That Jacques Villeneuve won the Formula 1 World Championship in just his second season marked him out as a future racing superstar. Unconventional and very sure in his own skin, it seemed impossible that Canada’s first World Champion would not even win another Grand Prix. Villeneuve eventually bowed out of Grand Prix racing after 11 seasons with his once exalted reputation somewhat diminished.
Upbringing and faltering early career
The son of French-Canadian legend Gilles Villeneuve and raised In Monte Carlo, Jacques was 11 years old when his father was killed during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian GP. His own racing career began in 1988 with some saloon car races in Canada.
He switched to Italian Formula 3 a year later but struggled in the inevitable glare of publicity. That had been with Prema Racing and he remained with Angelo Rosin’s team for the 1990 and 1991 seasons. Best known for accidents, long hair and attitude at the time he began to show some signs of progress. Driving a Reynard 903-Alfa Romeo in 1990, Villeneuve won Vallelunga’s final round on the road only to be penalised 60 seconds for jumping the start. The team switched to Ralt RT35 chassis midway through 1991 and three pole positions showed further potential.
A move to Japan brings success at last
Having only enjoyed sporadic glimpses of form during his three years in Italy, Villeneuve joined reigning champions TOM’s for the 1992 Japanese F3 Championship. British veteran Anthony Reid dominated from the start of the season before TOM’s were able to fettle their own chassis. By mid-season the TOM’s 032F-Toyota was the class-of-the-field and Villeneuve won three times (Sendai, Mine and the final race at Suzuka) as he visibly matured as a driver. That was not quite enough for Reid held on to his points lead with Villeneuve finishing as runner-up. He completed his best season so far by finishing the Macau Grand Prix in third position.
He was also invited to make his Formula Atlantic debut at Trois-Rivières during 1992 – finishing third on that one-off appearance. One onlooker to be impressed was Craig Pollock who was soon managing Villeneuve’s budding career. Villeneuve remained in Formula Atlantic in 1993 driving a Player’s Forsythe-Green Racing Ralt RT40 with aplomb. He won five times as he challenged team-mate Claude Bourbonnais and eventual champion David Empringham for the title.
Champ Cars with Forsythe-Green Racing
Forsythe-Green Racing entered the Champ Car World Series in 1994 with the French-Canadian rookie its driver. Villeneuve qualified for his second race (and first on an oval) on the front row at Phoenix and starred at Indianapolis. He qualified his Reynard 94I-Ford in fourth position before finishing the race in a strong second behind Penske’s Al Unser jr. Winner of the Texaco/Havoline 200 at Elkhart Lake, Villeneuve finished sixth overall to claim the Rookie of the Year honours with ease.
Villeneuve’s second Champ Car season was even better, his Team Green Reynard 95I-Ford now sporting the number 27 carried by his father for much of his career. He won the opening round in Miami’s Bicentennial Park and then recovered from dropping two laps behind the leader to win the Indianapolis 500. Bolstered by stellar qualifying performances in the second half of the season, Villeneuve won twice more to clinch the Champ Car title at the final round. In the four seasons since he had left Europe, Villeneuve had gone from much maligned “son of” to the most sought after young driver in the world. He tested a Williams FW17-Renault at Silverstone in August 1995 and that was enough for the Formula 1 team to offer Villeneuve a two-year contract.
Formula 1 – World Champion in his second season
Villeneuve began his F1 career in sensational style by almost winning the 1996 Australian GP. He qualified on pole position and dominated the race before falling oil pressure allowed team-mate Damon Hill to pass with just five laps to go. Second that day and again in Argentina, he beat Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari at the Nürburgring to win on just his fourth F1 appearance. Further victories in the British, Hungarian and Portuguese GPs maintained Villeneuve’s slender mathematical chance of the title until the final round at Suzuka. However, Hill led all the way to victory and the title after Villeneuve’s Williams FW18-Renault lost a wheel following a pitstop. Championship runner-up in his maiden F1 season, Villeneuve’s improving form persuaded Williams that he was the future and Hill was promptly dropped from its 1997 plans.
Now sporting bleach blond hair and continuing as F1’s unconventional grunge kid, Villeneuve delivered the 1997 world title in just his second season at this level – a remarkable feat. That included seven victories but crashing into the “champions’ wall” at Montréal and disqualification from the Japanese GP (having ignored yellow flags during practice) prolonged the outcome of the championship until the final race at Jerez. Villeneuve entered that race a single point behind Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher and went to pass the German for the lead on lap 48. His rival crashed into him in a vain attempt to secure the championship. Schumacher was eliminated from the race (and subsequently excluded from the final standings for deliberately causing a crash and Villeneuve limped home in third place to clinch the title.
Unfortunately, Renault withdrew its works support at the end of 1997 so Williams switched to privately developed Mecachrome V10s in 1998. Rather than challenge for the title or Grand Prix victories, Villeneuve scraped for points’ finishes instead. Back-to-back third places in Germany and Hungary were his only visits to the podium as he claimed a distant fifth overall in his last season with Williams.
