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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.

Alexander Rossi’s likeness revealed on Borg-Warner Trophy (PHOTOS)

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All photos: LAT Photo USA for BorgWarner
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One of the hallmarks of the racing offseason is that the Indianapolis 500 winner gets to have his or her face immortalized on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Alexander Rossi is the latest addition now, the rookie winner of the 100th running having had his face get added and revealed today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.

Rossi’s face is actually the 103rd on the trophy, because of two co-drivers that won the race and an additional tribute to Tony Hulman, who bought and saved the Speedway after World War II.

As part of the process, Rossi met with sculptor Will Behrends in September in Tryon, NC, getting his life-size image. That’s then shrunk down as part of a several-step process.

“I think it’s cooler than looking in the mirror for sure! Because as we were talking about it, this kind of reminds me; it’s the first time you see something that’s not reversed,” Rossi said. “And I’m still tripping out about it! I’ve been here for a couple of hours now, but it’s very cool. It’s very special and it’s way more detailed, accurate and amazing than I ever thought it would be.

“What Will was able to do, I mean, it blows my mind that he was able to get this so accurate just from pictures. I am so far from being anywhere close to an artist but you can really appreciate what he’s done and I don’t even know where to begin in how you acquire such an amazing skill set. It’s fantastic that I had the opportunity to work with him for a short period of time and I think that it’s a very special program to be part of.”

Behrends added, “This is of course my 27th year of doing these images on the Borg-Warner Trophy and going to see the race. This one was particularly interesting and exciting because of the way it ended and the winner. It was just a fantastic ending, everyone was on the edge of their seat, and standing up at the end. It was very exciting.”

Photos from the process leading to the reveal are below, with more to come tonight following the conclusion of the event itself.

All photos courtesy LAT Photo USA for BorgWarner:

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Flashback: When Max Chilton gave fiancee ‘terrifying’ ride in race car

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Somehow, we missed this one the first time it came around — but even a few months later, it still bears sharing. And thanks to the Goodwood Festival of Speed for re-posting on its Facebook page not long after the Verizon IndyCar Series season finale in Sonoma, which is where it caught our eye.

Back in late March, Verizon IndyCar Series driver Max Chilton wanted to give new fiancee Chloe Roberts an up close and personal insight into how a race car driver does his thing behind the wheel.

Chilton confirmed today during a Facebook Live video that they’ll get married during the August 2017 break in IndyCar’s schedule, likely between the Mid-Ohio and Pocono race weekends.

Alas, Chilton was at the 74th members meeting of the Goodwood Festival of Speed when he was given the opportunity to hop into an old car of NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Jamie McMurray’s.

“It’s very different from what I’m used to,” Chilton said in a video posted on the Festival’s official Facebook page. “It’s very big, heavy, it’s got similar paths to what I’m used to but it’s like a tank of a race car.

“But it’s perfect for what I’m doing today and hopefully it puts on a good show for everyone.”

That’s when Max got the bright idea to take Chloe for a spin.

“Chloe has never been in a racing car, and so she’s never seen what I get out to,” he said. “This isn’t really what I get out to, but it’ll give her the sensation of noise and smoke and the acceleration and adrenaline of having fun in these cars.”

Roberts approached the chance for a ride along with hesitation and trepidation – even requesting to don a helmet when Max informed her he’d be doing some doughnuts with the car.

Still, Roberts was a good sport and went through with it, even though there was a slight blip in plans early on.

“It’s always reassuring when you don’t know how to start a car,” she chided her boyfriend, who struggled to get the Chevrolet SS going.

The best part of the video was when Chilton decided to do a few burnouts. Let’s just say Roberts’ mouth went agape and her facial expressions were priceless.

When the ride ended, Chloe summed things up in just one word: “Terrifying.”

It’s a good thing Max asked Chloe to marry him a week earlier. If he would have waited until after the ride along, who knows what may have happened, right?

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IMSA’s December test entry list features DPi, new Porsche public debuts

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Top photo: Cadillac Racing. Bottom photo: Mazda.
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After private testing has taken place for the two manufacturers who have revealed their Daytona Prototype international (DPi) models, Cadillac and Mazda, both cars’ public debuts will occur at next week’s December 13-14 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship at the Daytona International Speedway.

Additionally, the new Porsche 911 RSR is set for its first official public running.

Official names for the DPi cars are the Cadillac DPi-V.R and Mazda RT24-P, respectively, although on this first version of the entry list they’re just labeled as Cadillac DPi and Mazda DPi. The VISIT FLORIDA Racing entry is listed as a Multimatic Riley LMP2.

Those five cars headline the entries for the test, which also features 23 combined GT cars from GT Le Mans and GT Daytona (eight and 15 cars, respectively).

Photo: Porsche
Photo: Porsche

In GTLM, both Corvette C7.Rs, both Ford GTs, both Porsche 911 RSRs (the new model’s anticipated public on-track debut, following Los Angeles Auto Show launch, see above) and a BMW M6 GTLM and Ferrari 488 GTE apiece will test.

GTD sees entries from Audi, Lamborghini, Lexus, Mercedes-AMG, Porsche, Ferrari and Acura.

The full list is linked here.

Chilton back for sophomore season with Ganassi

SONOMA, CA - SEPTEMBER 17:  Max Chilton of England driver of the #8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Dallara during practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 17, 2016 in Sonoma, California.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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Max Chilton will return to the Verizon IndyCar Series with Chip Ganassi Racing Teams for 2017, into a second season.

The 25-year-old Englishman finished 19th in this year’s standings with a best finish of seventh at Phoenix in the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. The team switches to Honda next season.

“I think we were able to build a solid foundation in my rookie year in the Verizon IndyCar Series with the support of Gallagher and the team,” Chilton said in a release.

“The learning curve is very steep here, and the field is separated by just a few seconds from top to bottom with really talented teams and drivers, which makes the competition incredibly close.

“Having a year of experience now to adapt to the car and learn all of the courses on the schedule is huge for us. Chip and Gallagher give us everything we need to be competitive and go out to contend for wins, so I’m optimistic for the direction of the No. 8 Gallagher team heading into next season.”

There were moments where it looked like Chilton had the potential for greater results but a mix of bad luck and occasional tough qualifying efforts left him playing catchup over the course of the weekend.

Chilton spent the entire 2013 and most of 2014 in Formula 1 before heading Stateside in 2015, when he competed in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and finished fifth in points racing for Carlin. His win on the Iowa Speedway oval opened doors for his graduation into IndyCar last year.