Jacques Villeneuve (Profile) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Jacques Villeneuve (Profile)

In the select fraternity of race-car drivers - men who squeeze behind the wheel of the "tub" and turn a skeleton of thin carbon fibre into a howling, fuel-slurping, rubber-sizzling bullet - talk among the brethren sometimes turns to fear.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on June 16, 1997

Villeneuve, Jacques

In the select fraternity of race-car drivers - men who squeeze behind the wheel of the "tub" and turn a skeleton of thin carbon fibre into a howling, fuel-slurping, rubber-sizzling bullet - talk among the brethren sometimes turns to fear. "Of course we talk about it," says Jacques Villeneuve, the 26-year-old Quebec driver who leads the pack as the road show known as the Formula One World Championship arrives in Montreal for its June 15 race. "Fear is not a taboo subject with drivers, and neither is death, though not everyone talks about that. But I believe you have to laugh about everything in life," says the quietly confident young man who right now just may be Canada's most famous international athlete. "And I have never yet felt fear in racing."

"Well, I've felt it," says Jackie Stewart, the best driver in the world during his day in the late-1960s and '70s. "I think we all feel fear, if we're honest." Stewart is back in Formula One now, this time as a team owner. On this late May morning, he has returned to the rolling countryside of Fife in southern Scotland to unveil a statue to local hero Jim Clark, a former world champion driver and Stewart's friend and rival, killed in a crash while racing in 1968. Stewart recalls eyeballing death himself during one rainy race in Rome, when he overtook another driver to get out from behind his spray. "I pulled out to pass," says Stewart, turning his hands as if showing how he drives the family van, "and poof, there's an ambulance on the track going 50, 60 miles an hour - and I'm going 160. Don't tell me I didn't get a fright! You don't have lingering fear. It's more a major moment of 'Oh shit.' "

Formula One may bill itself as the thinking man's motor sport, but the risk of death still provides it with its essential drama. Without risk, drivers would just be projectiles stamped with corporate logos. With it, they are hi-tech gladiators. "It's a callous statement, but I've heard it said at the highest levels of the sport that Ayrton Senna's death was good for F1 commercially," says Matt Bishop, editor of Britain's monthly F1 Racing magazine, referring to the Brazilian world champion who was killed in 1994. "Racing fans need heroes. And they need to know that even the best can die." It is telling that three years after his death, Senna's cult following outstrips that of any living driver. Senna, agrees Stewart, has become "bigger than life, bigger than reality. And sometimes," he says sadly, "you have to die for that to happen."

Jacques Villeneuve knows all about competing against the legends of the quick and the dead. His runaway victory in Barcelona on May 25 was his seventh Grand Prix win in less than two full seasons - one more career victory than his late father, Gilles, accumulated over five years in Formula One. Gilles Villeneuve was an acrobat behind the wheel who lived to drive and seemed to toss away the calibrations of risk. He was thrown from his somersaulting, blood-red Ferrari and killed while qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, thereby entering Formula One's pantheon of deities. Comparisons are inevitable, especially when Jacques returns to race on the Gilles Villeneuve Circuit in Montreal. It comes with the genes. "That's the negative side about racing in Montreal, but it's been like that since I started so I don't really care any more," said Villeneuve this month after final tests of his Williams-Renault car in England. "I understand why people ask those questions, but I've never felt I was racing because of my father."

The conventional wisdom in Grand Prix paddocks is that while Jacques may lack his father's daring, he is just as good a driver - and certainly a smarter one. "Gilles was an extravagant driver who drove his backside off - in a sometimes irresponsible fashion," recalls Stewart. "I've seen Gilles drive a car with two wheels missing after an accident, when his mind told him to keep racing. Jacques has better mind management than that. His head would click into gear," and Stewart snaps his fingers to make the point: " 'Hello. Two wheels are off. Let's park it.' "

But many people still wish for the son to reincarnate the father's bravado. Even uncle Jacques Villeneuve, Gilles' brother, has complained that his nephew lacks aggressiveness, misses his father's pure passion for having to be the quickest driver on the track, and wins only because the Williams car is the best in the business. "Yeah, yeah, I know what he says," replies the son with a wince. He is sitting in the paddock at quayside in Monaco on the weekend of the principality's famous race. "No, I don't live and breathe the sport," he responds after a pause. "I live and breathe the competition and the edge. I never grew up saying: 'Ah, I want to be an F1 driver.' I grew up saying: 'I need that edge, that speed.' It could come from anywhere, from any sport."

