“I’m an artist, the track is my canvas, and the car is my brush”

The Other Jacques Villeneuve

By mtminardi

When speaking of Canadian auto racing, one name springs to mind: Villeneuve. The legendary family from Berthierville Quebec is solidly enshrined as one of the greatest dynasties in motor racing history. While much has been said of the man who started it all, as well as his son, the 1997 World Champion and current BMW F1 driver; the exploits of Jacques Sr., have gone relatively unnoticed.

Jacques Villeneuve was born in 1953, three years after his brother Gilles. While his brother was making a name for himself in racetracks all over North America and Europe, young Jacques decided to follow in his brother’s footsteps and become a racing driver. As the legend of his brother grew, the prestige of the Villeneuve name gave him opportunities that would not have been afforded otherwise. Jacques made the most of these opportunities and showed that the talent and hard-charging spirit may well have been genetic. He won the Canadian Honda Civic Cup in 1977 (in only his second year of competitive racing) and caught the attention of a major sponsor, Canadian Tire, that was to springboard him into Formula Atlantic, the series that his brother dominated in 1975 and 1976 on the way to Formula One stardom.

Canadian Tire was to figure prominently in Jacques career. They had already been connected to Gilles by the time he had reached F1 stardom, through several promotions he had done for them. As revealed by Gerry Donaldson in his biography of Gilles, the reason for the initial sponsorship deal was because Gilles had stolen tools from their retail outlets for his Formula Ford cars in his early career, as he was not able to afford them. Out of guilt and obligation, he felt it was only fair to repay his past debts and agree to a favorable sponsorship deal. When Jacques moved up to Atlantics, Team Canadian Tire was born. After winning rookie of the year honors in 1979, he then went on to capture the Formula Atlantic titles in 1980 and 1981.


Villeneuve Sr. grids up in Formula Atlantic race at Montreal.
Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

In Montreal that year, he got his big break. Arrows was looking for a replacement for Siegfried Stohr, and they chose Jacques, due to his local sponsorship dollars, the publicity he would generate, and the general belief that he may have been a diamond-in-the-rough talent like his older brother. The jump from Atlantics to F1 proved too much (unbelievably, Jacques was also racing in the Formula Atlantic support race that weekend) and he qualified 28th, four places off the grid. The difference in power and handling between the F1 cars and the Atlantic cars could not be compensated for in just one weekend.

Undeterred, Jacques returned later that year in Las Vegas to attempt to qualify the Arrows. Unfortunately, the result was the same; though this time he was just over a second off the grid, albeit well behind his teammate Riccardo Patrese who qualified relatively easily. The poor results in Formula One left his options limited for 1982, as he had already dominated Atlantics for two years and had realized his potential in that series.

Team Canadian Tire moved with Jacques into Can-Am sportscar racing, and he finished 2nd in the 2-litre category in 1982, a season marred by his brothers tragic death at Zolder. In 1983 he won four races and took the overall Can-Am 5-litre crown. He also drove at that year’s Le Mans 24 hour race, although his team failed to finish due to a water leak. In this, his most successful and eventful season, he also took one last crack at making the Formula One grid in Montreal.

Jacques Villeneuve suited up for RAM in the number 17 March car which had been driven by Jochen Mass the previous season. Ironically, this was the entry that was involved in Gilles’ fatal accident the year before. The team was strapped for cash and were not even present for the previous round of the Championship, so Jacques warily arranged to have a test at Mosport in order to shakedown the car. He was not going to make the same mistake he had in 1981 where his lack of familiarity with the car cost him a chance to make his F1 debut. The car was conspicuously covered in Canadian Tire and Ski-Doo decals, a Villeneuve family stalwart, as to leave no doubt that this was a one-off rent-a-drive. Jacques times in practice were competitive, and easily would have put him on the grid, however when it came down to qualifying, the car was not able to generate enough tire heat. Despite the collective will of 80,000+ partisan fans on Ile Notre-Dame, Jacques missed the grid by one position. Jacques final attempt at making the F1 cut had been thwarted by only 0.378 seconds. He would never get another opportunity.


Jacques in the Arrows at Montreal 1981. Villeneuve attempts at Formula One were forgettable, hampered by poor machinery and a lack of preparation.

Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

Despite the Formula One Chapter of his career ending, Jacques’ career was still in its early phases. In 1984 he, and Team Canadian Tire, moved to the premier open wheel series in North America, the PPG Indycar World Series. While the Canadian Tire effort was large enough to be a big player in Atlantics and in Can-Am, it was a very small effort when compared to Indycar juggernauts such as Penske, Haas-Lola, TruSports, and Galles. Despite the setback of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 (understandable as in those days, the ‘World’s Greatest Race’ attracted up to 80 entrants), the team handled itself well, and scored several points paying results in its first year. Villeneuve was getting a reputation of being a hard-charger, however this came with accusations of being over-aggressive and prone to incidents.

Villeneuve’s CART career can be summed up as that of a journeyman. However, for one day at Elkhart Lake, he was on top of the racing world. It was a day when a catalogue of unlikely events were to befall the series regulars, and the little man with the famous name would become the first Canadian ever to win an Indycar event. The following is an account of how this amazing race unfolded.

1985 CART PPG Indycar Road America 200

Mario Andretti, the Championship leader was absent as the CART PPG IndyCar series headed to Elkhart lake Wisconsin for the Road America 200. He had been injured at the previous round at Michigan and 1980 F1 Champion Alan Jones was recruited to replace him in the Beatrice Lola Haas.

