Before Juan Montoya started practicing the art of public insouciance, before road course-bred Dan Wheldon absorbed the data sheets and determinedly made himself into a hard and brave oval driver and before Kimi Raikkonen became a “try-anything-once” adventurist, there was Jacques Villeneuve, combining all those qualities.
Actually, Villeneuve didn’t shrug off everything. He was never afraid to say what he thinks – nor correct those who read him wrong. After he drove his late, legendary father’s 1978 Ferrari 312T3 at Goodwood in 2004, I said to him: “You’ve always distanced himself from your father’s legacy, so what caused the change of heart?”
He fixed me with his arresting blue-eyed stare, came about an inch away from jabbing me in the chest with his forefinger. “No! That’s what the media have assumed and have written,” he said firmly, “but no one’s actually asked me about how I’ve dealt with that, so I’ve never talked about it.”
Slightly thrown by this reaction, but realizing he was correct – I’d based my opinion on what I’d read – I stumbled out a “Well, the perception was…” and then stopped as I saw one eyebrow arching and that crooked smile developing.
“Right…so don’t believe everything you read,” he said, “and don’t write it unless you’ve asked me yourself…”
Fair point, well made, Monsieur! So after a good five-minute chat about that lovely Ferrari (but no longer being brave enough to ask about the emotions he’d felt) I walked away chastened, but smirking. He’d just gained himself a fan, simply by being Jacques.
I’d already been a fan of J. Villeneuve the driver, I have to admit. Indy 500 winner and Indy car champion in 1995. Pole position on his Formula 1 debut in ’96 and four wins that year; then seven wins and the World Championship in ’97. Amazing. He’d always looked fast, fearless and opportunistic even when fighting F1’s incumbent geniuses, Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen, intimidated by no one and nothing. What I admired most about him though, was the way he fought so hard in cars that were either way off the pace (Williams in 1998) or permanently destined for a DNF (BAR in 1999).
Since walking away from F1 in the middle of the 2006 season, JV has raced in all three top NASCAR categories, Brazilian stock cars, sports cars (he finished second at Le Mans for Peugeot), V8 Supercars and he recently signed up to race a Peugeot in World Rallycross. But few of us ever expected him to return to the Indy 500, 19 years after he won it and so that has to be the topic of the first question…
RACER: What enticed you back to the Indy 500 and who contacted who?
JV: It kind of happened together. In 2012, I’d quite closely watched Rubens Barrichello move from F1 to IndyCar, and last year I watched some more races, and IndyCar looked very exciting: I really wished I was there. After the U.S. open-wheel split I’d been quite vocal about what I thought of the category, but over the last few years they’ve been actively rebuilding it, getting back to how it used to be – improved tracks, variety of tracks and the increased level of professionalism. So I told my manager that the IndyCar Series looked good and I wanted to be part of it once more.
Then a good opportunity came up with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which was obviously finding some real success, and I thought yes, the Indy 500 would be fun. Indy is also a good one because there’s so much running – Ha! Theoretically there would be if not for the weather – so there would be a good opportunity to get up to speed.
Without wishing to pump your ego, do you feel that having a former winner like yourself coming back to Indy is part of the IndyCar Series’ rebuilding process?
Hmmm… I can’t say that crossed my mind, no, but now that you mention it, a race like this that emphasizes its heritage with past winners would make sense. I suppose my name could add credibility, yes, even if my win was 19 years ago! Winning the F1 championship may help, too.
Drivers and team owners say that there’s no other race where finishing second means less than at Indy. Would you agree and if so, does that mean you’ve come back with a genuine belief you can win?
Yes I do agree with that point of view – the “500” is part of the IndyCar championship but it’s also a standalone race, the biggest race in the world, and so being second just means being first of the losers: it doesn’t do anything for you. Having said that, you also need to look at circumstances: in 1994, when I finished second here, I could look at that as a good achievement because I was a rookie. And to be honest, in 1995 if we’d finished second instead of winning, we could still have been quite satisfied because we’d come back from two laps down. So how you judge a second place depends on how you got there.
OK, once you’ve won it, second can’t really be good enough the next year. But if you’re coming back after 19 years and you keep your nose clean all day and finish up near the front, that’s different.
Understood. So would you be satisfied with, say a top-three this year?
For a few minutes, definitely! Again, there are situations when even just a top 10 would be very good. If I end up with a very quick car and I only get a top 10, then no, that’s not satisfying; that means something went wrong. At the moment, we haven’t really been quick enough even though I’ve been running flat-out; there’s a couple of mile-per-hour missing, and we don’t know where. I haven’t really had a chance to run in traffic yet, because every time I go out there to do that, the cars I’m going to follow go into the pits! That’s just a timing thing. So we’ve got a few unknowns which include not having a full picture of where we can run. Back in ’94 and ’95, I knew we could win the race because we were fast all month – traffic or no traffic. But still, this is one of those races where it’s not always the quickest car that wins: it can go to the guy who’s there at the end and uses his head.
In the intervening 19 years, is the biggest change the fact that there’s so little difference between terminal speed on the straights and apex speed in the turns?
Yes, that’s correct. Now we drive around here a little bit like NASCAR on superspeedways. Not quite, but almost. If you’re running alone, you’re flat on the gas all the way around, and even when you’re behind someone, you can stay flat unless you’re sucked up a little too fast into the turn-in point. So the cars have less power, and as soon as you back off, you lose momentum. In ’94 and ’95, the only flat-out lap I did was in qualifying and actually, one of my four qualifying laps in ’95 was not quite flat all the way around. In the race, you were coming a bit out of the gas and really driving through the corner, always on the edge: now it’s a little bit strange, because you’re not sure where the edge is – you’re just flat.