Villeneuve was a talented skier but has acknowledged he lacked the discipline to train hard enough to become a pro - and was always destined to drive. He was born in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu just outside Montreal, but his father moved to France's Cote d'Azur when Jacques was 7. Along with his mother, Joann, and younger sister, Melanie, the Villeneuves travelled Europe's racing circuit in a motor home plastered with Montreal Canadiens stickers before moving to Monaco in 1981. After his father's death, Jacques was sent to a Swiss boarding school, though he returned to Quebec each summer. But Monaco remains home. Canadian businesswoman Lynn Beauregard remembers being a passenger in a car with a teenage Villeneuve driving, bombing up Monaco's narrow, steep streets after a Canada Day party. "I thought he was out of his mind," she recalls with a laugh. "He got offended when I put my seat-belt on."

It seems strange, taunting trouble this way. One wonders: how can the slightly built young man, with unkempt hair and slouching posture that makes him look like he would be more at home playing computer chess, rattle down straightaways in the sport that killed his father? How can he worry his mother like this? "I never heard that phrase in my family," he says, surprised at the question. "And I feel lucky that I never did. My family allowed me to risk getting hurt - if I was stupid enough. So I learned how not to." Because more than anything, says Jacques Villeneuve in his poised, clipped manner as he casually munches a peach, "you do not want to get hurt."

Defying death certainly sells tickets. Formula One is now a multibillion-dollar business, attracting bigger worldwide television audiences than any sporting event other than the Olympics and soccer's World Cup - and those are staged just once every four years. Formula One runs 16 Grand Prix races every year, between March and October. Its Big Top is Europe, where the sport began and where fans see themselves as motor sport's sophisticates compared with what they snobbishly regard as the beer-guzzling gearheads who patronize North American car racing.

But beyond soccer, it is perhaps the only sport with a truly global reach. Formula One is established in Latin and North America. And it now seems set to explode into Asia, where advertising laws and social customs conveniently welcome the tobacco companies, which use speeding cars as sexy promotional vehicles for their brands. (The Asian invasion has begun: Jackie Stewart's car design includes the requisite tartan swoosh and an ad saying: "Visit Malaysia.") Financial rewards for drivers have risen in step. Villeneuve's estimated annual income is about $10 million - high, but not as great as German driver Michael Schumacher, who earns more than $30 million in keeping with his reputation as the circuit's most skilled driver.

As Formula One grows richer from its fat TV contracts, however, many longtime fans lament the increasing professionalism that wraps its stars in a cocoon of media and sponsors. The days when rich dilettantes would show up to race their latest motor toy are gone. Formula One has become a hi-tech showcase, where teams hire aerospace engineers for design improvements and guard their trade secrets the way NASA hid rocket blueprints from the Soviets. Even the suspiciously blond groupies, once a Grand Prix staple, have been chased away from the paddocks in the necessary clampdown on security.

Yet there is more that is checkered in Formula One's prospects than the finish line flags. Critics complain the circuit lacks the charismatic personalities and the stirring rivalries on which every sport relies for drama (for more evidence, see men's tennis). The races have become too predictable, with too little passing. While everyone accepts that a great driver can shave tenths of a second off a lap time, too often an average driver can ride the best car to victory (the complainers point to Briton Damon Hill, last year's world champion driving for Williams-Renault, who has yet to finish a race this year behind the wheel of the new Arrows cars). In short, many races have become circuses without suspense.

