Villeneuve, Jacques: Maclean's 1995 Honor Roll
In the early-morning light, the craggy peaks of the Serra de Sintra mountains glowed amber against the pale blue sky. Nearby, fishing boats from Cascais headed into the Atlantic. And in between, Jacques Villeneuve was making a terrible racket. With his Williams-Renault wailing as only a Formula One car can, the native of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., was ripping around the twisty Autódromo do Estoril during a late-November test at the site of the Portuguese Grand Prix. Accelerating out of the final turn, on his way to a speed in excess of 300 km/h, he felt something in his rear suspension snap. The car immediately pitched sideways, threatening to spin out, but in a split second Villeneuve corrected the slide with a deft twitch of his steering wheel. He never even took his foot off the accelerator. "I knew it was a good lap, so I didn't want to lift," he says over lunch, grinning his wide Villeneuve grin. Was it unnerving to be going sideways at 250 km/h? "No. That was exciting."
These are heady days for Villeneuve. Dashing, single and rich, the 24-year-old has an apartment in Monaco and travels the world in style. His 1995 accomplishments would make a good career: he won four races and captured North America's most prestigious title, the IndyCar drivers' championship. One of those victories came in the sport's biggest event, the Indianapolis 500. And even before the North American season ended, he ensured a thrilling 1996 when he signed a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract to drive for Williams, one of the top three teams on the glamorous Formula One circuit.
There, however, Villeneuve steps into the shadow of his famous father, Gilles, a Formula One legend who died at age 30 in a crash in Belgium in 1982. And Ferrari's Michael Schumacher, reflecting a common European sentiment, bluntly states that the Canadian's IndyCar credentials are meaningless in F1. Villeneuve responded on the track, recording quicker lap times than any other driver at Estoril, including Schumacher, the reigning F1 champion. "There are a lot of people waiting to see how I do," he says. "But the team would not have taken me if it didn't think I could do the job."
Villeneuve is no starry-eyed rookie. He moved to Monaco with his family in 1978, and grew up around the sport. He is fluent in English, French and Italian, is comfortable in Europe and seems unaffected by wealth and success. In Monaco, the exotic-car capital of the world, he drives an old Camaro, and he prefers the company of a few close friends over the active celebrity scene. Because of him, next June's Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal will be a major media event, yet he refuses to turn it into a clichéd testimonial to his father, after whom the racecourse is named. "I would love to win in Montreal, sure," he says. "But I would like to win every race."
That competitiveness is what drives him to succeed on the world stage. As a teenage ski racer, he loved testing his limits; he switched to cars at 17 and found the thrill even greater. His ability to know and stay within his limits has spurred his meteoric rise, and that quality could save him from the terrible fate that claimed his father and others in his sport. "Of course, I want to be first," he says, "but to win the race, you have to finish the race."
Still, even the headiest driver needs a little luck. On a slick turn during a rainy day at Estoril, Villeneuve spun out. Astonishingly, the car stayed on the track, and as the young Canadian regained control, the sun burst through the clouds and a rainbow appeared, arching brilliantly over the racecourse. In 1995, it seems clear, Villeneuve has found his pot of gold.
Maclean's December 18, 1995