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Interview: Canadian F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve, 25 years after his title

On October 26, 1997, during the last Grand Prix of the season, Jacques Villeneuve won the world title after this incident with his rival Michael Schumacher.

Laurent Dupin and Jacques Villeneuve, May 2022.

Jacques, if you are told that your title dates back twenty-five years, what do you answer?

Jacques Villeneuve: It surprises me because I don’t have the impression that so many years have passed. I never stopped driving, even if I do few races a year. I also realize that I have done more Grands Prix as a commentator for Canal+ than as a driver (163 GP). And that bothers me (laughs).

What memories do you have of the last decisive Grand Prix, in Jerez, in 1997?

JV: It was electric, but that’s the night I slept better before a GP. I was in the zone, there was only that which existed. I had a quiet dinner at the circuit hotel. I was a machine prepared to win. The Grand Prix cost me a lot of energy. The whole race was a calculation of how to adapt to the scenario and put pressure on Michael Schumacher. When I attacked him, I was surprised that he didn’t immediately close the door, then I felt the blow on the pontoon of my Williams-Renault. In fact, I expected it [Schumacher sera rayé du classement de la saison pour ce geste antisportif, NDLR]. Then, it was necessary to preserve the car to reach the finish and score the points necessary to be champion. In the pit lane, I remember seeing members of other teams saying well done to me. I have a very precise visual memory of it. Then there were all the people overjoyed, especially the people from Renault at the bottom of the podium with their yellow wigs to imitate my hairstyle at the time.

You had an amazing start to your career in F1: vice-champion for your first season in 1996, champion the following year. How do you analyze this today?

JV: It was great. When you have things to accomplish, it is better to do them right away, because you don’t know where you will have another opportunity later. Sometimes you only have one in your life. As with any championship won, you have to be in the right place at the right time, have the right car, the right team, the right people around you. Then you have to seize the opportunity. I knew that at the Indianapolis 500 Miles [victoire en 1995, NDLR], then with the Indy Championship [titre en 1995] and an F1.

Wave of yellow wigs in the teams of the Renault engine manufacturer, to wear Jacques Villeneuve in triumph, bleached hair in 1997.

Eleven wins and a title in your first two seasons, then you didn’t win a GP for the rest of your career, which ended in 2006. Was that frustrating?

JV: Clearly it would have been nice to win more, maybe make different decisions. Would I have preferred to have more victories but not create the team that is now Mercedes? I don’t know, there would have been regrets either way. [avec des associés, Villeneuve a créé l’écurie BAR en 1999, rachetée par Honda en 2006, puis par Brawn en 2009 et enfin par Mercedes en 2010, NDLR].

You got two podiums with your BAR team, but also suffered a lot of criticism. Have you suffered from it?

JV: I didn’t mind having to fight, to build. What was difficult to take was the general reaction, coming mainly from the English-speaking media world, which said that I had sold my soul, that I had chosen the money rather than the results. So no, I built my team, and I invested in this team all the money I had earned so far! I owned a quarter of the stable, although it was a secret at the time. I had had more attractive offers financially that I had refused. So it was never a money driven choice. And yet that’s what came out of it, it was hard for me.

After three years at Williams, Jacques Villeneuve created his own BAR team in 1999 with associates. But the results are not there: in five seasons, he has only won two podiums.

Was the weight of the Villeneuve name heavy to bear?

JV: I have always been proud to be a Villeneuve, proud of my father [Gilles Villeneuve, 6 victoires en F1, décédé en 1982 au volant de sa Ferrari, NDLR]. However, what bothered me was that no one, whether it was the media or the fans, wanted to hear the truth about my motivations, why I was racing cars. All people wanted to hear was that I was just continuing the line, that I wasn’t riding for myself, that Gilles was still winning. But in fact, I loved racing, it was my passion, I did it for me.

The Gilles-Villeneuve circuit in Montreal returns to F1 this week. You never won, is that a regret?

JV: I didn’t get the results I wanted. For two seasons I had the car to win and I didn’t [2e en 1996, NDLR], it’s annoying. Other years when I was competitive, it was going badly, but that has nothing to do with the pressure. It was always a heavy, exhausting, tiring weekend. A good result in Mon tréal would have had a lot of scope, and a bad result has a hallucinating weight when poor performances on another circuit went unnoticed.

The two Canadian drivers in F1 this season, Stroll and Latifi, are both sons of billionaires. Do you see in them, or in other young people, an heir capable of succeeding you?

JV: There is no heir because there is no sector in Canada and in Quebec. It is impossible for a young person who wants to become a pilot to make a career out of Canada, because there is nothing in place. In my father’s time, there was Formula Atlantic, then Formula Indy, but today nothing is being built. I don’t see Stroll and Latifi winning GPs, but that’s not because they’re billionaires. With Formula 1, we are at the top. They are good drivers, but maybe not F1 drivers. Niki Lauda was a rich son, but that didn’t stop him from being hungry, fighting, and going for victories. The privileged origin of Nico Rosberg did not prevent him from seeking his title either. It is not enough to have money, it takes talent. And money doesn’t buy talent.

Lance Stroll (above) and Nicholas Latifi, the two Canadians in F1 this season, do not have the makings of winners according to Jacques Villeneuve.

Hyundai finally!

The Korean manufacturer had to wait for the fifth rally of the season to achieve its first success with its i 20 hybrid. Ott Tänak (photo) won in Sardinia ahead of Breen and Sordo. Fourth in the standings, the Frenchman Pierre-Louis Loubet obtained his best result in the world championship. He was ahead of Kalle Rovanperä, who increased his overall lead with 55 points ahead of Neuville. For the next rally in Kenya, from June 23 to 26, Sébastien Loeb and Sébastien Ogier will be back.

From father to son

Louis Schlesser, 16, the youngest son of Jean-Louis, is trying his luck in motorsport with Volant Feed Racing. Although he has never driven in karting, he qualified for the quarter-finals of this competition, contested with Formula 4 single-seaters. At 73, Jean-Louis, versatile driver, double world champion in endurance (1989 and 1990), double winner of the Dakar (1999 and 2000), having competed in an F1 GP in 1988, will follow his son to Magny-Cours for the rest of the competition, at the beginning of August.


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