The criticism comes at a sensitive time for Formula One, which is actually a private business controlled by British entrepreneur Bernard Ecclestone. London's Sunday Times estimates Eccelestone's fortune at $618 million, making him the 58th richest person in Britain, and he stands to shoot higher by taking Formula One public. A rumored $3-billion share offering is expected on the market within weeks. Ecclestone asserts that Formula One's value lies with its television contracts. He paints a lucrative future from selling pay-per-view packages, which allow viewers, via interactive remote control, to zap from one camera position to another. Not everyone is convinced. Early subscription to pay-per-view has been disappointing, says one City of London broker handling the share issue. "You have to be the kind of geek who wants to see the data on lap times, the driver's view, and [team boss] Frank Williams in the paddock wearing his headphones all at the same time," says the broker. "How many of those guys are out there?"

So it was most unwelcome when Villeneuve chose this spring to trash some proposed design changes in the cars for next year. "Ridiculous," and "a joke," were how Villeneuve described plans to put grooves in all tires and make the cars narrower, all in the name of slowing them down for safety. He said that if Formula One "becomes boring to drive" ("by that I mean less speed and danger," Villeneuve explained to Maclean's), he might switch back to North America's CART circuit, where he won the vaunted Indianapolis 500 and the over-all drivers' championship in 1995.

Having a top driver dump on his sport roused enough concern in the boardroom for Max Mosley, F1's equivalent of a commissioner, to lash back at Villeneuve before last month's race in Monaco. "The objective is not for it to be fun to drive an F1 car," said the articulate Mosley, a lawyer who is the son of Britain's infamous 1930s fascist Oswald Mosley. "If an F1 driver wants to have fun he can get plenty of it when he is not driving by spending all the millions he is earning. It is my job to be concerned about safety and to be sure that when Jacques is 50 years old, he should be able to greet me and say: 'You were probably right, Max, because I am still here.' " It is natural for drivers to want more power, more speed, said Mosley. "But the romantic ideal of living on the limit and risking one's life is all very well," he added gravely, "until someone gets killed."

Beyond Mosley's response, Villeneuve's outspokenness provoked more of the muttered criticism that is occasionally directed at the Quebecer. In the past, the European press has sniffed at his sloppy dress sense - baggy pants and untucked shirts - and complained about his less-than-exuberant persona. "Photographers really dread a Villeneuve win," says F1 Racing's Bishop. "Schumacher sprays champagne around forever, but Villeneuve is two quick spurts and he's off the podium." And some criticize the Canadian for spending too much non-driving time away from the paddock, dabbling at computer games when he should be working with the engineers on his car. "I've never been into cars mechanically," he says unapologetically. "I understand how the car works. But I couldn't build an engine. And I couldn't fix one."

Some observers think Villeneuve's outburst may come back to haunt him. "Mosley and Ecclestone control the sport so tightly, and guys don't take them on very often," says Rod Campbell, a Canadian with long experience in Formula One who now handles marketing for Ford's racing programs. Campbell is a Villeneuve booster, but warns that Jacques has increased the pressure to win the world championship as is expected of the number 1 Williams driver. "This could bite him," says Campbell. "If he doesn't win the championship, he'll be devalued in the sport's eyes because of his attitude towards it."

The Monaco Grand Prix is Formula One's Wimbledon. They have been running races through the principality's twisting downtown streets, crammed between the seafront and the mountain, since 1929. "You can't really race here," says Villeneuve of his home course. "There's no room to overtake." But swish crowds still come for the weekend's social spectacle. Elegant bars overlooking the Mediterranean resound with foreign accents and the clink of champagne glasses. Race-day breakfast in the deluxe Hôtel de Paris costs $200. And crowds converge on hotel parking lots to peer at Europe's finest sports cars: brightly colored Ferraris and Lamborghinis with front ends lower to the ground than a vacuum cleaner. When the driver of a four-door rental car has the temerity to toot his horn to get through the gawkers, a British voice yells out: "Relax buddy. You're driving a Fiesta."

