The last time I saw Jacques Villeneuve, in Shanghai in 2004, he was lost at sea. Drafted into a Renault F1 car to replace a fired Jarno Trulli, Villeneuve qualified 13th and struggled to a mid-grid finish while Fernando Alonso took sixth in the same car.
This was a far cry from the wild-haired youngster who burst onto the scene by winning the Indy 500 in 1995 and taking an F1 title two years later with Williams. By 2004, Villeneuve had lost his confidence after trying to start an F1 team with his manager and friend, Craig Pollock. His experience proved that BAR was no Wiliams, and that Pollock’s reach far exceeded his grasp. Honda got involved and, eventually, Pollock and Villeneuve were pushed out the door. A spell at Sauber didn’t help much, once BMW took over and found that Villeneuve hardly made a great spokesman for the German brand. Jacques was never known for being media friendly, but then again, Robert Kubica was waiting in the wings.
So, into the wilderness. A music career, a stock car detour, a wife and family. But something, call it restlessness, kept pushing.
Maybe it was the legacy of his father, as pure a racer who ever donned a pair of gloves. Jacques literally grew up in the paddock. It was in his blood, and it’s not easy to give up. Look at an F1 grid pre-race, and count how many ex-drivers are managers, broadcasters, or otherwise have a role. The same is true of Indy.
“I’m a racer at heart and I will always be,” Villeneuve said upon the announcement of a drive with Schmidt Peterson. ”That’s what keeps me going. That’s what keeps me alive.”
The example of Michael Schumacher’s return should give pause to Villeneuve, but the circumstances are entirely different. Schumacher returned to a factory F1 drive in his home country, whereas Villeneuve is talking about driving in one race. Whether he will perform well at Indianapolis is anyone’s guess, but the media backlash (“yesterday’s news”, some said, unfairly, while a blogger posting on NBCSports.com described Villeneuve as, essentially, undeserving of his ride) ignores the extent of Villeneuve’s considerable gifts. The kind of gifts that are not possessed (yet, maybe ever) by drivers like Conor Daly and Tristan Vautier.
The skeptics could be right, but so few of them have seen Villeneuve race, any bias against the Canadian likely reflects more about the writer than Villeneuve. The constant need for “youth” in IndyCar is a marketing issue, not a competitive issue. The youth movement conflates the need for younger viewers with the need for younger drivers. The IndyCar Series has a decent share of young drivers, but none measure up to Villeneuve’s talent or charisma. The fixation with youth also ignores the number of over-40 armchair racers who might tune for the first time in years. Youth wasn’t always prized; in 1994, Emerson Fittipaldi lined up on the first row at Indy at 47 (a row ahead of a much younger Villeneuve). In racing, as in life, age is a number, not an expiration date. Ask Niki Lauda, who quit F1 only to return and win another world championship.
The fact is that racing isn’t fair or just, nor is it a democracy. It’s a motor race, not a morality play. If it was a democracy, we might be toasting Mark Webber’s F1 title. But we aren’t. It’s naive to think otherwise about racing.
Bringing Villeneuve to the party is not a slight on any other driver, and Villeneuve is not required to “move the needle” (the most overused cliche imaginable when referring to the IndyCar Series). He’s required to work hard and be quick, not save the series. He’s just a guy that wants to race.
I don’t know about you, but I never watched a race because the driver was marketable. I just wanted to see one guy go faster than the rest.