During his Formula 1 career Jacques Villeneuve bore two crosses: living in the shadow of his legendary (departed) father Gilles – whom he barely knew yet is invariably compared with – and a comet-like record, one that flared early, then left a lingering tail.
Such was his bargaining power that Villeneuve and manager Craig Pollock demanded – and got – unprecedented transitional test mileage with the FW17 which had taken Damon Hill to second behind Michael Schumacher and Benetton in the 1995 F1 championship. They tested mainly at Estoril, although Paul Ricard, Silverstone (“when it wasn’t raining”) and Imola were also on the schedule, as was Nogaro in preparation for Monaco.
He is estimated to have covered around 10,000km. “Lots of mileage,” he recalls, “a bunch of grands prix distance-wise; at least three or four days a week: November, halfway through December, whole month of January and part of February. By the time we jumped into [the FW18] a lot of mileage had been done on the old car with bits from the new car.”
His first impressions were that the F1 car had less power (“no turbo”), but that, “You couldn’t drive nicely and calmly like in an IndyCar. You had to fight and muscle through every corner, braking was hard and the cars were very stiff as well, like a go-kart.”
The rubber was, though, familiar: At the time both categories used Goodyear tyres which had similar construction. The FW17 had obviously been developed around the taller Hill, but Villeneuve says, “Everything was a lot more refined, and obviously the gearbox was a semi [automatic], having the gears on the steering wheel. That was nice.
“One issue was to get used to carbon brakes. We tested steel brakes to see the difference. In lap time it was very similar. So, in the end getting used to the braking wasn’t the carbon brakes, it was just the [vastly reduced] distance. Carbon brakes were better at surviving the heat, so in the end it turned out safer, but lap time-wise it was not a big deal.”
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So to his scintillating F1 debut in March 1996 in Melbourne, simultaneously the city circuit’s maiden event: “I was happy with the season starting on a new track for everyone, because then Damon wouldn’t have an advantage. It turned out to be my best track through the years; lap time wise, qualifying wise, it was always my best track.
“We could really judge how good a season we were going to have based on Australia. If we were terrible in Australia we knew the season would be long and arduous.”
He started his first grand prix from pole position – emulating Mario Andretti – then led until the closing stages when forced to slow due to an oil leak after a pipe had been fitted incorrectly, but still Villeneuve finished second. He spun off (in the wet) in the next race in Interlagos, placed second in Argentina and won the European Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. Not a bad opening salvo from a rookie.
The ambitious Jock Clear was making his transition from design to race engineering, and between them they adapted CART techniques to F1.
“He was really excited and open-minded about trying stuff. We spent a lot of time exploring. In Imola he did a blind test, did the opposite of what I asked just to see if what I was saying was true. I did a few laps and told him right away he went the wrong way. From that moment onward he really believed and trusted what I was saying, and vice versa.
“I brought a lot from [CART] as well. Radio communication wasn’t really the habit in F1; playing with front wings during pit stops, that was not part of F1 [then]. So, there was a lot of things like that we worked on during the year, and that’s how we managed to invent some pretty funky setups.”
Villeneuve finished the 1996 season second, 19 points behind to champion Hill – who was nonetheless shown the door by Williams – and an equal number ahead of Schumacher who was in his first season with Ferrari.
Hill’s pending departure meant development of FW19 was mainly left to JV: “That car was designed a lot by me, working on the car for the second half of ’96. That car in qualifying was amazing, I could do whatever I wanted with it. In qualifying even when I thought I was on the limit, but we weren’t on the pole, we’d find a way to get an extra couple of tenths in the last lap.
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“It was fun fine tuning because the window of usage was very tiny. It was easy to get out of that setup window, but that made it fun. You could work on setup the old-fashioned way, and not just relying on computers, but by feel.”
Intriguingly, in qualifying for the opener in Melbourne Villeneuve aced Schumacher by almost two seconds; come the (infamous) title showdown in Jerez where the German unsuccessfully attempted to torpedo the eventual champion they tied in qualifying.
Seven months earlier he’d beaten Schumacher to pole position in Melbourne by over two seconds. So how did they end up so close at the end of the year? Villeneuve puts this down to numerous factors, such as Melbourne being his best circuit. He also admits car development tailed off and that Ferrari started to come on strongly after team boss Jean Todt recruited heavily, not least Benetton’s engineering duo of Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne.
