When he decided to become a racer the son of legendary Ferrari driver Gilles Villeneuve was always going to be a name to watch. Having a famous father was a mixed blessing. While doors opened for him quickly the son of the late hero was expected to speed through them and continue the family tradition of hard-driving success. As it developed, Jacques Villeneuve soon made a name for himself.
He was certainly to the manner born, on 9 April, 1971, in Canada's French-speaking province of Quebec, from where Gilles Villeneuve took the racing world by storm - and took his family with him. Gilles, his wife Joann and their children Melanie and Jacques lived a nomadic life, touring around North America to Formula Atlantic races in a motorhome, in which they also lived on Grand Prix weekends in Europe after Gilles joined Ferrari. Little Jacques, who grew up in Formula One paddocks watching his father race, was bewildered when Gilles was killed in practice for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. His mother sent him to private school in Switzerland, where Jacques developed into a fiercely independent character, threw himself into downhill skiing with a vengeance, then chose to follow in his father's footsteps.
He swept through the international ranks - saloon cars in Italy, F3 in Europe and Japan, FAtlantic and IndyCars in North America. In 1995, aged 24, he became the youngest winner of both the famed Indianapolis 500 race and the IndyCar championship. In 1996 Williams brought him to Formula One racing, where he started from pole at the first race of the season, in Australia, led (until slowed by an oil leak) and finished second to his veteran Williams team mate Damon Hill, with whom he engaged in a see-saw struggle for supremacy for the rest of the year. In the end the championship went to Hill, who won five races to Villeneuve's four, but the feisty French Canadian's electrifying debut was the talk of the racing world.
In 1997 Villeneuve fulfilled his fast and furious promise, winning seven races and taking the driving title in spectacular fashion from Michael Schumacher in a notorious championship showdown at Jerez in Spain. Schumacher's infamous failure to ram his rival off the road left the Ferrari superstar in disgrace and Villeneuve on the top of the world. It was a wonderfully dramatic story - the brave son of a racing legend who fended off a villain's worst efforts to become World Champion - that confirmed Villeneuve's place in Formula One history and folklore.
In the car, his fighting spirit, lust for speed, penchant for risk-taking and eagerness to engage in close combat were reminiscent of the qualities that endeared his famous father to the fans. Like him, Jacques Villeneuve thrived on the sensation of driving on the limit and delighted in daring himself to go beyond it. He had several spectacular accidents, from which he would emerge grinning and marvelling at the thrill of it all.
Engagingly eccentric, opinionated and outspoken, he defied convention and challenged authority, saying exactly what he thought in an era when drivers were expected to express only sweet-talking platitudes. Villeneuve called his well-behaved peers ‘corporate robots’ and said fans wanted real characters they could identify with. The rebel talked the talk and walked the walk, dying his hair in rainbow colours and wearing 'high grunge' clothing like a rock star - or a pop icon, which is what he became for millions of adoring fans. Females loved the idiosyncratic, spectacle-wearing, studious-looking heartthrob with the fashionable chin stubble, though he always had a steady girlfriend and was once engaged to Australian pop diva Dannii Minogue (Kylie's sister), before becoming the fiance of a teenage American ballerina, then marrying Johanna, a Parisian girl he met in a restaurant.
His unpredictable behaviour was not always appreciated by the FIA, which several times warned the unruly renegade to clean up his act because he was bringing the sport into disrepute. When Villeneuve publicly described proposed rule changes as ‘shit’ the governing body threatened to suspend him. And yet when he was no longer a frontrunner FIA president Max Mosley said the sport would benefit from the controversial element Jacques Villeneuve would surely contribute to the championship.
In 1998 a performance drop-off at Williams coincided with preparations by Villeneuve's long-time manager Craig Pollock to set up the British American Racing team. When Villeneuve joined the new venture critics claimed the lure was a huge offer from BAR that would make his income second only to Michael Schumacher. Villeneuve denied he was driving for dollars and said that in life you have to follow your dreams and take risks.
But BAR went nowhere fast and Villeneuve's reputation suffered, as did his motivation. In his five years with the uncompetitive team he fell steadily off the pace, yet was still collecting a champion's salary (about US$20 million a year), which caused extra friction when BAR came under new management. After a 2003 season of strife Villeneuve's contract was not renewed and it seemed the ex-champion was history.
However, most observers believed he could still be a driving force in a good car and this, together with his sky-high publicity value, led to Villeneuve's second coming. Renault hired him for three races in 2004 and in 2005 he signed a two-year contract with Sauber, where his fair to middling results were a reflection of the small Swiss-based team's capability. When Sauber became BMW in 2006 Villeneuve stayed on, but halfway through the season he was asked to sit out a race while a young driver (Robert Kubica) was evaluated. The 35-year-old Villeneuve viewed his temporary demotion as a preview of the future and immediately walked away from the sport.
"Screw this," he declared. "It's time to get on with the rest of my life."
Text - Gerald Donaldson