Jacques Villeneuve, the rising and setting of the son
Carrying the name of a father who has won so much in the past is never easy. So just think of how Jacques Villeneuve felt, making his Formula 1 debut in 1996, faced with the barrage of questions about his father Gilles: what he remembered about him, how he felt now, and so on…
Jacques had one standard reply. “If you like we can talk about me and my racing. If not, let's not bother.” It was an attitude that provoked plenty of comment, all the more so because he didn't even try to hide his irritation. Was it down to embarrassment? The dredging up of uncomfortable memories? Or just the normal mindset of a 25-year-old firmly focussed on the future rather than the past? Or maybe it was all of these things combined?
Jacques was just 11 years and one month old in May 1982, when his father Gilles – one of the fastest and most-loved drivers in Formula 1 history – met his end during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. Gilles was the archetypal Ferrari driver, and had already cemented his place in grand prix legend thanks to a personality that was truly unique. The Canadian was blessed with an other-worldly turn of speed above all else, and then there were the incidents and accidents, written-off cars and high jinks that have passed into the annals of F1 myth.
But Jacques's arrival in Formula 1 was very different. He was fast, of course. But he was also consistent, intelligent, almost cynical. And incredibly determined. That determination was already present from when he was a kid. Two years after the death of his father, Jacques expressed a desire to go racing, but his super-protective mother Joann understandably blocked the plan. Jacques insisted: his mother replied that they weren't even going to talk about it until he came home with a decent grade in maths, Jacques's most hated subject. Jacques got the grade, and that opened the door to karting.
From then on, his career on four wheels took off, with teams finding the lure of his surname as well as the associated financial benefits irresistible, but there were also some false starts and tricky situations of his own making. Jacques did touring cars and Italian Formula 3, then Formula Nippon in Japan where he really rose to international prominence by finishing second overall in the championship. From there, he hit the road to America. He made his debut in 1993 in Formula Atlantic, with a number of wins and pole positions that would take him once more to second in the championship. In 1994 he graduated to Indycars, being elected as Rookie of the Year thanks also to his brilliant second place at the Indy 500. The following year he would win the 500 in style, making up nearly two laps lost due to a technical infringement. By the end of the season he was crowned Indycar champion, carrying the same number 27 on his car that his father had made famous. It all added to the weight of expectation that accompanied Jacques's Formula 1 debut in 1996 with Williams, which was at the time a championship contender.
The first race in 1996 was Australia, at the brand new Albert Park circuit in Melbourne, which had just taken over from Adelaide. Jacques took pole position and quickly moved into the lead, showing no deference whatsoever to his team mate Damon Hill (another son of an ex-champion, with Graham Hill having won the F1 title in 1962 and 1968, as well as being the only driver to clinch the ‘triple crown' of F1, Le Mans, and the Indy 500). Jacques was set for victory in Melbourne until an oil leak on the Williams dictated otherwise. But to serve notice of intent, he also managed to set the fastest lap before settling for second. Jacques also finished second in that year's world championship behind his team mate, with four race wins, three pole positions, and six fastest laps.
Jacques became lead driver the following year and fought hard for the title. It all came down to a duel with Michael Schumacher at the final race: the 1997 European Grand Prix at Jerez de la Frontera in Spain. Schumacher led from pole (and it was an incredible pole, as the two title contenders as well as the second Williams of Heinz-Harald Frentzen had set an identical time – right down to the nearest thousandth of a second)! But Jacques wasn't giving up. He caught Schumacher and then sent a move that nobody saw coming down the inside. The Ferrari and the Williams touched. Schumacher was penalised for making a deliberate move to try and take his rival off, while Villeneuve was the only one of the two to make it to the finish. He let the victory go to McLaren and Mika Hakkinen to concentrate on securing the title. Job done.
But from that point on, Jacques Villeneuve's career in F1 was a slow and steady decline. Williams lost its factory Renault engines in 1998 and became just a shadow of its former self with the 10-cylinder Mecachrome unit that replaced it. There were to be no pole positions or wins during that season, just as there would be none for the following five years after Jacques switched to BAR-Honda. Points were thin on the ground too; in 2004 Jacques contested just the three final grands prix with Renault (in the seat vacated by Jarno Trulli) and the following two seasons with Sauber didn't bring much joy either. He left the team (linked with BMW at the time) after the German Grand Prix in 2006, ceding his place to Robert Kubica.
There were other outings outside of Formula 1 – including Le Mans, Formula E, and rallycross – but Jacques has mainly concentrated on his family (he has three children) and television career since. He's still a familiar face at F1 races as a commentator with Sky Italia, and French channel Canal+. His personality hasn't changed though: he's irreverent, speaks his mind, and is never afraid to go against the grain. Whatever anyone else might think.
JACQUES VILLENEUVE: April 9, 1971
Pole positions: 13
Titles: 1 (1997)