It can be easily said that Jacque Villeneuve had a tough few seasons in Formula One. Drivers tend to begin slowly and as they gain experience, they make a stronger impact on races. But for Jacque, normal rules didn’t apply. His start to the career was almost too good and after winning the title in just his second year, he slowly faded away.
One of the most controversial champions in the game, numbers will never truly represent the man that Villeneuve was behind the wheel of a race car. Son to legendary father Giles Villeneuve, Jacques had to face the good and bad side of racing. He got opportunities due to his father’s name but that name also put enormous expectations on his shoulders.
Jacques spent his entire childhood on the Formula One paddocks, watching his father race. He was in utter shock when he saw his father crash and die on the tracks at Zolder. His mother decided to send him to a private school in Switzerland where Jacques developed into an independent and passionate character. He almost threw himself at downhill skiing but later, when the opportunity arose, decided that he would prefer racing in cars. He was magical behind the wheel of a race car, sweeping everything in front of him. Saloon Cars in Italy, Jacques won the title; F3 in Europe, Jacques won the title; F3 in Japan, Jacques won the title; the FAtlantic series, Jacques was the champion and the North American IndyCar series, Jacques had won it all. Jacques was the youngest winner of the IndyCar championships as well as the Indianapolis 500, in 1995. In 1996, Williams decided that the Canadian deserved a shot at the big league and in his very first race in Formula One, Jacques Villeneuve qualified at pole position. He led the Australian
Grand Prix until an oil leak cut his dream debut short and although a second place was not bad by any means, he was disappointed at not winning it. For the rest of his debut season, Jacques Villeneuve was involved in a up-down battle with Damon Hill who, in the end, won five races to take the title as compared to four by Villeneuve. The title was lost but the entire sporting world was abuzz with the latest sensation on the streets.
In 1997, Jacques fulfilled the goal that he was looking for. He was fast and extremely brilliant on his way to seven race wins and his first and only drivers’ title. The season was marked by an infamous incident at the Spanish Grand Prix where, in a bid to hinder Villeneuve’s title chances, Michael Schumacher tried to ram his car into the Canadian’s. However, Villeneuve fended off the attempt and went on to win the race and the championship title.
Jacques showed signs of his father’s willingness to take on close battles and take risks. Like his father, Jacques too was incredibly brave when it came to taming high speeds and he never looked at getting slower at any instance. Despite several spectacular and high-flying accidents, Villeneuve always emerged with a smile at the end.
Villeneuve was extremely outspoken, a trait that was the cause of a number of controversial remarks, as well as unconventional. His hatred of authority was widely known and called his driving peers, ‘Corporate Robots’. He dyed his hair like a rainbow and wore ‘rockstar’ clothes and became the heartthrob of millions of fans. Villeneuve was extremely unpredictable and the FIA had to step in several times with warnings to clean up his act. He was said to be bringing the sport into disrepute and was almost suspended when he described the FIA to be useless.
In 1998, Williams saw a dip in form and Villeneuve was soon to move to the newly formed BAR-Honda team. It was claimed that he was doing so solely on the lure of the money on offer that would make him the second richest in the sport, behind Michael Schumacher, but Villeneuve hit back saying that he didn’t drive for money.
But BAR was slow in taking off and Villeneuve was taking a hit. In his five years at the team, he was steadily dropping off the pace yet his salary didn’t and that was the main cause of his leaving BAR after the management changed. Villeneuve didn’t get a new contract for 2004 and he was without a team.
Many thought that Villeneuve could still be back if he had a decent car and Renault decided to hire him for three races in 2004. His high publicity value meant that he got a two year contract with Sauber where his average finishes were nothing but a reflection of what the team was capable of. In 2006, BMW took over Sauber and Villeneuve was still in the seat but halfway through the season, the team decided to try with new driver on the block, Robert Kubica. Villeneuve decided that that was the last straw and he retired from the sport.