The atmosphere at Monaco has changed along with F1. Fatal accidents ended the days when spectators could line the sidewalks behind simple guardrails (Monaco's most famous car crash - Princess Grace's fatal plunge off a cliff - occurred just outside the principality's borders). "You used to be so close that tiny pieces of hot rubber from the tires would hit you as they went by," recalls 65-year-old Rosie Balbo with an endearing, crinkly smile. Balbo ran the Chatham Bar from 1949 until it closed last year. The bar was better-known as Rosie's, and was one of the places where drivers used to gather to relax. "Drivers used to mix more, they were friends then," says Rosie. "Mechanics from one team would help other guys out if somebody needed a tool. Now, it's all professional secrets and money, money, money. The soul is gone, and that's a pity."

In a tent set up in the harborside paddock to block out any snoopy competitors, the Williams engineers fine-tune Villeneuve's car. The gleaming beast sits on an elevated stand, seemingly more a patient in an operating theatre than a machine in a garage. Laptop computers crunch data. No oil streaks the blue shorts and T-shirts of the Williams engineers. The car snorts to life when they fire up the engine, and every press of the accelerator emits raging screams as if wounded animals were being gored.

Nearby, Frank Williams uses a pause in the racket to talk about Villeneuve. "The level of technology in the cars is increasing every year, and Jacques is learning how to exercise his brain and make the engine and the technology work for him," says Williams. "But the bottom line is the seat of the pants. He is using his brain and courage to suck out what it takes to get around the track in that extra tenth of a second."

Villeneuve still complains that the Williams team sometimes pays more heed to the data than the driver. "The guys on the team are sometimes too computer-oriented," he said in Monaco, where his longstanding girlfriend, Sandrine Gros d'Aillon, a film production assistant, had flown in from Montreal to watch him race. "I love computers and technology but don't want to mix them with everything. Too much is taken away from the human side, from the feel."

A steady rain was falling two days later when the drivers lined up to start the Monaco race. Most drivers chose to run on treaded tires, giving them added traction on the wet pavement. But the Williams team relied on a weather forecast predicting the rain would stop. They stayed with "slicks," the bald tires that add speed on dry surfaces by putting more rubber on the road. When the green light flashed, Villeneuve slipped and spun as if he were on ice, falling quickly to the back of the pack. He never finished the race, retiring midway through after sliding into a guardrail.

Imagine a Canadian getting caught with the wrong tires on his car.

Until Villeneuve, Canada had a limited history in Formula One. George Eaton raced for a while but is better-known for piloting the now-troubled department store chain. In the mid-1970s, Walter Wolf operated a team which won the 1977 Monaco Grand Prix with Jody Schecter at the wheel. In Canada, Wolf is best-remembered as the shadowy figure who helped fund Brian Mulroney's conquest of the Tory party in the early 1980s. He still travels the world on business (his Wolf brand cigarettes are big in Bosnia), but he has long left the Formula One world. "Walter didn't like working with sponsors," Rod Campbell, who was on the Wolf team, recalls with a laugh. "He thought their logos ruined the look of his cars."

Villeneuve is clear that he considers himself Canadian. ("Would you be proud to come from Monaco, where the claim to fame is a tax haven?" asked a young French businessman who says he lives in the principality only to be with his girlfriend.) He is also the latest athlete in a line from the Crazy Canuck downhillers to Canada's ferocious hockey players who challenge the myth that Canadians are a cautious, colorless people. "We're a crazy population - six months a year under snow and 40 below makes you stronger," says Villeneuve, acknowledging that he grew up in a "crazier family" than most. "When you grow up in the countryside," he said, recalling those Quebec summers, "it's easy to find an old motorbike and fix it up and just go nuts."

Skier Steve Podborski understands the rush Villeneuve gets from speed. Podborski met Gilles Villeneuve on a French ski hill in 1981, and the two became friends. He remembers 10-year-old Jacques whipping him in a video game of Space Invaders. "I was quite sure the drivers were crazy, and they thought we were nuts to be hanging it out in a skintight suit and a brain bucket," says Podborski, who now lives in Whistler, B.C., and still races the senior downhill circuit. "But what 99.99 per cent of the population doesn't understand is that, at that level, we know exactly what we're doing. Guys like Jacques are elite athletes." ("Yeah, drivers nowadays are athletes," Villeneuve says. "When I jog, I jog a good hour. And pushing.")

