A familiar face showed up Friday at Sonoma Raceway. Sure, he’s lost a bit of hair — not to mention it’s starting to get speckled with grey — but there’s no mistaking a guy who was once one of the best race car drivers in the world.
Remember Jacques Villeneuve? He won the last CART series championship in 1995 before the big split between CART and the upstart Indy Racing League the following year.
From there, Villeneuve went on to a fairly successful Formula One career, winning 11 of 163 starts, with 13 poles and 23 podium appearances. He didn’t miss a beat after leaving CART, finishing second in his first F1 season in 1996 and then winning the championship in 1997.
But since his last year in F1 in 2006 — he only made two-thirds of the 18 races on the schedule — the Montreal native and son of the late Canadian racing legend Gilles Villeneuve has been bopping around as a part-time NASCAR driver, primarily in the Nationwide Series (NNS).
Not so this weekend, though. Even though the NNS races Saturday at Road America, Villeneuve will attempt to qualify the James Finch-owned No. 51 Chevrolet for Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350 Sprint Cup race at Sonoma Raceway. It will be the first time he’s ever competed on the 1.99-mile road course.
“We wanted to put a driver in our car who would give us the best chance to win at Sonoma,” Finch told ESPN.com. “When the opportunity came up to have someone like Jacques in our car, we were very happy to make that happen. It’s a long way out there [to California] to not be competitive. He gives us the chance to not only do really well but to actually win the race. We led laps there last year and almost did win it (Kurt Busch drove the car in last year’s race and finished third). We plan on getting the trophy this time.”
While Villeneuve hasn’t raced a Sprint Cup car since 2010 (finished 29th in the Brickyard 400), Villeneuve could pose a big threat to the Sprint Cup regulars on Sunday if he makes it through Saturday’s qualifying.
You see, road courses are Villeneuve’s bread and butter. No matter what series or sanctioning body, he’s almost always in his element when he gets to turn left — and right. He also has been known for not being shy when it comes to trading paint and banging fenders.
For example: In nine career NNS races, Villeneuve hasn’t won, but he’s come darn close to it, with three top-five and two other top-10 finishes, including finishes of sixth (Road America) and Montreal (third) last season.
Villeneuve was hailed as a great addition to the Sprint Cup world when it was announced he would join several other world-class drivers as full-time competitors in the series in 2008, including Scotsman Dario Franchitti and Canadian Patrick Carpentier, while Australian Marcos Ambrose competed full-time in the Nationwide Series. Juan Pablo Montoya had joined the series full-time a season earlier, essentially blazing the trail for the imports.
Unfortunately, Villeneuve’s career ended before it even had a chance to start, as promised funding for a full-time ride with Bill Davis evaporated along with his ride before the season even started. Franchitti and Carpentier didn’t last the season, either. Only Ambrose has emerged as the lone survivor of the foreign onslaught, in addition to the trailblazing Montoya.
It’s too bad, because Villeneuve likely could have done well if he had sponsorship and the right team.
Still, it’s good to see him back in his first Cup race in three seasons. Even though he’s now 42, Villeneuve still has a lot of racing left in him. Who knows, maybe this could be a sign of things to come — and maybe a second chance that he so deserves.
DJR Team Penske wins three of four Supercars races at Melbourne
DJR Team Penske has won its first Virgin Australia Supercars Championship races over the weekend during the Australian Grand Prix, with Scott McLaughlin and Fabian Coulthard taking the first three wins in the four-race, non-championship race weekend.
While Penske’s teams have long succeeded in North America and have had some international success, notably a Formula 1 win at the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix with John Watson, success has thus far eluded them since arriving in Supercars two years ago as majority shareholders of Dick Johnson Racing.
McLaughlin had the honor of beating Coulthard to the first win in race one of the weekend, before Coulthard doubled up with wins in races two and three. The first two races were one-two finishes, though, and McLaughlin said he’d received a text from Roger Penske in the wake of the victory.
“I got a text from Roger straight away and they’re all pretty happy,” McLaughlin told Supercars.com.
“They’re thanking me but I should be thanking them for giving me the opportunity.”
The first race was marred by this incident between Nick Percat and Lee Holdsworth, Percat having lost his brakes entering Turn 1 and crashing into Holdsworth, who was an innocent bystander.
But once the race resumed, McLaughlin held off Coulthard for the victory.
Coulthard led from start-to-finish in race two after his second straight pole position. He did the same in race three, albeit not in a Penske 1-2 as Jamie Whincup came second for Red Bull Holden Racing Team Commodore. McLaughlin was third.
