Didn’t you use to be Jacques Villeneuve?

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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.

F1 Preview: 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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The third trip to the Baku City Circuit for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix comes slightly earlier in 2018 for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Contested in June each of its first two years, the event was moved to April for 2018.

Although the circuit was initially criticized for its close quarters, its mix of tight corners and high-speed sections has produced quite a lot of action.

Last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix was particularly eventful. Sebastian Vettel intentionally hit Lewis Hamilton under a Safety Car after he thought Hamilton brake-checked him, and Vettel was given a 10-second stop and go penalty. Later, the headrest of Hamilton’s Mercedes AMG Petronas W08 came loose, forcing him to make a late pit stop.

The Sahara Force India duo of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon saw their budding rivalry come to blows, as they made contact while battling inside the Top 5.

Valtteri Bottas finished second after early-race contact with Kimi Raikkonen, and Bottas pipped Lance Stroll for second at the finish line. Stroll, for his part, scored his first career podium.

And, Daniel Ricciardo rebounded from an unscheduled pit stop early in the race – Red Bull Racing had to clear debris out of the brake scoops due to overheating – to take a stunning victory that featured a remarkable three-wide pass on Stroll, Felipe Massa, and Nico Hulkenberg. Highlights of last year’s race can be seen here.

Will this year’s race produce as many thrills? Talking points ahead of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix are below.

Hamilton Seeks First Baku Podium, and First Win of 2018

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 15: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2018 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

The first two trips to Baku have not been kind to four-time world champion Lewis Hamilton. His 2016 outing was fairly unremarkable by his standards, as he finished fifth after qualifying tenth.

The 2017 event might have been a victory for him if not for the aforementioned problems with Vettel and a loose headrest. Alas, he again finished fifth.

It’s hard to believe that Hamilton does not have a victory through the first three races of 2018. Combine that with his desire to erase the bad memories of Baku from 2016 and 2017, and the Briton will be extra motivated to stand on the top step of the podium.

Red Bull Looks to Keep Momentum

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 15: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Aston Martin Red Bull Racing RB14 TAG Heuer leads Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Aston Martin Red Bull Racing RB14 TAG Heuer on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2018 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Red Bull Racing is riding high after the Chinese Grand Prix, when Daniel Ricciardo took a shock win due to tire strategy following a Safety Car.

And the Baku circuit is one that Ricciardo likes, and not just because of last year’s victory, but also because it presents a lot of chances for overtaking.

“Baku is different to other street circuits – because there are places where you can pass,” Ricciardo asserted in a preview on Formula1.com. “Actually, lots of places where you can pass. As opposed to Monaco and Singapore where there’s not many places to overtake really.”

He added that the track’s combination of high-speeds and tight corners put a premium on getting your braking points exactly right, otherwise the track will bite you.

“The trickiest thing in Baku is braking. There’s so many braking points where you have to commit and you have to brake as late as you can – but there’s no room for error,” he detailed. “Once you’ve committed to that braking point, if you’ve locked a wheel, you’re in the wall. I’d say the hardest part about Baku is finding the limit with braking, and just having that confidence.”

Teammate Max Verstappen, meanwhile, looks to rebound after again catching the ire of many rivals and onlookers for his contact with Sebastian Vettel in China. Further, Verstappen looks to avenge last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, in which he dropped out following a power unit failure.

“Last year was a very unfortunate weekend for me. It was a shame because the car felt really good but I encountered a lot of problems which ultimately meant I missed out on a potential podium, perhaps even a win. I’m hoping this year I can make up for that lost opportunity,” said Verstappen in the aforementioned preview piece.

Ferrari Looks to Reclaim Dominance After China Hiccup

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 15: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2018 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

After winning the opening rounds at Australia and Bahrain with Sebastian Vettel, Scuderia Ferrari had their first hiccup of 2018 in China, when a Safety Car butchered their tire strategy and left them vulnerable when others, chiefly Ricciardo and Verstappen, pitted for new tires.

Vettel was relegated to eighth after spinning following contact with Verstappen, while teammate Kimi Raikkonen finished third, his second podium in three races to start 2018.

Baku was one of the races from 2017 in which Vettel drew criticism for his on-track antics – see the aforementioned collision with Hamilton – and he’ll hope to get back on the podium to avenge both his struggles from China and from last year’s Baku outing.

Raikkonen, meanwhile, will look to get back to his winning ways for the first time since 2013.

Misc.

  • McLaren F1 Team sits a much-improved fourth in the constructor’s championship on the strength of two double-points finishes, with Fernando Alonso leading the way. Alonso has finishes of fifth, seventh, and seventh after three races, while Stoffel Vandoorne has points finishes of ninth and eighth to his name so far.
  • Sahara Force India still only has one points finish in 2018 – Esteban Ocon’s tenth in Bahrain. It’s hard to believe how far this team has fallen, even if the midfield is jammed with ultra competitive teams. That they have been off the pace to start 2018 is genuinely surprising.
  • Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team have been the strongest of the midfield teams so far, along with McLaren, and they should contend once again for points this weekend.

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix rolls off at 8:00 a.m. ET on Sunday.

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