Villeneuve’s Indy 500 return trumpets the past, not the future IndyCar needs

13 Comments

For four years, Jacques Villeneuve was one of the world’s best open-wheel drivers.

From 1994 through 1997, the talented and sometimes tempestuous Canadian dazzled on both a North American and international stage.

He was a star in CART for two years, and in 1995 was the young upstart threatening the iconic names of Andretti, Unser, Fittipaldi and Rahal.

A year later he was off to Frank Williams’ Formula One team, in 1996. He almost won his first Grand Prix in Melbourne, and he took the title chase down to the last race in Suzuka. He won the championship a year later after surviving a lunge from Michael Schumacher at Dry Sac corner in Jerez, Spain.

From there, Villeneuve’s F1 career was never able to reach the same heights. He worked with Craig Pollock, and was his first driver in the new British American Racing team. But results between 1998 and 2006 with Williams, BAR-Honda, Renault, Sauber-Petronas and BMW Sauber were few and far between.

Eventually he made a few NASCAR starts, where he occasionally upset the establishment. He made a record, to show off his musical stylings.

He’s talked. He’s talked some more. And he’s talked again, most recently expressing doubts about F1’s newest era.

He’s returning to a full-time rally seat in the new FIA World Rallycross Championship, which has 12 rounds from May to November. But one of the rounds is May 24-25 at Lydden Hill in England, which happens to fall on the same weekend as the Indianapolis 500.

Assuming he takes the green flag at the ‘500 in Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ third car, he’ll set a new record for the longest gap between starts, with 19 years in-between that 505-mile race win and May 25, 2014.

Villeneuve is 42 now – 43 at the time of the ‘500 – and he’ll join a field that will include former ‘500 winners Buddy Lazier, 46, Tony Kanaan, 39, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya, both 38. Scott Dixon, 33, is the youngest former ‘500 winner in the field.

All of the above preamble can lead to one of two overriding opinions:

  • It’s great for the sport, and great for Villeneuve, that he’s choosing to come back to the ‘500 after such a long absence. He’s a marquee name, former winner, and still attracts both discussion and sponsors.
  • It’s a joke, a PR stunt, reeks of desperation and denies a spot for a young talent to have a shot.

While social media tends to skew toward either extreme, Villeneuve’s presence really lies in the middle, albeit skewing slightly more to the latter than the former to me.

The good, first: Villeneuve is a big name, no question. The prestige associated with his past accolades is still something commercial partners can hang their hat on.

He seems to think IndyCar, as an organization, has made strides from where it was when he last left (albeit, it’s been through CART, Champ Car and the Indy Racing League monikers and separate series since 2008’s unification). And he wants in.

“It looked extremely exciting with the new cars, to the point where I was angry and jealous that I wasn’t racing. So that got me going again,” he said during today’s teleconference.

He has “villainous” tendencies, because of his handful of NASCAR starts occasionally featured controversial endings. He sometimes used his Team Penske Dodge as a battering ram at the Montreal circuit named after his father, Gilles.

But there are the questions as to either: A: Does he know what he’s getting himself into and B: What is really in this for Jacques?

He’s set himself up for a challenge. He hasn’t driven an open-wheel car since 2006, but he should be able to reacclimate quickly. At least he hopes he will.

“The power levels are the things you get used to the fastest,” he explained. “Possibly downforce and also driving a car that once again will be quite stiff compared to the cars I’ve been driving lately and very reactive. You can’t manhandle as much. When you get sideways at Indy, the chances of you catching it are quite slim compared to most other cars. You can catch it, but it’s not something you want to push.”

As far as expectations go, the word used today multiple times was “opportunity,” that stemmed from the discussions that have taken place quickly over the past few weeks.

But opportunity to do what? Just to start? To throw himself in the middle of the field and hope he can beat the full-timers to be a serious top-five or top-10 contender?

And then here’s a part I found interesting: the mention of kids. Ironically, Villeneuve’s hoping his appearance in this year’s 500 will be proof he’s still got it to his kids, while he’ll be in a seat that some in the IndyCar world hoped would have gone to – you guessed it – a kid.

“I don’t want to be for my kids just the guy that used to race that they can see in books,” he said. “I want them to see and live what I’ve already lived, to see it through my doing it actively. It’s actually a positive effect to have kids.”

Yet it’s IndyCar’s kids – a Sage Karam, Gabby Chaves, Peter Dempsey, Conor Daly, Stefan Wilson or whoever else – who now have to work even harder to find the funding opportunities to achieve the same opportunity as a guy who starred as a kid in the 1990s.

Go figure.

Without a commercial partner announcement to go with today’s official confirmation, and yes, Schmidt Peterson co-owner Sam Schmidt is confident one will be announced in “not too long of an order,” it all doesn’t particularly add up yet.

You can trumpet the past winner argument all you want, and you can say it puts another car on the grid, and you can say it’s going to be cool to see how someone who raced in another era of open-wheel racing takes to the modern incarnation. All fair points, and yes, they will be interesting to watch.

But when you’re embracing your history books rather than the young students who are reading them, you miss the chance to write some new, fresh chapters with new, fresh characters.

Hamilton has considered quitting F1, but now ‘loving it more than ever’

Leave a comment

Lewis Hamilton has revealed he considered quitting Formula 1 in order to pursue interests outside of the sport, but currently has no plans to retire, saying he is “loving it more than ever”.

