parent. “It was self-indulgent and it went back to him racing only to please himself, not to attain a goal.”

So instead ‘Jacquo’ – as he’s called in the family – returned to Formula Atlantic (where he seat was paid for, unbeknown to him at the time, by Gilles) and continued winning. An attempt to qualify a spare, misfiring, badly set-up Arrows for the Canadian and American Grands Prix failed – as did an attempt two years later at Montreal in an uncompetitive RAM.

He graduated to Indycars, took a pole and a win but crashed a lot on the ovals. Thereafter he surrendered any ambition he may ever have had in motor racing and he returned to snowmobiles as his competitive outlet. He was world champion in the discipline in 1980, ’82 and ’86. He races there to this day, but at 60 years old the victories are less frequent, the accidents more common. Last we heard, after crashing last March, breaking his leg and puncturing his lung, he checked himself out of hospital and vowed he would be carrying on…

Jacques Sr at Las Vegas for Arrows, 1981

But even when he was concentrating on snowmobiles, Jacquo would still come out of motor racing ‘retirement’ for the Trois-Rivières Atlantic race. He remained a big draw with the local crowds – and could still show the up and coming hot shots how it should be done. He won the ’89 and ’91 races to become a triple winner there. But it was perhaps his performances in ’92 and ’93 that really underlined his level.

1973 Gilles made Trois-Rivières debut in FF1600, won
1975 Gilles qualified self-prepared Atlantic car third, ran second to Jarier, retired with no brakes
1976 Gilles won Atlantic race, defeating James Hunt and Alan Jones
1980 Jacques Sr on pole, selected reverse at start. Came through the field then crashed
1981 Jacques Sr won Atlantic race by 25sec, pole by 0.7sec.
1989 Jacques Sr won the Atlantic race
1991 Jacques Sr won Atlantic event for third time
1992 Jacques Sr led but retired after smashing lap record. Jacques Jr finished third in one-off
1993 Jacques Jr finished 14th, Jacques Sr finished second.
1998 Jacques Sr contested his final Atlantic race
2009 Jacques Jr contested Canadian Tire NASCAR round at Trois-Rivières, finished fourth.
2013 Jacques Jr finished third in the Trois-Rivières round of the Canadian Tire NASCAR series, having led for a significant proportion of the distance
2014 World Rallycross Championship round. Championship contested by Jacques Jr

Jacques Jr

All the big pre-event hype for the ’92 race was that Jacques Jr – Gilles’ son – would be racing on the hallowed ground, fresh from his race-winning season in Japanese F3 and with big Player’s money behind him in preparation for a full assault on the ’93 championship. Jacquo was entered too, albeit in a low-budget, self-prepared car that he couldn’t even afford to test in preparation for the event.

Jacques Jr duly qualified near the sharp end of the grid while Jacques Sr suffered a litany of problems in his unsorted car and started mid-grid. But with the car working properly in the race, he ripped through the field, passing car after car – including that of his nephew – until he led the race going away. An engine problem put him out, but not before he’d shattered the circuit lap record.

Jacques Sr chats with Mario Andretti at Phoenix, 1984

Twenty-two year old Jacques Jr took all the headlines with a third place finish on his category debut, but his 39-year-old uncle had proved to be decisively the fastest man of the day. The pair competed there again in ’93 where Jr had a fast but incident-filled race and finished 14th and 40-year-old Sr finished second.

Back in 1998, just before he did his final Formula Atlantic race at Trois-Rivières, I caught up with Jacquo to ask him about his career for a Motor Sport magazine feature (October ’98). “I probably wouldn’t have got into cars if it hadn’t been for Gilles,” he explained.

“He just opened the doors for me and I kind of followed him through. It wasn’t really in my mind to race [cars] but it just felt natural for me to do what he did. But I was always good at going fast and trying things.” The attacking attitude was a familiar trait. “That’s in me the same as it was in Gilles,” he said. “He wanted to be quickest every lap… that’s how I feel. You have to satisfy yourself, try your hardest every lap.”

Gilles drifts a Can-Am Wolf, 1977

Seems he’s doing that still. His wife Celine meanwhile, according to local reports, is reportedly imploring him to stop.

Jacques Jr meanwhile, his F1 career over, returned to Trois-Rivières in 2009 in the Canadian Tire NASCAR series and took a good fourth. He followed that up with third last year, having led a good proportion of the race. And this year he returns there once again – in a whole new discipline. Even though he’s achieved more than either his father or his uncle in his career, he still has a lot to live up to at Trois-Rivières.

More from Mark Hughes
Kevin Magnussen impressing McLaren
Has the Red Bull era come to an end?
Max Mosley’s legacy still felt in F1

You may also like