Being the son of one of the most well thought of and fastest racing drivers ever has to come with some amount of expectation. Jacques Villeneuve used that expectation to secure a famous World Championship in 1997.
Not particularly interested in racing at an early age, Jacques eventually followed in his father’s footsteps by racing in the junior formulae in Italy and Japan. It was in Japan that he would meet one of the most influential men in his career: Craig Pollock.
Pollock suggested he go and race in American single-seaters, so Jacques headed off to Indy Cars. In 1994, he was named rookie of the year in Indy cars and managed to finish in second place at the legendary Indy 500.
1995 saw, even more, success as Jacques won the Indy 500, three other races, and the Championship. His success in America brought him to the attention of Sir Frank Williams, Director of the Williams F1 team. Villeneuve signed for Williams for the 1996 season, before testing the 1995 Williams car as preparation.
It was with Williams that Jacques would achieve all his success in Formula 1. At his first race of the 1996 season, he qualified on pole and was running first in the race, looking on course to equal the record of winning your first F1 race, held by Giancarlo Baghetti, but his engine developed an oil leak, and he had to settle for second.
Villeneuve would go on to win a further three races that season, finishing second in the Championship behind teammate, Damon Hill. Jacques’ pace was clear for all to see, and with Damon leaving the team for ’97, he would have a clear chance to chase the Championship.
Villeneuve did just that in ’97, taking seven wins to win his only F1 Championship. Apart from being the first Canadian F1 Champion, his Championship win is most notable for a collision in the final race at Jerez. Chasing down his principal rival, and equal points holder, Michael Schumacher, Villeneuve looked to overtake on the inside at which point Schumacher turned into the Canadian’s car. Villeneuve sustained damage to his sidepod but was able to finish the race in third. Schumacher retired on the spot and was later disqualified from the Championship.
Villeneuve would say after the race:
Michael tried to take me off–but he didn’t do it well enough.
Before elaborating on it with his sardonic sense of humour:
Either Michael had his eyes closed or his hands slid on the sterring wheel.
Unfortunately, 1997 was the absolute peak of Jacques’ F1 career. In 1998, Williams, with the awful Mechachrome Engine, which was a rebranded Renault V10 but was vastly underpowered, was nowhere near competitive. Villeneuve would finish the season fifth in the table 79 points behind Champion, Mika Hakkinen.
Villeneuve joined Craig Pollock’s new British American Racing (BAR) Team from 1999 onwards. While there was much bluster around the potential of the team, they never lived up to expectations with Jacques not even scoring a point until the following 2000 season.
’01, ’02 & ’03 saw some success, but nothing compared to the Canadian’s early career, and he was soundly beaten by British teammate, Jenson Button. To top it off, Pollock was deposed in 2001, with Dave Richards taking over. Mid-way through 2003, with Villeneuve dejected and discovering he was to be replaced by Takuma Sato in 2004, he walked away from the team and Formula 1 altogether.
He wasn’t gone for long though. Due to his working relationship with Renault, forged back in his Williams days, and his championship-winning pedigree, the Renault works team, hired him for the final three races of the 2004 season. It wasn’t exactly successful, he failed to score a point, but it got him back into the paddock. Just before joining Renault, he signed a two-year contract with the Sauber Team, starting in 2005.
His time at Sauber saw him score points, but he was nowhere near the podium positions. He also just kept pace with young teammate, Felipe Massa. Mid-way through 2006 he left, by then, BMW Sauber, and F1, permanently this time, citing not believing he had to prove himself against a young rookie, Robert Kubica.
Jacques Villeneuve saw all his success in his first two years in Formula 1. He took advantage of his undeniable skill and a very strong Williams-Renault package to win races in ’96 and the Championship in ’97. Unfortunately, poor choice of team and bad luck meant he never lived up to the lofty heights he set.
However, he leaves a legacy of one World Championship, and 11 race wins. He is also the only Canadian to win the F1 Championship and the most successful Candian to compete in F1. Not bad for someone looked as inferior, unfairly, to his father, Gilles.