The disappointing BAR Honda years
Williams wanted Villeneuve to remain for the 1999 season but he was central to the most ambitious new F1 project in years. With Pollock at the helm, British American Racing arrived amid a flurry of publicity and optimistic claims from chassis manufacturer Adrian Reynard. In the event, the tobacco-funded concern endured a tortuous campaign in 1999 with neither Villeneuve nor team-mate Ricardo Zonta scoring a point. He rolled at Eau Rouge during qualifying at Spa-Francorchamps and whenever he ran in the points (such as third during the first stint in Spain) then the BAR 001-Supertec expired.
Despite its disastrous first season, BAR attracted a works engine deal from Honda for the 2000 campaign. The BAR 002 was a fundamentally better car and the Honda V10 a marked step forward in terms of performance and reliability. Both Villeneuve and Zonta scored points in the opening Australian GP and the former repeated that fourth place finish in France, Austria and the United States. He challenged for the lead in Canada before an incorrect tyre call dropped him from contention and Villeneuve completed the season in a much improved seventh overall.
Villeneuve turned down a lucrative offer from Benetton-Renault to remain with BAR-Honda in 2001 but that campaign began in tragic circumstances. Early in the Australian GP, Villeneuve crashed into the back of Ralf Schumacher’s Williams-BMW and was launched into the Turn 3 barriers at approximately 170mph. Although both drivers emerged unscathed, 52 year old marshal Graham Beveridge was killed by a wheel that flew through a small opening in the fencing. Villeneuve eventually achieved the team’s first podium finishes by coming third in Spain and Germany but he seemed to struggle for motivation as the year wore on. Villeneuve was seventh in the championship for a successive season although 2001 represented a disappointing retrograde step for BAR-Honda.
Both owners British American Tobacco and engine suppliers Honda had grown tired of the lack of progress and Pollock was replaced as Team Principal before the 2002 season. Unsettled by the departure of his mentor and lumbered with yet another disappointing car, it was the British GP before BAR scored a point – Villeneuve and team-mate Olivier Panis coming home in fourth and fifth positions respectively. Sixth at Indianapolis delivered the only other point of the year as Villeneuve’s competitive edge inevitably began to wane.
New Team Principal David Richards considered replacing the highly paid Villeneuve for 2003, arguing that the reported $12m salary would be better spent on development. Villeneuve remained but tensions mounted within the team as young newcomer Jenson Button eclipsed the increasingly disenchanted former World Champion. Villeneuve scored just two sixth place finishes before being informed that the team would not retain him for 2004. He responded by quitting the team on the eve of the final race in Japan – an unhappy conclusion to five disappointing seasons with the team he helped to shape.
Formula 1 twilight with Renault and Sauber
Without a drive at the start of 2004, Villeneuve returned for the final three GPs of the season by replacing the out-of-favour Jarno Trulli at Renault. Unable to finish higher than 10th during that time, he made a fulltime return to the grid in 2005 at the start of a two year contract with Sauber. He was fourth at Imola (after both BAR-Hondas had been disqualified) but made crucial errors in Malaysia, Monaco and Magny-Cours as he finished equal 14th in the standings.
Peter Sauber sold his cash-strapped team to BMW in the middle of the year and, despite rumours to the contrary, Villeneuve kept his place in the reconstituted team for 2006. Sixth in Australia, he suffered headaches following a heavy crash during the German GP. BMW management replaced Villeneuve with reserve driver Robert Kubica for the following race in Hungary and Villeneuve’s F1 career was over after 163 starts, 11 wins and the 1997 World Championship. It is easy to forget his exceptional record from 1994 to 1997 such was his dramatic subsequent decline.
Life after Formula 1
In 2007, Villeneuve made a couple of NASCAR starts in Bill Davis’ Toyota Camry and joined the returning Peugeot team for that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours. The diesel 908 HDi he shared with Nicolas Minassian and Marc Gené ran second before its engine expired in the closing stages.
Retained for the 2008 Le Mans 24 Hours, Villeneuve also started the crash strewn Spa-Francorchamps 1000Kms in preparation. Once again partnering regulars Minassian and Gené, he scored his first race win in 11 years. And he almost added victory in endurance racing’s greatest event to his previous successes in the F1 championship and at Indianapolis. Peugeot clearly enjoyed an advantage in dry conditions but momentum swung to Audi as soon as the forecast rain arrived. Delayed further by overheating issues and Minassian’s spin, they were eventually beaten by less than a lap.
Alongside further guest outings in stock cars and endurance racing, Villeneuve was linked to an F1 return with Stefan Grand Prix in 2010. He had a seat fitting in the Toyota-built Stefan S01 but the FIA turned down the Serbian team’s application to race in F1. Later that year, he combined with Durango Formula to launch Villeneuve Racing in a bid to win a place on the 2011 F1 grid but that bid ultimately proved unsuccessful.
There was also a return to Indianapolis with Villeneuve’s Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Dallara SW12-Honda finishing the 2015 race in 14th position. Villeneuve raced a Venturi VM200-FE01 in season two of the all-electric Formula E series and drove a Subaru in the American RallyXross series during 2018.
FEED Racing and European NASCAR
It was during 2018 that he formed FEED Racing academy with childhood friend Patrick Lamarié to promote young driving talent. He switched to the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series in 2019 and finished eighth overall driving a Go FAS Racing Ford Mustang. FEED Racing announced that it was entering a two-car team in the 2020 EuroNASCAR Pro class for Villeneuve and Lamarié.
He competed in four rounds, scoring two top five finishes and ended the season 21st with 104 points.