B/R Exclusive: Jacques Villeneuve Talks Le Mans, IndyCar and Respect in F1

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistJune 9, 2015

Jacques Villeneuve
Jacques VilleneuveJonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

MONTREAL — Jacques Villeneuve, the 1995 Indy 500 winner and 1997 Formula One champion, spent last weekend in the paddock of the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve (which, of course, is named after his late father).

The outspoken Canadian, born just 50 kilometres from the track, has never been afraid to share whatever is on his mind—a refreshing change from most PR-trained modern F1 drivers. I spoke with Villeneuve on Saturday evening, after he finished a television appearance on Sky Sports, as the sun dipped low over Mount Royal.

Although he is now 44 years old and seven years removed from his last racing victory of any kind—driving for Peugeot at the 1,000 Kilometres of Spa in 2008—Villeneuve still has ambitions for himself behind the wheel.

That same year, 2008, Villeneuve narrowly missed out on winning the Triple Crown of Motorsport when he and his team-mates Marc Gene and Nicolas Minassian finished second (and on the lead lap) at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Therefore, Graham Hill remains the only driver to accomplish the feat, which includes winning the Indy 500, the F1 championship (or, by some definitions, the Monaco Grand Prix, which Villeneuve has not done), as well as Le Mans. Hill completed the trifecta in 1972, six years before the beginning of the thoroughbred Triple Crown drought that American Pharoah ended last Saturday. 

I mentioned the 2015 Le Mans race, which takes place next weekend, and asked whether it was still something that interested Villeneuve.

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"In a team where you can win, definitely," he replied. "I would look at it."

Despite his greying, thinning hair, Villeneuve still has the lean build of a racer and looks ready to jump into a car now—it just might not be a Le Mans Prototype.

Villeneuve at the 2014 Indy 500.
Villeneuve at the 2014 Indy 500.Tom Strattman/Associated Press

"Right now," he continued, "my goal is to get back to IndyCar for a proper full season, and not just one race here and there, which is what I've been doing for the last few years."

Asked how realistic that goal was, Villeneuve said, "The fact that it's the experienced guys that are doing well in IndyCar—[Juan Pablo] Montoya's helping—it's opening doors. And also doing a good Indy 500 last year helped, but it's still a long shot."

In his only IndyCar race last season, Villeneuve finished 14th at Indianapolis in a 33-car field. Meanwhile, Montoya, who raced against Villeneuve in F1 from 2001 to 2006 and is four-and-a-half years younger, was fourth in the overall IndyCar standings in 2014 for Team Penske and leads the title race this season (the current top four drivers are all at least 34 years old).

At the other end of the age spectrum, Villeneuve had some choice words for fellow Canadian Lance Stroll, the 16-year-old member of the Ferrari Driver Academy, who was penalized for causing a frightening crash in a Formula Three race at Monza on May 31.

"What he did was so dangerous, putting another guy in the grass," Villeneuve said. "We have to teach these kids respect and that this isn't a video game. You can actually get hurt doing these things.

"The problem is that you have these parents who put their kids when they are so young in a go-kart, in a race car, telling them, 'You will be a race car driver.' But that doesn't teach them anything. It actually makes it very dangerous. And then kids like [Max] Verstappen get into F1 and they drive dangerously and they're not humble enough to even accept their own mistakes."

Villeneuve was not happy last year when the then-16-year-old Verstappen signed an F1 contract with Toro Rosso after just one year of open-wheel racing experience, as he told Autosport's Dieter Rencken and Pablo Elizalde.

The young Dutchman's failure to apologize for crashing into the back of Romain Grosjean's Lotus at the Monaco Grand Prix in May did nothing to change Villeneuve's opinion.

"It's fine that he made a mistake," Villeneuve said. "Everybody does mistakes like that, but then you have to say, 'Oops, sorry guys.' That's how you earn respect and that's how you show you will actually improve."

Verstappen has already shown he has the skill behind the wheel necessary to compete in F1, and he will have many years to earn the respect of Villeneuve and others.

Villeneuve in the Montreal paddock.
Villeneuve in the Montreal paddock.Matthew Walthert

After our interview, although it is after six o'clock and Villeneuve has been at the track all day, he does not leave immediately—someone else is waiting to talk with him.

At his home race, there is always someone else—someone who wants a photo or to shake his hand, or an old friend who wants to chat.

And so Canada's first and only F1 world champion, son of a man considered one of the greatest pure racers to ever live, stops patiently in the fading light. His day will last just a bit longer.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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