Hamilton, 32, is currently fighting for his fourth drivers’ title against Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, and leads the championship by 28 points with six races remaining.

The Briton enjoys a celebrity profile outside of the sport unmatched by any of his peers, and has interests in fashion and music that he has long expressed a desire in pursuing once his racing career has finished.

After winning last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix, Hamilton returned to Europe to attend the fashion week events in London and Milan before jetting to Malaysia next week to continue his championship bid.

Appearing on UK chatshow The Jonathan Ross Show, Hamilton discussed his future plans and admitted he had considered turning his back on F1 in the past.

“You try and go as long as you can. It’s not a sport you can go back to,” Hamilton said.

“When you’re in Formula 1, you’re in the spotlight, you’re at the top of the world – then it’s downhill from there on.

“You don’t earn the same money, there’s not a huge amount of opportunities because you’ve been in that world for so long. I’ve been there since I was eight.

“For me at the moment, for these past five, six years I’ve really been trying to work on what I enjoy outside of the sport so that when I stop I can walk away and still have other things.”

When asked directly if he was planning to retire soon, Hamilton said: “No. There have been talks about it, and I definitely have thought about it.

“There have definitely been times when I’ve thought there are other things I want to do, but then we’re in the heat of this battle right now and I’m loving it more than ever.

“The training, all the work that you put into something, and then you get to really show your abilities, it’s the greatest feeling ever.

“So I’m going to keep going for as long as I can and see what I can do.”

Hamilton existing contract with Mercedes expires at the end of the 2018 season, the Briton having made his F1 debut back in 2007.

Rossi expecting to ‘suffer’ with injury in MotoGP Aragon race

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Valentino Rossi is expecting to “suffer” in Sunday’s MotoGP race at Motorland Aragon as he competes just 23 days after suffering a double leg-break in a training accident.

Rossi was forced to miss the last race at Misano due to the injury and was expected to miss the Aragon Grand Prix, only to make a shock return and be cleared by MotoGP’s medical staff on Thursday.

Rossi qualified a remarkable third on Saturday for Yamaha, less than two-tenths of a second behind pole-sitting teammate Maverick Viñales, surprising himself in the process.

“It’s a surprise for me and us, because I didn’t know what to expect,” Rossi said.

“A week ago I started to think maybe it was possible to ride here, and I did some laps with the R1 [bike] thinking it could be possible but with some pain. But the leg has improved every day.

“My position on the bike isn’t perfect but quite close to the normal one, at first we changed some things but now I’m using the normal footpeg and seat position and for sure it’s better.”

Despite impressing in qualifying, Rossi is less hopeful of his chances across a race distance, but is ready to give his all in the race.

“We still need to work a bit because with the race tire my pace isn’t fantastic but we’ll try,” Rossi said.

“On Friday morning when I woke up I was in pain, then this morning when I woke up it was better. So if tomorrow continues in the same way, I can do the race.

“But the bike is a bit more demanding on the race tires. For sure I have to suffer, but I’ll try.”

Ricciardo confident Red Bull hasn’t missed last F1 win chance in 2017

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Red Bull Formula 1 driver Daniel Ricciardo is confident the team has not missed its last chance to win a race in 2017 after losing out to Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in Singapore.

Red Bull ran strongly throughout the Singapore race weekend, with Ricciardo boldly stating the team would win after qualifying third for the race.

A wet-dry affair marred by a start-line crash allowed Hamilton to sweep from fifth to first, while Ricciardo was left to settle for P2 for the third straight year in Singapore.

With none of the remaining circuits appearing to suit Red Bull’s RB13 car as well as Singapore, Ferrari and Mercedes are expected to share the spoils through the final six races of the year.

However, Ricciardo is sure that Red Bull will get another opportunity to add to its surprise victory in Baku earlier this season, which came about in surprising circumstances.

“Malaysia, obviously there were a few incidents last year but I think our general pace wasn’t too bad so we might be stronger than we think there,” Ricciardo said, looking ahead to next weekend’s race in Kuala Lumpur.

“Malaysia, Japan and then we’ll see. I think we can be podium cars, probably Malaysia, Japan, Austin.

“We might need some alternate conditions to really give us raw pace to fight for a win.

“I’m not going to sit here and say we’re not going to win one.

“I believe we’ll get at least one chance somewhere.”

F1 teams allowed to use current-year cars for demos from 2018

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Formula 1 teams will be allowed to use their latest-spec cars at demonstrations organized by the sport from 2018, the FIA has confirmed.

F1 hit the streets of London, England ahead of the British Grand Prix in July for a live demonstration that attracted a crowd of over 100,000 fans.

Due to restrictions on the use of current cars outside of official testing and grand prix weekends, all teams were required to appear with older chassis models in London, most coming from 2015, the most recent year allowed to be used freely.

The restrictions meant that Haas, which only became an F1 team in 2016, could not field a car at all in London.

As part of the updated sporting regulations approved by the World Motor Sport Council and issued by the FIA earlier this week, a rule tweak was confirmed to let teams use their current-year cars at “demonstration events organized by the Commercial Rights Holder”.

Teams are still allowed to complete two filming day events with their current cars, with the majority opting to use one prior to pre-season testing to act as a shakedown of their new models.

While no further demonstrations such as the one in London have been confirmed by F1 yet, they are understood to be in the works after the success the July event enjoyed.