A left-front puncture stopped Coulthard making it three in a row in the fourth race, and with steering damage, McLaughlin was resigned to 17th. Chaz Mostert took the win his Supercheap Ford, ending his own winless spell that dated to August of 2015.
Also of note from the weekend, ex-IndyCar driver Simona de Silvestro in her Team Harvey Norman Nissan Altima finished 13th in race one, her best finish yet in her first full season in the series.
The Supercars series is back in action at Symmons Plains Raceway on April 7-9. Coulthard sits second in the series championship, 51 points back of Whincup’s teammate, Shane van Gisbergen.
Last Friday saw the Verizon IndyCar Series take to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time in 2017, with a Honda manufacturer test and Team Penske team test occurring on a warm, if windy, day at the 2.5-mile oval.
There’s always some elements to be learned from the test but considering the wind plays such a role at IMS, it was hard to read too much into the speeds, which Honda did release afterwards.
For what it was worth, Graham Rahal led the way in his No. 15 Penngrade Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at 227.182 mph, or 39.6159 seconds.
The speeds and times released by Honda are below. Team Penske, in a team test, opted not to release its times. For the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports pair, James Hinchcliffe didn’t run in the afternoon owing to the high wind gusts while Mikhail Aleshin ran only limited laps.
Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on Monday, May 15.
Remember when you occasionally wrote open letters requesting things in hopes they could one day come true? Here’s my open letter for May, 2017, which I address to one of this country’s most successful racing team owners in Chip Ganassi.
Hi, it’s me, Tony. We’ve had occasional interactions as part of media roundtables in the past. I’m the young one in these sessions who could probably be misidentified as a PR type.
But because I have had some PR experience in the past, and because I like to think I’m somewhat knowledgeable about options that could try to help move the needle for the Verizon IndyCar Series, I would like to suggest a storyline that I’m sure you’ve thought of but never fully pulled the trigger on.
Kyle Larson. In a fifth Ganassi IndyCar this May for the 101st Indianapolis 500. Doing “The Double.”
You like winners. This is one hell of a winning storyline, and thanks to Larson finally getting his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win of the season on Sunday in his home state of California, at Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway, I think the door should be open for him to do so.
It’s one of two big-ticket races that Chip Ganassi Racing Teams participates in that Larson hasn’t done yet, the other being the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And with no disrespect to the French endurance classic this summer, Larson’s not realistically going to bring as much potential buzz there as he would for a race that needs another spark or big-time storyline this year.
But Indy? Indy needs Larson. And it needs something that will enhance the storylines that are on the verge of happening this year, which are great inside the largely Indiana-heavy bubble of IndyCar observers and fandom, but don’t really penetrate the national sphere beyond that.
Larson is at the phase in his NASCAR career where he’s just now entering that potential stratosphere – he’s finished first, second or third in six of the last seven races, and the only time he didn’t was when he was leading the Daytona 500 but ran out of fuel on the final lap.
Like Kurt Busch in 2014, he’s got a win early in the season, which also will guarantee his spot in the NASCAR playoffs provided he makes an attempt to start every race (or even if he doesn’t, as there have been occasional exemptions the last couple years) and stays in the top-30 in points. Considering he’s leading the points right now, he should be fine there. With a win, he can afford to have one or two off weekends results-wise… even if the prospect of him doing the “double” with the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day means he could still star in both.
Larson is also used to the frenetic travel schedule of racing in one place one day, another place the next day, so on and so forth from his short-track days. It’s how he entered the NASCAR radar to begin with and why he entered with as much hype as he did. You already have a partnership with Cessna; getting Larson to-and-from Indianapolis and Charlotte from a logistics standpoint could be organized.
And here’s the thing that’s really exciting to think about – Larson is an absolute animal in cars with low downforce. It’s part of why he’s succeeded as much as he has in NASCAR this year, as the package has changed to a primary low downforce setup.
You need to have some downforce in an IndyCar, particularly at Indianapolis, but the prospect of Larson hanging out an IndyCar planted – or sideways – at 230-plus mph is utterly tantalizing. How much would Larson dare to trim out? We can only dream.
He’s won races for you in other series before. Beating a field of sports car full-timers at the Rolex 24 at Daytona meant he had to do at least three or four hours of drive-time, if not more, to help carry a car to victory which he did with Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Jamie McMurray in 2015. So he already knows the fabric of what it’s like to work with Dixon and Kanaan.