“[Williams] reacted and started pouring money into the car again because they realised we were about to lose the championship. So, a lot of the money and work went back into [FW19] instead of the 1998 car.”
It worked: After seven wins to Schumacher’s five Villeneuve took the title by a notional three points from the German, who was excluded from the championship for his clumsy clatter into Villeneuve in Jerez. Villeneuve got to keep the car, but sold it about 10 years ago to former Williams shareholder Brad Hollinger, who races it in USA historic events.
“It was sitting in the garage doing nothing. I wasn’t taking care of it, I was busy doing other things. These cars need to be driven,” he explains.
FW19 was not only the last Williams car to win a title but the last Williams designed by Adrian Newey, who departed for McLaren – then to Red Bull – and further title successes.
Apart from Newey’s departure, 1998 brought further change for Williams and Villeneuve. Renault withdrew as official engine supplier, handing its technologies to Mecachrome. Meanwhile F1 misguidedly introduced grooved tyres and Rothmans exited, opening the sponsorship door to sister tobacco brand Winfield, which bedecked the Williams cars in an unfamiliar red and yellow livery.
The season was a relative disaster, delivering third place behind McLaren and Ferrari in the constructors’, with Villeneuve classified fifth behind their quartet of drivers. FW20 was, in Villeneuve’s words, “Awful. It was unbalanced, it had no speed.
“We managed to get a couple of podiums, and once in a while we managed to be quick by running full bump rubbers, no springs almost, just like a kart, sliding everywhere. In Monza we put weight in the nose in front of the wheels, which you never do. It was that kind of car…”
In his inimitable style Villeneuve was vocal about the introduction of grooved rubber – later resorting to expletives which earned him a caution from then-FIA president Max Mosley. Did he feel vindicated when F1 dropped grooves 11 years later?
“What’s the use? It was obviously not F1; it was not the right thing to do. The problem is: I didn’t say it was a mistake, I used some vocabulary that shouldn’t be used. That didn’t go down well, which is understandable. It wasn’t very educated. But yes, [grooved tyres] wasn’t the right thing to do. But at the end of the day it was the same for everyone.”
Then, though, a new adventure beckoned: British American Racing, bank-rolled largely by British American Tobacco, with whom Villeneuve enjoyed close links during CART and the Williams years. With a ban on tobacco advertising looming, BAT went on the offensive, not only sponsoring a team – via its Lucky Strike and 555 brands – but owning a majority share, with Pollock, backed by Villeneuve’s resources, also a shareholder.
“It was a fun project ultimately to try to build your own team, but doing both driving and building your own team is not the most intelligent thing to do,” he says wryly. “The issue is [BAT] were also a part owner of the team, creating problems when you need to add to the budget: Does [BAR do so] as sponsor or shares? That created all kinds of problems.”
Malcolm Oastler, working as an employee of F3/CART stalwart and BAR technical partner stalwart Reynard, designed the Mecachrome-powered BAR 01, which Villeneuve says “wasn’t a slow car at all, but it was overly fragile. It wasn’t easy to set up, but we could get some lap time out of it.”
The ex-Renault engines, badged as ‘Supertec’ after Flavio Briatore took over their distribution rights, had “hardly gone uphill” since taking him to the 1997 title he says, adding, “There had been small evolutions, but nothing major. And they vibrated a lot.”
In Villeneuve’s 16 races in the 1999 BAR 01, he retired a dozen times, placing 15th, eighth, tenth and ninth in those he finished – at a time when the points structure paid only to sixth place. Thus the 1997 world champion was not classified, having scored zero points – with a team Adrian Reynard had suggested could win first time out…
For 2000 BAR signed with Honda – starting a partnership that lasted until the Japanese company’s exit at the end of 2008, when the team mutated into Brawn before being sold to Mercedes – and things immediately looked brighter, with Villeneuve placing fourth in Melbourne in BAR 02. However, the relationship was fraught, with Honda going for headline horsepower numbers.
“It was a very peaky engine, what was important was to show how much horsepower at top revs even if the rest of the engine was empty. And it was breaking a lot.
“That was difficult, but we could deal with it – they were working hard spending a lot of money. But also, it was difficult – we were running two sets of data acquisition, because Honda were wanting to run their own to then move to it. That added complexity to the car.