Pole position went to Danny Sullivan, who got a great start and led for the first 11 laps ahead of Roberto Moreno, who was also starting his first race in Indycar. The Galles team had chosen to rotate their second drivers based on ovals and road courses, and Moreno was eager to impress in his debut. He dropped to third on the start but made short work of Bobby Rahal, whose car was set up too low and was scraping bottom just under the nose, creating a shower of sparks. Rahal lost postions up until the first round of pit stops to Michael Andretti, who took over third, Roberto Guerrero, and rookie Arie Luyendyk. Al Unser Jr had pitted after the second formation lap to fill his tank to the brim and although he started from the back, it was a huge advantage on this 4 mile road track, and it gave him the lead from Danny Sullivan. Sullivan’s race was to end prematurely. A throttle linkage broke and he rolled to a stop on the uphill run to the pit entrance, the same place his car had failed the previous year, his day over.

Roberto Moreno’s unlikely challenge faded as he was climbing up the order mid-race. Gaining back time on the leaders hand over fist, he overcooked it going into a left-hander, spun and beached it in the gravel. He would rejoin, but too far down to have a hope of a good result.

Unseen in all of this, Jacques Villeneuve team had made it up to third place in his Canadian Tire car. In the first phase of the race he conserved fuel and ran in 8th, one position behind his starting spot. He was able to go 2 more laps than the leaders before his second stop, and once everything had shaken out his podium place had been solidified. His second stop was shown 1hr 11 mins into the race, and so quiet had Villeneuve’s race been, that this was the first time his car had been featured in the ESPN coverage.


Jacques in his 1985 Canadian Tire CART ride. This is Sanair Oval in Quebec.
Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

Michael Andretti was running second, but there were questions about whether he could make it on fuel. Not all of the fuel went in the tank on his second stop, and it delayed him for about thirty seconds. The Kraco team admitted they would need a splash and go.

And then … the rain came down.

Josele Garza crashed hard on the first straightaway and caught fire as soon as the rain started, throwing debris and dirt all over the track. No sooner had that happened, than the race leader Al Unser Jr slipped on the greasy track and planted his Dominos Sheirson Lola into the guard rail. This necessitated a stop for the entire field to change to rain tires. This worked into Michael Andretti’s favor as he was able to add more fuel at this point to take him to the end of the race.

At this point, the race looked so chaotic, by today’s standards it was hard to believe it could happen. At that time, CART did not use pace cars at road circuits, so the marshals were responsible for assisting the drivers, putting out fires and moving cars. On a long course such as Road America, vehicles were needed to do this. For about ten laps, the course was littered in debris, with marshals actively cleaning the race surface. White and yellow flags were waving all over the circuit as GMC circuit vehicles were on the track at various points. On one particular lap, the leader passed by two such course trucks driving right down the middle of the racetrack!

Through the obstacle course and tricky conditions, Jacques Villeneuve drove like a veteran. The 1983 CanAm champion had always been seen as impulsive, and at times over-emotional. When leading the previous year at Las Vegas, he spun off. He had looked fast, but “not quite” there. In the tricky conditions, the cars looked like they were driving on ice. The surface was not visibly wet, but the cars clearly had zero grip with the wet tires on a slightly damp track. The pace of the race looked like it was in slow motion and for the last ten laps, Villeneuve drove carefully and precisely to hold a seven second lead over Michael Andretti, and take not only his own, but Canada’s emotional first victory in Indycar competition.

Postscript

Jacques Villeneuve was never to lead an Indycar race again. Despite another podium at the very next event at Mid-Ohio and an 8th place championship finish, the Canadian Tire team left CART after that season due to issues revolving around the rising costs of competition and the corporate return on investment. This was also not helped by the loss of the Quebec round of the Championship at the notoriously short and dangerous Sanair oval. Villeneuve moved to the Hemelgarn team for 1986, and had a very tumultous year. His car was not as competitive as in 1985, and he struggled to come to terms with it. More often than not, he tangled with other competitors or came to grief along the guardrails as he tried to push the machine beyond its limits in true Villeneuve style. Some bright lights in the season included a 5th and 6th place finish, and a 3rd starting position at his beloved Elkhart Lake circuit, but he was unable to find a ride for the next season. He resurfaced at Cleveland in 1992 for 2 races for backmarkers Arciero Racing, but he was past his sell-by date by then and was unable to make an impact.

One can wonder what would have happened had Jacques had another chance to show his talent in an Indycar, and if he could have again displayed the maturity and speed he showed at Elkhart Lake in 1985. Fittingly, 9 years later, this was to be the track that his nephew was to win his first PPG Indycar race. He repeated on his way to a CART title in 1995, and we all know what happened next.


Villeneuve, Valcourt Snowmobiles, 1999.
Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

Jacques Villeneuve still races snowmobiles in his native Quebec. Since his exit from Indycars after the 1986 season, Villeneuve has simply raced for the fun of it, never really seeking further advancement into the upper level categories of Motorsport. He has raced in the Canadian Porsche Turbo Cup, and made several ‘guest star’ returns to Formula Atlantics, where he was always competitive. His last such endeavor was at the 1998 Montreal F1 support race. With the exception of his Le Mans endeavor, all of Villeneuve’s racing was done in North America. He never had a particular interest in leaving his homeland, and he still resides in Quebec.

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