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All you need to know about Jacques Villeneuve

Jacques Villeneuve (center) sprays the Champagne after a victory at Hungary 1997. Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images.
Jacques Villeneuve (center) sprays the Champagne after a victory at Hungary 1997. Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images.
Nico Boyce
CONTRIBUTOR
Modified 05 Mar 2021
Feature

Jacques Villeneuve was just eleven when father Gilles was tragically killed in qualifying at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix. Gilles was seen as a future champion, an often heroic driver who made a legend of the number 27 Ferrari. However Jacques, named after his uncle who was also a racing driver, has had a fascinating career in his own right, competing in many different categories and building a reputation as a fierce competitor on the track.

Jacques Villeneuve was just eleven when father Gilles was tragically killed in qualifying at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix. Gilles was seen as a future champion, an often-heroic driver who made a legend of the number 27 Ferrari. However, Jacques, named after his uncle who was also a racing driver, has had a fascinating career in his own right, competing in many different categories and building a reputation as a fierce competitor on the track.

As a child, Jacques Villeneuve was keen to follow in his father's footsteps and his mother eventually yielded and bought him a kart in return for improved grades in mathematics. Naturally, single-seaters soon followed and Jacques took a course at the Jim Russell racing school before heading back to Europe to enter the Alfa Cup and Italian Formula 3.

Failing to make much of an impression in Europe, Jacques Villeneuve first headed to Japan and later to America and wound up reuniting with former teacher Craig Pollock, who was to become his manager. Pollock negotiated deals with sponsors and teams and placed Jacques Villeneuve in Formula Atlantic and subsequently, IndyCar.

Finishing an impressive second in his first attempt at the Indy 500 and securing a victory later in the year, Jacques Villeneuve was 1994 IndyCar Rookie of the Year.

The following year he would go one better at the brickyard, taking victory despite a mistake resulting in a two-lap penalty. The victory was dubbed the Indy 505 as a result of Villeneuve's increased race distance. This drew the attention of the watching motorsport world and after Jacques Villeneuve sealed the 1995 IndyCar championship it seemed inevitable that Formula 1 would come calling.

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Williams was a team in an odd position in 1996. They had everything in place, from the now experienced race-winner Damon Hill and the star designer Adrian Newey, to the mighty Renault engines. On the inside, however, all wasn't so rosy. Sir Frank Williams had grown weary of Hill after the driver finished behind Schumacher in the points in 1994 and 1995 and still asked for a pay rise. He was on his way out, as was Newey, who was planning a move to McLaren for 1998. Jacques Villeneuve was hired to be Williams' star driver going forward.

Jacques Villeneuve took pole position on his Formula 1 debut, keeping Damon honest through the course of the season. With four wins but four retirements, Jacques ended up second best in 1996. With Hill being unceremoniously sacked by Williams, he would instead be teammates with the relatively inexperienced but highly rated Heinz-Harald Frentzen for 1997.

As the team leader at Williams, Jacques was full of confidence, taking seven wins and ten pole positions in 1997. Off-track he was making the most of his superstar status, dating celebrities including Dannii Minogue. He became known for his ever-changing hair color and his baggy racing overalls. At Jerez, he achieved the dream, becoming World Champion after resisting an assault from the swerving Ferrari of Michael Schumacher. Schumacher was disqualified from the entire season because of the incident. For many, it mirrored the circumstances of Adelaide 1994 when the German won the championship after crashing into Damon Hill.

The 1998 Williams car was not so competitive, losing Newey's design skills, losing the power advantage of the Renault engine (now branded Meccachrome), and losing some major sponsorship. Jacques Villeneuve was looking elsewhere for a drive, so manager Craig Pollock negotiated with tobacco giant British American Tobacco (BAT) to purchase the struggling Tyrrell team and rebuild that team around the Canadian. The team, branded British American Racing (BAR), boasted that they would be contenders right from their first race.

That was not to be the case, as the team scored zero points in 1999 and Jacques Villeneuve failed to finish for eleven consecutive races. Jacques continued with the team. Many speculated that there was an enormous paycheck he was rumored to be receiving. He finished 7th in the 2000 and 2001 championship standings. He stood on the podium twice in 2001, but as rival Michael Schumacher started breaking records in the Ferrari, points were to become scarce for the rest of Jacques' F1 career.

After quitting BAR in 2003, Villeneuve put in some substitute appearances at Renault and then picked up a full-time drive at Sauber, which yielded two unsuccessful seasons. After the 2006 German Grand Prix, he parted ways with Sauber mid-season and this was to be his last Grand Prix appearance.

Jacques Villeneuve after Formula 1

Villeneuve's career since Formula 1 has been patchy. He released an album and opened a restaurant. Neither were successful. He's had outings in Le Mans, IndyCar, NASCAR, Rallycross and Formula E machinery, among others.

The 2008 1000km of Spa was the only time Villeneuve won a race since his 1997 Formula 1 world championship. This year he will compete in the NASCAR Euro Series - his third season in the category.

Where does Jacques Villeneuve stand, among F1 champions, or the great all-rounders of the past? It's hard to make direct comparisons, given the ill-advised (from a racing perspective) switch to BAR in his prime. Perhaps the best modern comparison would be Kimi Raikkonen, who competed in a range of series during his F1 hiatus and has continued well past his prime. Perhaps we should compare Jacques Villeneuve to James Hunt, who was content with being champion of the world once and made the most of life outside racing. It is clear, though, that Jacques Villeneuve is just what he always aspired to be: very much his own man.

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Published 05 Mar 2021
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