1995 IndyCar champion and ’97 Formula 1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve has said that the media and fan attention that followed Nigel Mansell from Formula 1 to CART Indy car racing in 1993 “annoyed” Bernie Ecclestone.
Speaking on stage at Autosport International in the Birmingham, UK, Villeneuve reminisced about his switch from Japanese Formula 3 racing to Formula Atlantic in America in 1993, and said initially he thought he might remain in U.S. open-wheel racing because it was booming.
However, he believes that Formula 1 leader Bernie Ecclestone played a role in Tony George splitting from CART Indy car to form the rival Indy Racing League. CART went bankrupt and its assets were bought by Champ Car, which finally reunified with the IRL to form IndyCar in 2008.
Villeneuve, who finished third in Atlantics in ’93, before graduating to Indy cars in ’94, and winning the Indy 500 and CART title in ’95, said: “At that point I was thinking it would be great to make it to F1, but perhaps the rest of my career would be in the States. Remember that’s when Nigel Mansell went to Indy car, and Indy car was starting to be bigger and bigger and bigger, and the viewership was starting to get super-strong.
“I guess that annoyed Bernie and I think he was very instrumental in separating IndyCar so they would have separate championships. That’s why Indy car racing died – because it was starting to damage Formula 1.
“But at that point in time in the mid-’90s, being in the States was quite good and the cars were super-quick. If you just look at the Indy 500, it was special. But obviously it would have been disappointing not to make it to Formula 1, because Formula 1 remains the specialty.”
Villeneuve admitted that the Indy 500, in which he finished second in 1994 and won in ’95, was something he only came to appreciate long afterward.
He said: “To be running at an average speed of 230mph and in traffic and in a place where you’re still allowed to risk your life, because it’s marginally safer than it was 20 years ago and have half a million people sitting in the grandstands… Back then it would be an event that lasted three weeks. You would build on it and the energy was incredible. It felt like a big gladiatorial ring from the Roman Empire.
“It was very special and it is the biggest, most important race in the world. Obviously an F1 championship is bigger, but as one single event, Indy is the biggest one.
“The Indy 500, I didn’t grow up with it; I grew up with Formula 1, so I didn’t really know what it represented. I didn’t think about it until I raced in Atlantics. To get a race where people come almost daily for three weeks, that takes a lot of passion. But when you’re in it, it’s just a race; OK, there’s a lot of people which is great, but it’s just a stepping-stone to F1.
“But when you’re out of it, you think first of all, ‘Wow, I survived it!’ which is good! Then you win it and you realize it’s still present and alive and it’s meaningful, even though that race was 22 years ago. That’s when you start to realize the meaning of what you’ve accomplished.”
Villeneuve said his victory at the Brickyard was also key in attracting Sir Frank Williams to invite him to test the Williams-Renault, which would lead to him signing for 1996.
“It all happened with winning the Indy 500,” said Villeneuve. “That was instrumental in getting me a chance to test because I guess it showed that psychologically I could handle the pressure.
“Speed-wise, you just have to find out. But the psychological aspect of a driver is very hard to understand because F1 is such a beast. You could be the best Formula 3 driver, best GP3 driver, best GP2 driver and in F1 you won’t cut it.
“Many drivers were heroes who won everything from karting to whatever formulas they did, and the day they get into F1 – useless! On the contrary, other drivers who were average, somehow in F1 they exploded, became amazing.
“That’s all about psychological make-up. And the Indy 500 is a good show of that, and I think that helped Frank [Williams] to take a risk on me.”