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

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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.

MotorSportsTalk’s Predictions: 2016 Malaysian GP

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Ever since shifting towards the beginning of the Formula 1 calendar in 2001, the Malaysian Grand Prix has always been seen as a race that is of little consequence when it comes to the title race.

Few would look at Lewis Hamilton’s win in 2014 or Sebastian Vettel’s 2013 victory at Sepang as being crucial in defining their title success, largely the result of how early in the season the race fell.

Yet with the Malaysian Grand Prix now coming later in the year as part of the title run-in, its importance has been magnified.

Nico Rosberg arrives in Sepang leading the drivers’ championship by eight points after a run of three straight wins in Belgium, Italy and Singapore, but with Hamilton still hungry and six races remaining, the title race is far from over.

As usual, myself and fellow MST F1 writer Tony DiZinno have made our picks for the coming weekend.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race Winner: Lewis Hamilton. Rosberg may be on a roll, but I’m backing Hamilton to strike back this weekend and end his teammate’s run. Hamilton’s form may be patchy, yet this race is so, so important to his title aspirations: he simply cannot afford to lose.

Surprise Finish: Esteban Gutierrez. I’ll tip Esteban to finally end his points drought on Sunday. He’ll probably end up 11th though. Again.

Most to Prove: Lewis Hamilton. Yep, I’m putting Hamilton down twice here. See above: he’s got to win this weekend or at the very least beat Rosberg.

Additional Storyline: Resurfaced track to pose fresh challenge. The renovations undertaken at Sepang were necessary, and the newly-resurfaced track looks good. It will definitely hand the drivers a new challenge, though, particularly at the final corner where the racing line has changed dramatically.

Predict the Podium

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race Winner: Lewis Hamilton. Nothing on Lewis’ current form makes me confident in this pick but I just don’t see Nico pulling together his fourth straight win this weekend.

Surprise Finish: Sergio Perez. This track is hard on tires and there’s few better in the business at managing them over the course of the race. Do we hear more about Perez’s future this weekend? Perhaps, but I think we hear more about him in the race, with a top-five possible.

Most to Prove: Max Verstappen. Max is in dire need of a clean start after a couple rough getaways in recent GPs. He also hasn’t finished ahead of Daniel Ricciardo since Silverstone, so time for the much-hyped 18-year-old to have a dynamic, clean weekend.

Additional Storyline: Button 300. We’re still not sure if Jenson Button will be driving his last Grand Prix in a few events’ time, but his 300th is something to celebrate – and it’s cool to see him hit this milestone.

Predict the Podium

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull

Olivier Pla leads polesitters for 2016 Petit Le Mans

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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BRASELTON, Ga. – Olivier Pla (Prototype and overall), Robert Alon (Prototype Challenge), Richard Westbrook (GT Le Mans) and Jeroen Bleekemolen (GT Daytona) have secured the pole positions for Saturday’s Petit Le Mans, the season finale of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship 2016 campaign.

Pla and the sterling pace of the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 Honda he shares with Ozz Negri and John Pew continued into qualifying on Friday afternoon. The Shank Ligier Honda led all four pre-qualifying practice sessions and then Pla lowered the bar to a 1:13.061 around the 2.54-mile Road Atlanta road course.

Pla has won his second pole of the year, having also done so at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring back in March.

This ensures an LMP2-spec car has won a pole in each of the four Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup races (SMP Racing at Daytona, Shank at Sebring and Road Atlanta, Tequila Patron ESM at Watkins Glen) and seven of the 10 Prototype races overall.

Tristan Nunez brought the No. 55 Mazda Prototype into second on the grid at 1:13.520, ahead of Dane Cameron in the No. 31 Action Express Racing Corvette DP at 1:13.903.

Cameron and Eric Curran, who share their car with newly crowned IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud, seek to win the title but are up one point over their teammates Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi (Filipe Albuquerque) in the No. 5 car, 286-285, going into Saturday’s race. The No. 5 car qualified in fifth with the second Mazda, the No. 70 Mazda, in fourth.

In PC, Alon edged a pair of drivers by less than a tenth for his fourth pole of the season in the PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca FLM09 he shares with Tom Kimber-Smith and Jose Gutierrez.

Alon was 0.059 of a second ahead of Starworks Motorsport’s Alex Popow and 0.084 of a second BAR1 Motorsports’ Johnny Mowlem in his final drive.  Alon’s best time was 1:16.411, and Mowlem felt as though he gave away the tenth he needed to grab the pole.

“I’m gutted for the team. I should have got pole,” Mowlem told IMSA Radio. “Especially when Renger (van der Zande) is not out there. No excuse, but my predicted lap time wasn’t working. That’s the thing you need to find half a tenth here or there. I might have been able to squeeze it. But to be fair, proper job to Robert Alon. He deserves the pole. But I am a little bit disappointed, I wanted pole for the last one.”

Kenton Koch and Stefano Coletti completed the top five for Performance Tech Motorsports and Starworks Motorsport, respectively.

GT

Westbrook has his third, and the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team’s fifth pole of the 2016 season in the No. 67 Ford GT he shares with Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon. Westbrook and Briscoe look to overcome a points deficit to win the title on Saturday.

“Westy’s” best lap of 1:18.131 in the No. 67 Ford topped a tightly bunched 10-car field in GTLM, with all of the cars within 0.735 of a second down to Nick Tandy in 10th in the No. 911 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR. Tandy’s heroics were on display last year as the No. 911 Porsche won this race overall in miserably wet conditions, and the race stopped early.

