Villeneuve, Jacques (Profile)
Braving the 42-degree heat of the infield at Michigan International Speedway, a crowd has gathered by the tailgate of a huge blue-and-white semitrailer in the garage area behind the pits. The fans' premium-priced tickets give them access to the garage and pit areas on practice days before the Marlboro 500, an IndyCar race in Brooklyn, Mich., and they are anxious to see the man who leads all drivers on America's premier racing circuit. The object of their affections, Jacques Villeneuve, is inside the trailer, going over last-minute details with his team before practice. When it is time to head to the car, he tugs on his multicolored helmet and walks smack into the middle of the swarm, taking pens from outstretched hands and signing autographs without slowing his brisk pace to the pits. The fans struggle to keep up, but for a lucky few, it is worth it. Sweating from the chase, Nathan Rodriguez, a 17-year-old high-school senior from Battle Creek, Mich., proudly displays a Villeneuve signature on a program. "He's young, he's fast and he's a nice guy," Rodriguez explains. "And hey, he won the Indy 500, man. The 500!"
Talk about hot. Villeneuve, a dashing, blue-eyed native of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., has zoomed to the pinnacle of North American motor racing, and is being chased by teams, sponsors and fans on two continents. In less than two years on the intensely competitive PPG IndyCar World Series circuit, the 24-year-old has already won five races, four of them this season. With only four races left in the season, including the Molson Indy in Vancouver on Sept. 3, he held a commanding 30-point lead in the series championship over American veteran Bobby Rahal. In the United States, Villeneuve is revered for winning the Indianapolis 500 last May at the venerable Brickyard, the hallowed ground of American racing. And in England last week, making his first test run of a Formula One car - which is lighter and more powerful than its IndyCar cousin - he served notice that he could be just as fast on the glamorous European circuit, the same stage on which his late father, Gilles, starred 15 years ago. Young Villeneuve is expected to decide whether or not to jump to the Formula One circuit within the next week. But for a man who makes his living at 300 km/h, he refuses to rush into anything. "There are more things involved than just driving," he says. "Right now, I have to make decisions with my head, not my heart."
In the end, though, Villeneuve's head and heart will likely take him to Europe - if not next season, then soon after. In 1978, his father, Gilles, moved Jacques, his younger sister, Melanie, and their mother, Joanne, from Berthierville, Que., to Monaco. And while Gilles was killed in a spectacular crash at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, the family remained in Monaco - and Jacques inherited a yearning to perform in Formula One. Still, Villeneuve's manager, Craig Pollock, says that his client - who next year will earn a reported $8 million in salary, winnings and endorsements if he stays in IndyCars - will only move if he can drive for a competitive team such as Williams-Renault, the team he tested with last week. "It would take a fantastic package to convince Jacques to jump," says Pollock. "We'll just wait and see."
If he does go, Canada will still be well represented in IndyCar racing. Toronto's Scott Goodyear, 35, who has two career wins in eight seasons, was leading this year's Indianapolis 500 until he incurred a penalty for passing the pace car just before a restart late in the race. And Paul Tracy, 26, of West Hill, Ont., has won 10 races in five years on the circuit, including two this season. Last week, Tracy signed a reported four-year, $13.6-million deal with the most powerful team in IndyCars, Marlboro Team Penske.
In the other North American racing classes, 20-year-old Greg Moore of Maple Ridge, B.C., has dominated the PPG-Firestone IndyLights Championship, winning eight of the first nine races this season, while Toronto's David Empringham, 29, is leading the Player's Ltd./Toyota Atlantic Championship for the third straight year. If Villeneuve and Empringham hold their positions, Canadians will sweep all three major open-wheeled racing classes in North America. "It is tough to find the kind of sponsorship money you need to go IndyCar racing," says Empringham, "so it is great that those guys [in IndyCars] have done so well. There is more media attention for all Canadian drivers."
Tucked away in an enclave for teams and sponsors, Villeneuve is relaxing in his luxuriously appointed motor home, removed from the loud, hot and malodorous hubbub of pre-race festivities. The reconditioned bus is meticulously clean - visitors must take off their shoes - and it is surprisingly quiet considering the roar of high-performance engines outside. On a sofa towards the back, 20-year-old Sandrine Gros d'Aillon is reading a P. D. James mystery. Gros d'Aillon, a third-year communications major at Montreal's Concordia University, met Villeneuve six years ago at a Canada Day party in Monaco, but they began dating only two years ago. "I had been racing in Japan and went to Monaco for a holiday," Villeneuve says. "We met and since then" - big exaggerated sigh - "it has been a love story."
As the racing world moves in for a closer look at the emerging phenom, Villeneuve has increasingly retreated. He has agreed to only a limited number of media interviews and personal appearances, and his crew members stencilled "Fan Evader" on the little scooter he uses to get around the infield. Without a lot of downtime, Gros d'Aillon says, he becomes too hyper. Villeneuve says he is not shutting out his public so much as he is honoring his first priority - to be prepared to race. "If you overdo it, the racing suffers and then you will be nothing," he says.
He is also fighting to keep a level head as his accomplishments mount. He is, his teammates all say, a "normal" guy. He is amused rather than insulted that the Aussies and Americans in the group teasingly call him "Jack," not "Jacques" (they call his publicist, Montrealer François Cartier, Frank Carter). And he has stayed away from the glitzy side of the business - the forced-smile sponsor parties and race receptions. "He is more afraid of the glamor than he is of the wall," Gros d'Aillon says.