"They're the best," Podborski continues. "Going that fast is normal to them. They have that whatever-it-is to miss trouble. They have," he says, "the magic that lets them pull it off."

But, of course, sometimes the magic deserts them. It abandoned Gilles Villeneuve that day in Zolder. And it was not around for two-time world champion Jim Clark at Hockenheim, Germany, in 1968. "That day in Hockenheim has taken one of Scotland's greatest sons," Jackie Stewart told the hushed townspeople of tiny Kilmany who gathered to unveil the statue to Clark. The statue's pose was taken from his mother's favorite photograph, showing Clark, hands shoved in his uniform pockets, striding through the pit lane. Afterwards, Stewart and his wife, Helen, lingered so people could take their picture standing beside the image of their long-gone friend. "We used to have so much fun, the three of us," said Helen Stewart, poignantly touching the statue on the shoulder as cameras snapped and children pushed forward looking for autographs. Clark was 32 when he died. "Oh, I wish I could just walk with him again," she said.

After the debacle at Monaco, Villeneuve stormed back with a crushing victory in Barcelona to retake the lead in the drivers' championship from Schumacher. He won despite driving on tires that were blistering from the hot track, careful to push the car fast enough to stay first, but not to speeds that would have shredded the tires.

Everyone agreed that he won by driving smart. He showed no desire to become another dead legend.

Canadians Flying Checkered Flags

When Greg Moore roared across the finish line in Milwaukee on June 1 to win the Miller 200, he did more than just become the youngest-ever winner on the Championship Auto Racing Teams circuit. The 22-year-old from Maple Ridge, B.C., extended a remarkable streak by Canada's top drivers in 1997. Going into last weekend's Detroit Grand Prix, Canadians had won the last four CART (formerly IndyCar) races, the last Formula One event and, with Paul Tracy's three CART triumphs and Jacques Villeneuve's three Formula One victories, more than half of all races run this season in the world's top two open-wheeled racing series. What gives? "I really don't know," Moore says with a laugh. "I would like to say that it is something in the water."

Hardly. Canada's top drivers possess the four essential components to winning - natural talent, experience, dependable cars and teams with plenty of money. Moore, Tracy of West Hill, Ont., and CART rookie Patrick Carpentier of Joliette, Que., all honed their skills in domestic series such as Formula Ford 2000 before moving up. "A lot of our drivers got opportunities to showcase their talents that way," Moore says. But with team budgets running from $10 million a year in CART to as much as $100 million in Formula One, even good drivers go begging if they do not have sponsorship. Toronto's Scott Goodyear, for instance, has won two CART races and twice finished second at the vaunted Indianapolis 500, but the 38-year-old has struggled to secure steady employment since his backer, Mackenzie Financial Corp., dropped out of racing after 1993.

Villeneuve, meanwhile, trained on minor circuits in Europe and Japan before landing Player's Ltd. support to run in North America. After Villeneuve jumped to Formula One, the tobacco company opted to back Moore, Carpentier and five other Canadian drivers on the Indy Lights and Formula Atlantic circuits. Tracy, 28, who has 13 CART titles to his name and drives for the powerful Marlboro Team Penske, says that on some teams, promotional work is as critical to a driver's success as race results. "They look for someone who is likable and can get along with the sponsors," he says.

Nationality, of course, means nothing on the track. "When someone is in front of you," says Moore, "you want to beat them, no matter where they're from." Still, Canada's CART trio has a chance to win a collective trophy - for the country whose drivers accumulate the most points over the season. "It would be great at the end of the year to win the Nations Cup because there are only three of us and maybe six Americans and eight Brazilians," Tracy said last week from his home in Parker, Ariz. "That would be a real achievement."

Maclean's June 16, 1997