He made a cameo appearance last year on a practice day when Charlie Kimball changed his number from 83 to Larson’s NASCAR number of 42 to go along with a promotion for his partner, Tresiba. It was a fun story, but it wasn’t nearly as big as if it had been Larson in a 42 car in May. Here’s what Larson said at the time.
“I would love to. I was always a big Indianapolis fan growing up. I think mainly because my dad is a huge Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar fan.
“To me, I think this is the biggest race in the world by far. Yeah, I would love to race it someday, you know, be driving for Chip Ganassi Racing. He’s got so many different types of vehicles, you hopefully get the opportunity to run someday.
“Been lucky enough to run in the Rolex 24-hour race and win that. It would be incredible just to start the 500 someday in my future. But it’s more up to the guy to my left than me.
“He’s been a great car owner for me. Hopefully someday, after I win a Cup race, two, or three, a championship, I can run the Indianapolis 500.”
Since the time of that quote, May 16, 2016, Larson’s won two Cup races – one last year at Michigan and now one yesterday in Fontana. He could and should well be a championship contender this year.
Here’s where we get to the important part of the pitch though: the commercial value in the deal. And the reason you’re as successful as you are is that you’re good at business, for your partners.
I can tell you it’s not good for business that we’ve talked and written ad nauseum about Scott Dixon – one of the greatest drivers of his generation – not having a full-time sponsor announced yet to replace Target, which left the IndyCar side of the program at the end of 2016 after supporting your team for 27 years. In your words at Mid-Ohio last year, Target was the “greatest sponsor ever.” But yet here Dixon’s been in a plain white car, which quoting the POTUS if I may, is “Sad!”
Could Target be convinced to come back for one more ‘go-round at Indianapolis, with a car that we expect is going to be a better fit for the 2.5-mile Speedway with the Honda aero kit and engine than it was last year with your competitor?
Or could Cessna, which hasn’t had its own primary sponsorship effort in an Indianapolis 500, be persuaded to step up as a natural primary backer of an effort that will require many Cessna air miles to make it happen?
You’re already very good at navigating the field to where you can run Hondas in IndyCar, Chevrolets in NASCAR and Fords in sports cars. I don’t know how you do it but I’m impressed that you can maintain successful relationships with the manufacturers that allows you to pull this off.
Since Busch ran a Honda in his 2014 Indianapolis 500 outing and a Chevrolet in NASCAR, the driver/manufacturer crossover has been successfully navigated once before. That Rolex 24 win in 2015? That was in a Ford… and Larson drives a Chevrolet in NASCAR, so he’s worn different manufacturer gear in the past as well.
And Honda will likely need to run 18 cars to make up the field of 33 this year. You can tentatively pencil in 17 of those 18 cars, but one of the existing teams is almost guaranteed to have to add an extra car in order to ensure there’s enough entries.
You’ve got the crew from your sports car program – your team ran a fifth car as recently as two years ago for Sebastian Saavedra alongside the full-time four. Many of that crew came from the IndyCar side to begin with. Brad Goldberg could engineer the thing because he’s helped Kimball to success in the past, including his lone IndyCar race win.
And with no disrespect to Saavedra, Larson would be better for the overall business and buzz of the race.
You guys won this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona for Ford, after having won Le Mans in June, which completed a back-to-back sweep of 24-hour races.
But because a certain old “retired” driver won in a Cadillac, and that overshadowed his own co-drivers, the Ganassi/Ford win at Daytona didn’t generate as much ink as it could have.
You like winners. I like writing about winning storylines.
Larson’s stock and availability given the factors at play isn’t likely to be as high as it is now to run an extra car for this year’s Indianapolis 500.
Michael Andretti and Roger Penske can’t generate all the attention at Indianapolis this May, Andretti as the defending champion owner and Mr. Penske with five cars for the first time.
They both will be running five cars. Why not you, as well, to match?
If you can make it happen, Chip, it might be the biggest win IndyCar gets this season.
There was no controversy or surprise over the first Driver of the Day vote for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix in 2017. As in the race, Sebastian Vettel swept to victory in the fan vote put together by Formula 1’s official website.
Vettel pushed Lewis Hamilton early in the race and Hamilton pitted sooner than he’d probably have expected, with Vettel and Scuderia Ferrari completing the “overcut” to move ahead and win the race.
Out front, Vettel gapped the field by several seconds and was never challenged from there, en route to his and Ferrari’s first win since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix.
The win was Ferrari’s first at Melbourne since 2007 (Kimi Raikkonen) and Vettel’s first there since 2011. In both cases, the driver that won the race went on to win the World Championship.
It was a landslide victory for race winner Sebastian Vettel in the first fan vote of 2017