Even in the pleasant surroundings of his motor home, Villeneuve cannot completely escape the responsibilities of his high-speed life. The next day's Marlboro 500 is on North America's fastest track, a two-mile oval on which he crashed a year before. And right after the race, he is scheduled to fly to England for the Williams-Renault test. The Indy-versus-Formula One question weighs heavily. "It's a life decision, although it's not as if, by moving to one side of the ocean, you can't come back," he says. "But when a big door opens, either you take it or it gets closed. So you have to make a good decision, not just for next year but for five years down to road."
Villeneuve adored his father, who died at age 30, when Jacques was 11. "I did not idolize him because he was a racer," he says. "Like any kid, I idolized him because he was my father." But the popular Gilles, who scored six Formula One victories in five seasons for Ferrari, was also demanding of his son, adding to the pressure that already went with their name. After his death, his legend grew, and the younger Villeneuve knows it is insurmountable. "I could never surpass what he has done," he says. "I could win 20 championships and he would still be out there in the stars."
Though not cocky, Villeneuve is emphatically his own man. Pollock, a former schoolteacher, first met his future client at the Swiss boarding school where Villeneuve was sent immediately after his father died. "He was the smallest kid in his class, but he was also cheekier, more clever and more intelligent than any of the other 11-year-olds," Pollock says. "He did not try to be the leader of the pack - he just was. And if there was trouble, he was in the middle of it. He just never seemed to get caught."
Villeneuve was eventually kicked out of his high school, but not for causing trouble. He was simply devoting too much time to racing. "I started racing when I was 17, so I skipped some of my youth," he says. "I don't regret it, but some of those university parties that I see in movies, they look like a lot of fun." In 1988, he began competing in an Italian touring car series. From 1989 to 1992, he drove in Formula Three circuits in Italy and Japan, finishing as high as second in the drivers' standings in a substandard car.
His name and his Formula Three success attracted the attention of Barry Green, a veteran IndyCar manager, and Player's Ltd., a major sponsor of Canadian drivers. With Villeneuve, they finished third in the 1993 Player's Ltd./Toyota Atlantic Championship in North America. Green, an Australian who has racing roots in Formula One, had previously managed successful Indy teams and drivers such as Rahal and Al Unser Jr., and he saw Villeneuve's potential. He convinced Player's Ltd., the sports-marketing arm of Montreal-based Imperial Tobacco, to be the major sponsor of an IndyCar team - a tall order considering that it takes about $13 million to race one car for a single season. Jean-Claude Torchia, head of Player's Ltd.'s motor-sports program, says the rookie team and its rookie driver outperformed everyone's expectations. Villeneuve finished second in his first-ever Indianapolis 500, scored his first win at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., and was named rookie of the year for his sixth-place finish in the drivers' standings. "As soon as we started testing in IndyCars, I knew Jack was something special," Green says. "But I had no idea we would do as well as we have."
Green's team bears his mark. "It's the Aussie influence," Green says. "We like to have fun, but we also like to get things done." Crew members are easygoing and quick to laugh, but they also regularly win pit-stop competitions and give Villeneuve a competitive car for each racetrack's conditions. "The biggest factor in speed is the setup of the car," Villeneuve says. "It's not just having the technology to go fast, you have to have the right mix of people to make things work."
Among Villeneuve's talents is his ability to maintain his concentration amid the mayhem of racing. "When I get started on something, I get focused and that's all that exists," he says. Gros d'Aillon agrees. "When he's with me or his friends, he is out-going, his usual self," she says. "But at the track, in the car, he's in a world of his own." Staying focused served him well at Indianapolis, where with canny driving and fleet pit stops, he overcame a two-lap penalty for overtaking the pace car during a caution early in the race; the fact that he had to drive five more miles than the second-place finisher makes his victory all the more astonishing. "It shows his strength of character," says Pollock. "He is under a lot of pressure, yet under that pressure he reacts positively."
As an adult, Villeneuve has retained some of his cheekiness and has a rascal's smile. He is also refreshingly direct. Before the Molson Indy in Toronto last month, he was unapologetically critical of the constricted street course on which the race was being run. And he is disdainful of the usual sports clichés: at a recent race, a reporter asked if, having built a substantial lead in the PPG Cup standings, he would play it safe or continue to give 110 per cent to win each race. "I cannot give 110 per cent," replied Villeneuve, his blue eyes searing. "I can give no more than 100 per cent."
Racing, he says, is a constant learning process. "You are never completely at the top," he says. "There is always room for improvement. Even if you won the last race, you still have to work as hard the next week because there are 15 or 20 cars within a half a second of one another." Whether or not he is ready to tackle the more demanding Formula One cars, Villeneuve certainly has the off-track tools for the European circuit. He is fluent in Italian and, of course, can switch easily between English and French. He also has that marketable name. Gordon Kirby, U.S. editor of London-based Autosport magazine, says Villeneuve already has a following in Europe. "Fans there are very much aware of his accomplishments in Indy racing," Kirby says. "And there's a great deal of interest in him coming to Formula One - more than any other Indy driver."
No matter how far away he goes, Villeneuve remains a proud Canadian. Although he and his mother and sister have all learned perfect French accents in their years in Monaco, he says, when they get together they revert to Québécois, "as if we lived in Quebec all our lives." Regarding the nationalist aspirations of his home province, he says every country gets too caught up in its own problems. "When you are outside, you do not get so involved," he says. "I am Canadian, and that's it." He is also his father's son, a legacy to bear but also to honor. If he does sign to race in Formula One, Villeneuve will continue to drive as he has on the Indy circuit - with his father's No. 27, and a little red Maple Leaf, on the side of his car.
Maclean's August 14, 1995