So it’s a different way of driving, where you play with the lines a little to see if maybe you can gain a half a mile per hour by being higher or lower in certain corners. But mainly it’s a different approach because of how you have to deal with traffic. Timing is everything, working out where to pass without losing momentum. You cannot afford to lift or you’re history. The speeds are very similar to what they were in the mid-1990s but how you achieve that speed is significantly different.
Also, it doesn’t feel so fast. At Rookie Orientation, it was a shock to the system, I admit – everything was blurry, everything was fast, and I was thinking, “Hmmm, what if something goes wrong with the car here, or here?” and although you know the car can do it, it takes a while to go flat. You think, OK, time to go flat but then it’s, “Oh, why did my foot lift there?” It’s a kind of inbuilt self-preservation thing.
Then when we came back for the practice, after 10 laps I was used to it again; it was fine, and I was flat all the way around. You could almost do it with your eyes closed and just one hand on the wheel. It doesn’t feel fast anymore – until you hit the wall, I guess – but like they say, there are two types of driver here: those who have hit the wall and those who are gonna hit the wall. And I’ve already hit it, so that’s fine!
I guess if you’re flat all the way around, when you’re missing speed, it’s harder to work out where it’s gone, because there’s not a lot more you can do from the basic driving point of view.
Yeah, exactly. If the formula had us where we were lifting, then we’d be in control because we’d be feeling where the edge is, feeling where we could make up time. But if you’re just going flat and then turn, it’s very hard to know how far you are from the limit. I’ve been sideways a couple of times this week, and the second time I left some black skids, so that was a good sideways, and I thought, “OK, let’s come back from that a little bit!”
The dirty air behind a whole bunch of traffic is probably the one thing you’ve not really encountered in all the other forms of racing you’ve done since you were last here. Is that what you anticipate will be hardest to get reaccustomed to?
Yes. Strange thing is, subconsciously I was thinking back to how unstable the cars used to be here, and also in Formula 1 where it was very hard to run close to someone, so the few times I was behind other cars this week, I knew I was going to lose downforce and I kind of overreacted to it, backed off too much. It takes a while to push through that mental barrier, and although I’m sure I will be fine in the race where you just follow what everyone else is doing, I really didn’t want to stick it in the wall in practice. The cars are shaking in the turbulence, just like the old cars, but somehow they don’t seem to be affected too much and that’s just illogical compared with my past experience, so it took a while to reassure your brain, “No problem, just keep your foot down.”
If you’re closely following another car through a turn, do you still run a half-lane down or up so that you’ve at least got some clean air going over a one front wing, half the bodywork and the rear wing?
Yes it helps, but it’s not as important as before because you can even go up near the gray and use a totally different line and you’ll still keep up. Even in traffic, you can follow directly behind someone through a turn and just keep going until it becomes too much and then correct it. Very strange. And to get to that confident point of keeping your foot in the gas at those moments, you need to get used to it…or you need to be someone who hasn’t hit the wall yet.
When you run here, are you the sort of driver who sets up their steering so you’re holding the wheel at a slightly skewed angle along the straights, so that when you’re going into the banked turns, you’re straightening the wheel up?
Yeah, like this [he holds an imaginary steering wheel with his hands at a 10-to-4 position]. That’s what feels natural to me, although I know some guys who don’t like that: they just like it normal. But these cars don’t pivot, don’t turn by themselves as much as the old cars because I think there was more stagger back in the ’90s; you have to actually drive the car a bit more through the corner and can’t let it turn on its own so much.
Don’t get me wrong – none of these changes we’ve discussed are night-and-day different, in my opinion; it doesn’t feel like almost 20 years have passed in terms of how the cars have evolved.
But it must be very different from the Reynard 95I (pictured, LEFT), surely?
Not as much as you might think; it feels like maybe four or five years on from those cars. Like I say though, more practice in traffic is what I need and maybe then I will find bigger differences. I don’t know, though.
Assuming this whole event remains a reasonably pleasant experience for you, has it fired up your interest in doing some more races?
Oh yeah, of course. I just love racing, love being behind the wheel.
For example, would you be interested in maybe doing the Sunoco Triple Crown, adding Pocono and Fontana?
Well, this is the jewel, the diamond on the crown. Unless I was doing the whole championship, there would be nothing to gain by doing those others and anyway, I don’t think I’m free, because I’m doing Rallycross and also TV work covering Formula 1. Actually, I’m busy almost every weekend of the season after this race.
That’s cool – you’d be interested in doing the whole championship?
Definitely. The way the IndyCar Series is developing, the way the cars are, the way the overall driver standard is improving with each year, I’d definitely like to run a whole season again. This series is rough and tough and demanding: that’s the way I’ve always liked my racing.
Are there any days when you feel your age …even without rude journalists reminding you of it?
Ha! No, not yet. The good thing is, when I got into F1 in 1996, I started training – which I never did before – and every year I’d train harder, harder and harder. And luckily I got into racing at a time when that was more important and I think it gave all of us from that era an extra 10 years. Also, because I was in it at a time when racing was a little bit safer, I have never broken a bone or anything, which is one of those things that can prematurely age you.
To be honest, most of the issue with age is losing the drive to succeed, the hunger, the need to push the limit. Actually, you see that when you come here. The first day feels fast, OK, fine; but if it still feels fast after two or three days, then maybe it’s time to retire.
Remember, the other thing is that with age comes experience which is a great tool – your judgment of situations, your anticipation, knowing exactly that if you do this then the car will do this or won’t do this… The car isn’t ahead of you; you are in control of it. So the knowledge and feel doesn’t go away with age; the opposite – it increases. What will decrease is the desire and willingness to take opportunities – are you gonna keep your foot down and go for that pass or not? That’s what goes away with age.
But no, I’m definitely not at that stage.