Jacques Villeneuve was an unconventional and mercurial F1 talent who this year celebrates 25 years since becoming world champion. In this candid interview, he explains to Mark Gallagher that skiing taught him everything he knows, how his father’s sudden death was the making of him, and why he doesn’t like pushy racing dads…
If Netflix had been around in 1996 it’s not hard to imagine a Drive To Survive-style docu-series centered on Williams pairing Jacques Villeneuve and Damon Hill. Both sons of famed fathers who died early deaths – Gilles Villeneuve while driving for Ferrari in 1982; Graham Hill in a plane crash shortly after the end of a career that had crowned him world champion twice.
Having finished runner-up to Hill in 1996, the then 25-year-old French Canadian would go one better the following year, claiming the title despite Michael Schumacher’s cynical attempt to take him out in the season finale at Jerez – an attempt which would result in the German being disqualified entirely from the championship.
t’s now 25 years since Jacques claimed his only F1 title; 40 years since his father was lost to motorsport altogether.
Talk to the man himself and the sense is rather different. He remains passionate about racing, and his victories in the final two rounds of the 2021 NASCAR Euro Series were celebrated with as much enthusiasm as any grand prix win.
Villeneuve has deeply held opinions about any racing subject you care to mention. At home in Milan, not a million miles from where his father Gilles entered the annals of F1 history as one of Enzo Ferrari’s most celebrated drivers, Jacques reflects on how it started: with Gilles…
In his superb autobiography Watching the Wheels, Damon Hill writes candidly about growing up in the shadow of a famous father – how he would often be introduced as ‘Graham Hill’s son’ rather than by his own name. Villeneuve somehow never gave the impression of feeling the weight of his father’s Formula 1 legacy.
“No, I never did,” he says, matter of factly, then surprises by adding, “I think I was under a shadow as long as he was alive. I was a crybaby with migraines. It was also a different era when fathers loved their daughters but were proud of their sons. It was tough to be a son back then. All I wanted was love, but that didn’t happen because I was sent to school in the mountains, living in someone else’s home, away from my family and away from my dad.”
Gilles Villeneuve’s death during final qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder impacted on an 11-year-old Jacques in ways which may surprise.
“The fact that he died saved me, I think in that aspect, psychologically, which is a terrible thing to say, but it gave me freedom,” says Villeneuve. “When I went to boarding school after he died it allowed me to grow up. I went from last in class to first within a month. And I was ski racing. Suddenly I became me.”
That love of skiing played a role in introducing Villeneuve to the satisfaction of competing; being measured against others as well as himself.
“What I did in skiing I brought into racing,”he says. “If we would go and jump some cliffs,I would make sure I would jump a cliff that nobody else could jump just for the sake of it.”
The rhythm that is essential to downhill skiing, transitioning from one gate to the next, taught the young Villeneuve skills that would help when he turned his focus to motor racing.
The move into car racing came as the result of trying karts, followed by a course at the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School at Mont Tremblant. Outings in a Group N Alfa Romeo in Italy followed, before the break into Italian Formula 3 arrived with Prema Racing.
Then came some decisive moves, starting with the appointment of a former teacher from College Beausoleil in Villars, Switzerland, as his manager. Craig Pollock would remain at Villeneuve’s side for a decade and a half.
The shift to Japan to drive with Cerumo was a turning point in terms of on-track performances, followed by a move into the North American Toyota Atlantic series, in which Villeneuve finished third for Forsythe Green in 1993. The faith shown in Villeneuve by Barry Green and engineer Tony Cicale proved to be the catalyst for what followed.
“That was super important because Barry and Tony, the two of them together, had my back,” recalls Villeneuve. “Barry believed in what I could do.”
Green’s belief in Villeneuve was such that he was prepared to risk losing Player’s sponsorship if the tobacco giant insisted on supporting another driver, and it ultimately resulted in the split with Jerry Forsythe which led to the creation of Team Green.
In 1994, his debut Champ Car season, Villeneuve was Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, and scored his first race win with a closely fought victory over Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr at Road America. The following season, 1995, Jacques won the championship with four outright wins, one of which was the Indy 500.
Everyone was now paying attention to ‘Villeneuve Jr’, including Bernie Ecclestone and Formula 1. With Ecclestone’s help, Pollock pulled a deal together with Frank Williams, who offered Villeneuve a Silverstone test.
“The test went well,” recalls Villeneuve. “Driving the car in testing was not really complicated. It was easy to adapt. The F1 cars had less horsepower than the Indycars at the time, but the car was lighter, much more nervous and nimble. It was reacting more like a go-kart compared to an Indycar, plus it had more G-force and was braking a lot later.”
Villeneuve’s first F1 win came in the European Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, but three more victories followed – in Britain, Hungary and Portugal. It was at Estoril that Villeneuve produced that audacious overtaking maneuver in which the Williams swept around the outside of Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari at the Parabolica – a move which Villeneuve predicted to race engineer Jock Clear.
That Villeneuve would never win another grand prix was down to several factors, starting with both Renault and Adrian Newey moving on from Williams. The 1998 season would net Jacques just two podium finishes.
Then came the momentous decision to set up an F1 team in partnership with Pollock, Reynard Racing Cars and British American Tobacco.
Villeneuve remained with BAR through five seasons. His regret is that he had an opportunity to leave after three years to join Renault, a contract having been agreed with Flavio Briatore, but that deal was never signed.
“NASCAR, oh yeah!” he says, smiling. “F1 was amazing on the quali lap, to get that perfection with the team. But racing-wise, when you get in the NASCAR, I have hardly ever had as much fun. I think that’s also because of the skiing, because the NASCAR is quite a big, heavy, soft car.
“You can drive around the problem. The way you lean on it and attack the corner, if you have some kind of issue, you’ll brake a bit harder or less or you throw the car in. I love the racing in NASCAR because it’s back to being a gladiator.”
These days, perhaps not surprisingly, Villeneuve often gets asked for advice by fathers looking to give their sons a chance to reach Formula 1. He is left cold by the pushy parents.
“For me, that’s always been the worst approach you can have because you never know if the kid is really passionate? Does he really want to do it? Or will he say one day, ‘Dad, actually I really don’t like what I’m doing’?”
This article appeared in our April 2022 issue.
Image Source: Motorsport Images