“They also started designing wings, brakes and it didn’t work. We tried their front wing and as soon as you turned the wheel, it lost all downforce. When they came up with their own brakes I refused to test them, [Olivier] Panis tested them. It was in Barcelona, he got out of the pits, in turn four the brakes exploded. In the afternoon, they put a new set of brakes, turn four exploded again. There were these kinds of issues.”
Still, 02 delivered four fourths, with Villeneuve placing seventh overall with 17 points before it made way for BAR 03, effectively an evolution with small steps in all areas. That, too, delivered seventh place – albeit with just 12 points due to a dismal reliability record – although, crucially, Villeneuve scored BAR’s first podiums, in Spain and Germany, with the car’s only other 2001 points finishes being a fourth in Monaco and sixth in Italy.
For 2002, Villeneuve considered moving to Renault, formerly Benetton, after team boss Briatore – who had access to Mecachrome data via Supertec – offered him a seat, but pressure from Honda saw him remain with the team he co-founded. However, before the season started Pollock was ousted by rally entrepreneur David Richards, whose Prodrive Subaru team was 555-sponsored. Prodrive also assumed technical duties.
The season was a disaster all round, with BAR 04 recording seven retirements and finishing in the points just twice for 12th in the championship with four points. 2003, his final season with BAR, proved little better – 16th albeit with six points after two sixth places, the points structure now paying down to eighth place.
Villeneuve recalls: “It was just the same. The regulations weren’t changing that much and there was just a general evolution, but we didn’t get any better. We kind of stayed stuck where we were. The last two years the cars just kept breaking down, which was crazy.”
He left BAR after being offered a zero dollars contract coupled to a results bonus and image rights payments, which, he says, he was prepared to consider subject to a switch to Michelin tyres, which he believed would deliver stronger results. This, he was told, was impossible, so declined the offer. Then, he says, a deal with the French company was struck five days later, leaving him without a drive for 2004.
Towards the end of that year Briatore came knocking, seeking a replacement at Renault for Jarno Trulli for the final three 2004 races, namely China, Japan and Brazil. As team-mate to Fernando Alonso, Villeneuve placed eleventh and tenth twice in the RS24, which Villeneuve says was “very physical to drive. Alonso is a tough one, but it was fun to drive alongside him.
“Alonso has his own way of driving and – hah! – no one could drive his cars, ever. I did one test, it was a strange car to drive; really, really weird. We got the car right in Brazil, so it took two races. But the set-up was completely different, it was better than Alonso’s in the wet in Suzuka. The pace was good, but he was a monster in the race.”
Still Villeneuve wasn’t finished with F1, joining Sauber for two years from 2005. Team owner Peter Sauber had hinted to Villeneuve about a manufacturer buy-out coming for 2006, but provided no details.
“The [Ferrari-powered C24] car was very difficult to drive but the guys were great. The mechanics, the guys I was working with were a lot of fun. But it wasn’t competitive enough and it was really difficult because I didn’t get along with Willy Rampf, who designed the car.
“Every time I was wanting to try something on set-up I was told ‘no, we the team know what is best, we know through our simulation, so this is the car you have to drive.
“At some point I had to complain in the media and the next race I was three or four-tenths quicker and I saved the tyres. Two races later they put [my settings] on [Felipe] Massa’s car as well and he was also quicker.
“From then on Willy was angry with me and it just never worked because I went against the team and it was better. So that created a big issue.” The result: 14th with nine points.
The manufacturer duly arrived in 2006: BMW, which had acquired a majority shareholding in Sauber. Clearly Villeneuve was not wanted, as his first dialogue with team boss Mario Theissen made clear.
“I got a call and I was told ‘by the way, we don’t want you’. I said ‘I’ve got a contract, I’ll be racing.’ That’s how [the relationship] started…”
The BMW F1.06, also designed by Rampf, was effectively an evolution of the C24 although fitted with the BMW P86 2.4-litre V8 after F1 downsized from 3.0-litre V10s from 2006. The season was another disappointment, with four points placings, four non-scoring finishes and four retirements – the last of which was in Germany after some opening lap argy-bargy.
The next day Theissen called, saying Villeneuve was unfit to drive in Hungary, having allegedly injured himself during the Hockenheim incident, but then offered a Friday FP1 stint.
That brought the career of a world champion and 11-time grand prix winner to an abrupt end. Today he races where and what he can on a ‘have helmet, will race’ basis – between stints as F1 expert for Sky Italia and TF1. A multi-tasker, even with media work.
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