INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, May 22, 2001 - After winning races and championships around the world, Jacques Villeneuve is accustomed to finishing first. It may come as a surprise, then, that the Canadian ace was ecstatic to finish third in the Spanish...
INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, May 22, 2001 - After winning races and championships around the world, Jacques Villeneuve is accustomed to finishing first. It may come as a surprise, then, that the Canadian ace was ecstatic to finish third in the Spanish Grand Prix on April 29 earlier this year. But that all changes when you take into account the challenge and the struggle that 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner and the 1997 Formula One World Champion Villeneuve has gone through on his fight to get back on top.
Born in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, in 1971, Villeneuve grew up in Monaco after his famous father, F1 star Gilles Villeneuve, moved the family there from Canada. Jacques Villeneuve began his racing career in Canada in 1986 and raced in Italy and Japan before returning to North America in 1993. That year he won five races and the Rookie of the Year award in the Formula Atlantic series.
In 1994, he finished second in the Indianapolis 500 and earned the Rookie of the Year award, and also won his first CART race. The next season, Villeneuve won the Indianapolis 500 and the CART championship.
He continued his winning ways in 1996 when he moved to F1 and scored his first Grand Prix victory in only his fourth start for the Williams-Renault team. In all, he would score four wins and finish second in the championship in his rookie F1 season. In 1997, Villeneuve started on the pole 10 times, won seven times and became the first Canadian to win the World Championship. But Villeneuve is winless since the 1997 Luxembourg Grand Prix, which took place on Germany's Nurburgring circuit on Sept. 28, 1997. In 1998, the Williams team did not have a competitive engine. Then in 1999, Villeneuve decided to join the new Lucky Strike British American (BAR) team started by his longtime friend Craig Pollock.
In its first season, BAR found out just how difficult F1 can be and failed to score a single top six points-paying finish. Last year, with Honda engines, the situation improved for BAR. Villeneuve finished seventh in the Drivers Championship, and BAR placed fifth in the Constructors Championship. "I don't think the job we had to do was underestimated," Villeneuve said, "it was more that it didn't work as planned. The '99 car was quite fast, but it kept breaking, so we couldn't bring the points that our speed could give us. That really hurt the spirit of the whole team, and that made our work more difficult for 2000 and this year, as well." Although it came close on several occasions in 2000, the team failed to earn an elusive "podium" top-three finish.
That all changed in the Spanish Grand Prix this year. Villeneuve was running fourth but got promoted to third on the last lap when leader Mika Hakkinen suddenly stopped with a broken clutch. Villeneuve and BAR-Honda finally got to celebrate on the podium.
"It was a lucky podium," Villeneuve said. "It's very rare to have the leader break down on the last lap. We were lucky, but at least we were there to grab it when it happened. It was a great effort from the whole team. It was very important because last year many times we were close to it and somehow it didn't work, and we finished fourth.
"This result has lifted the weight from our shoulders, and it will be easier to work in a positive way from now on. Within the team, everybody is much happier, and the atmosphere is generally lighter."
Before the start of the season, Villeneuve said that third place in the Constructors Championship was the minimal expectation and goal for BAR. Although the team is only sixth in the points after six of 17 races, Villeneuve insists its goals have not changed.
"The team has to be in the top three of the constructors," he said. "These are the minimal expectations, and the minimum results acceptable. But if the team works well, we should be able to reach it. Only McLaren and Ferrari that are uncatchable this year. If we do a good job, we should be able to get them."
As for his future with the BAR-Honda team, Villeneuve is fairly certain he will stay with the team next year.
"I won't give you a precise answer," he said. "Right now I'm concentrating on this project, and I don't have leaving on my mind. It's not what will make me stay, but more could something make me leave. There is no doubt right now, and I am not planning to leave."
After all that hard work, Villeneuve said, he wants to be around to collect the rewards ... and the wins.
"I think the last three years were good training for fighting at the front," he said.