The No. 3 Corvette C7.R of Antonio Garcia was second at 1:18.283 and the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE third in the hands of Toni Vilander at 1:18.294.

The No. 4 Corvette C7.R, which leads the points by 11, will roll off seventh with Tommy Milner, Oliver Gavin and Marcel Fassler driving – that trio looking to add a Petit Le Mans win to its earlier triumphs at Daytona and Sebring. Milner was only 0.337 of a second off the pole time.

Bleekemolen brings the No. 33 Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper GT3-R to the pole in its final scheduled start. The team also won the pole here last year with Cameron Lawrence in the No. 93 Viper.

Bleekemolen will share his car with Ben Keating, the nation’s largest Viper dealer (Viper Exchange) and Marc Miller for Saturday’s race. The Dutchman doesn’t usually qualify but did so for the endurance race, and posted a best time of 1:21.305.

Matt McMurry took the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R to second on the grid, at 1:21.765. He’ll share the car that won last year with Patrick Lindsey and Joerg Bergmeister.

Mario Farnbacher qualified third in the No. 23 The Heart of Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R in the car he shares with Alex Riberas and Ian James.

Points leader Christina Nielsen, who stands on the brink of the GTD class title in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 she shares with Alessandro Balzan and Jeff Segal, qualified fourth and Lawson Aschenbach brought the No. 9 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS to fifth on the grid.

New CTSC champs win titles, race at Road Atlanta

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BRASELTON, Ga. – Billy Johnson and Scott Maxwell (GS) and Spencer Pumpelly and Nick Galante (ST) made it easy for the record keepers in the 2016 Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge season finale at Road Atlanta.

Both driver pairings won the race, and subsequently both pairings also won their respective season-long class championships.

Maxwell started the No. 15 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Shelby GT350R-C from pole and Johnson played the hunter after the final round of pit stops, on fresher tires than the competing No. 33 CJ Wilson Racing Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport driven by Marc Miller, and started by Danny Burkett.

Johnson then made it past Miller with 12 minutes to go, on the inside of the right-handed Turn 7, for the lead and ultimately the win on Lap 80.

This secures the title for the pairing after an authoritative season in GS, having won six of the 10 races.

Miller and Burkett rounded out their first year as teammates once again on the podium, with the No. 09 Automatic Racing Aston Martin Vantage of Charlie Putman and Charles Espenlaub in third.

The drama occurred more so in ST, with Pumpelly and Galante overcoming an eight-point deficit entering the race to win in the final 30 minutes.

Stevan McAleer and Chad McCumbee looked poised to capture their second straight title in ST and with a second different team. They won it for CJ Wilson Racing last year but looked to do the same for Freedom Autosport on this occasion.

But while Pumpelly made it past McAleer for the lead and McAleer was still second, smoke began to emerge from the right front of the engine bay with just over 20 minutes remaining.

McAleer attempted to get a push in his No. 25 Mazda MX-5 from teammate Andrew Carbonell in the No. 26 Mazda MX-5 but despite Carbonell doing so for a couple laps, the mechanical issues intensified and pitted.

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

That ensured Pumpelly and Galante had enough to secure the title for Justin Bellinzoni’s Rennsport One team, driving the No. 17 Porsche Cayman.

Pumpelly’s teammate in Pirelli World Challenge, Ryan Eversley, brought the No. 93 HART Honda Civic Si second in the car started by teammate Chad Gilsinger.

The No. 73 MINI JCW run by LAP Motorsports and driven by Derek Jones and Mat Pombo looked set to end third, back on the podium as they were this race last year, but fell off in the final couple laps.

It promoted Connor Bloum and Greg Strelzoff to a welcome podium in another RS1 Cayman, the No. 19 car, in third.

Eric Foss looked set to bring the No. 56 Murillo Racing Porsche Cayman home with a podium after starting from the rear of the field with co-driver Jeff Mosing, after Mosing was caught up in a qualifying accident on Thursday. But he fell down the order in the final laps, down to sixth.

Alonso set for short qualifying after Malaysia power unit penalties

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Fernando Alonso is preparing to watch the majority of Formula 1 qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix on TV after being hit with power unit penalties at Sepang.

Honda confirmed heading into the weekend that it had used some of its remaining development tokens to bring an update power unit to Malaysia for the McLaren team.

While Jenson Button will not take on the upgrades, Alonso will, meaning he must take new power unit components that trigger a grid penalty.

As things stand, Alonso has a 30-place grid drop to his name after taking a complete new power unit, but is expected to receive an additional penalty on Saturday.

Regardless, with the Spaniard all but certain to start Sunday’s race from last place on the grid, his focus on Saturday will be to set a time fast enough to simply qualify for the race, finishing within 107% of the best Q1 lap.

“We completed a good number of laps today and got through all the tests we’d planned to do. We even managed to conduct some experiments aimed at next year’s car, which was really positive,” Alonso said, reflecting on his Friday practice running, where he finished fifth in FP1 and seventh in FP2.

“We still need to see how well we can do tomorrow, especially in FP3, where we’ll be concentrating on long runs.

“For me, qualifying is going to be pretty short because of my penalties: I’ll do a lap to set a time within 107% and then I’ll watch it on TV. Then we’ll try to save as many sets of new tires as possible.”

“Fernando made a positive start to his weekend by immediately dropping into the groove and looking impressively quick at times,” McLaren racing director Eric Boullier added.

“It’s frustrating that he’s facing a significant grid penalty – for introducing new power unit elements – but it’s something we’d already factored into our weekend program, and we’ll work hard to provide him with a car and a strategy to best cope with that setback on Sunday.”

Qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 5am ET on Saturday.