Before I begin this piece, I need to make it clear that this piece isn’t titled “The F1 Driver I think is best”, for as much as I love Jacques Villeneuve, I am aware that of all F1 World Champions of the last 10-20 years, JV’s triumph in 1997 is probably one of the less “impressive”. So why is he my favourite?
I first started watching F1 mid 1994. I was 10… just. Like many young fans, I was introduced to F1 by my dad who was an avid Damon Hill man. My first memories of F1 were a combination of crippling disappointment and annoyance, as Michael Schumacher beat my family’s hero two years in a row before upping sticks to Ferrari.
When the 1996 season rolled around, it was announced that Jacques Villeneuve, young Indy Car starlet and son of F1 legend, Gilles Villeneuve, would be replacing David Coulthard at Williams. At the time I didn’t really know who Gilles was, let alone Jacques. As an excited 12 year old, what I saw was a young Canadian driver with bleach blond hair wearing baggy overalls taking it to the rather middle of the road Damon Hill and dating Danni Minogue. He was the anti-Hill (bad pun).
This was emphasised when JV took pole and dominated the race at the inaugural Australian Grand Prix in Albert Park, Melbourne, before being eventually passed by Damon a few laps from the flag after his car suffered an oil leak. He finished second in that race and the championship that year, with 3 poles, 4 wins and a further 7 podiums. If he had taken that win in Australia, he may well have become the only driver to win the world championship in his debut year. In fact his 2nd place in his debut year is a record shared only with Lewis Hamilton. It was a very impressive season, despite the FW18’s obvious advantage over the rest of the field.
He went on to win the 1997 championship, being the first man to rattle the mighty Michael Schumacher in a wheel to wheel battle that climaxed with the two coming together in the final race of the season at Jerez. That incident resulted in the Red Baron being expelled from the championship that year, although some doubt that Jacques would have made the corner if Michael hadn’t hit him.
The departure of Adrian Newey and Renault engines led to a somewhat lazy development (not to mention terrible paint job) on 1998’s FW20. The car was a massive disappointment gaining only 3 podiums and in 1999, JV left Williams to set up his own team, British American Racing, with manager Craig Pollock and Indy Car design guru Adrian Reynard.
Realistically, this was the end of the competitive era of Jacques’ career.
He raced for a further five years for BAR in its various guises – scoring 2 podiums, before short and uneventful stints and Renault and Sauber. The most notable moment during his post Williams career was his “deal” with team mate Riccardo Zonta to take Spa’s Eau Rouge flat out… with hilarious/terrifying results.
JV has since driven in Nascar and Le Mans, as well as dabbling in the idea of team ownership. He can now be found commentating/punditing on Canadian TV (with occasional amusing and outspoken cameos on British TV). He also released a rather, er… brilliant music career with his album Private Paradise being (ahem) “critically” acclaimed.
If Jacques’ career had been in reverse it would have been better. A plucky Nascar driver going from team to team before his big break and a world championship win, but it wasn’t like that. In the end he kind of just faded into middle of the road nothingness.
Again I ask, Why is JV my favourite? There were/are better drivers. More exciting drivers. Drivers who were less mouthy – not that I think this is a bad thing – in fact quite the contrary.
Jacques is my favourite driver because of the way he made me feel as a young F1 fan. He was the first driver to make me sit on the edge of my seat during a race. The first that caused me to shout at my TV in despair/celebration. The first World Champion that I *wanted* to be World Champion. But more than this, he was a rogue. If he didn’t like something, or thought it was crap, he said (and still does say) so. He was an individual in an age of boring clone drivers. He was a Villeneuve, and that counts for an awful lot in Formula 1.