Photo: IndyCar

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


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.

Zach Veach confirmed with Belardi to start 2016 Indy Lights season

Photo: Belardi Auto Racing
Leave a comment

Two-year Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series veteran Zach Veach will return to the series in 2016 following a year’s hiatus. At the moment, it’s for the start of the season only but with the intended plan of making it a full-season effort.

The young American joins the Belardi Auto Racing team, which he narrowly lost out to in his last full-time campaign in 2014 when he finished third in the points.

Veach, who turns 21 next month, is Brian Belardi’s first confirmed driver for the 2016 season. Perhaps one of the single most experienced drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy, Veach has been on all three rungs (Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000) since 2010 and spent 2015 as a color commentator for the IndyCar Radio Network.

He tested for the team last month at Sebring, and will have several other tests before the St. Petersburg season opening weekend March 11-13.

“I’m very thankful for this opportunity that Brian Belardi has given me,” Veach said. “After racing against his team for so many years, I’ve always had a ton of respect for him, his crew, and of course, his cars. Belardi Auto Racing competes to win championships and I would love to give them their second Indy Lights title.

“Right now, we only have a partial program in place, but with a great amount of effort on both sides. We will be doing everything possible to try to get funding together for an entire season, so we can put a championship fight in place. I look towards winter testing, and 2016, with a lot of hope and excitement.”

“We’re really happy to have Zach confirmed with us for next year, and we’ll work closely with him to make sure that we can get the funding we need to run him all season,” Belardi added.

“He’s a supreme talent both in and out of the car, and his initial test outings in the car were just as we expected.  Zach was on-pace very early in Sebring after familiarizing himself with the new Indy Lights car, and I know that we’ll challenge for race wins and the championship next year.”

ARCA releases 2016 schedule; Mobile out, Madison (Wisc.) returns

arca logo
Leave a comment

The ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards will have only minor changes to the 2016 season, the sanctioning body said Wednesday after revealing next season’s schedule.

The biggest change is Mobile, Alabama is off the schedule, to be replaced by a return to Madison, Wisconsin.

As ARCA enters its 64th consecutive year of racing, the schedule will once again feature 20 races for the third consecutive year, starting at Daytona International Speedway on February 13 and ending on Oct. 14 at Kansas Speedway.

ARCA 2016 sked



All told, there will be nine races on short tracks, eight on superspeedways, two on dirt and one on a road course.

“We are pleased to announce our full and complete schedule,” ARCA President Ron Drager said. “We feel we have once again put together a schedule that highlights the diversity of the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards. We are excited for the start of the new season.”

Other changes include:

* The annual Chicagoland Speedway race will be moved to Thursday night, Sept. 15, kicking off the opening weekend of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

* The road course race at New Jersey will be moved to Saturday, May 28, rather than its previous Sunday afternoon date.

* The annual dirt race at DuQuoin State Fairgrounds in Illinois will shift from an afternoon to an evening race.

* The series will mark milestone events with the 75th series event at Toledo Speedway and the 99th and 100th races at southern Indiana’s Salem Speedway.

* The series will have companion races with all three of NASCAR’s pro touring series, as well as one weekend as the undercard for the Verizon IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway in July.

* As for the return to Madison, Drager said, “It was important for us to schedule a race in the Menards market. Last year, we did not have a race in either Minnesota or Wisconsin and this year, we decided to go back. We are definitely looking forward to racing again at Madison and the upper Midwest.”

* The annual awards banquet takes place Dec. 12 in Indianapolis.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Ecclestone has ‘no doubts’ Monza will remain on F1 calendar

1 Comment

MILAN (AP) Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone is confident the Italian Grand Prix in Monza can find the needed cash to stay on the calendar.

Ecclestone tells the Gazzetta dello Sport, “We will find the right solution – I no longer have doubts – to provide a future for the Italian GP.”

No circuit has hosted more F1 racing than Monza, but officials at the track outside Milan have had trouble producing the estimated 25 million euros ($26.6 million) per year that Ecclestone seeks to keep the race in place after the current contract expires next year.

Ecclstone says, “Things have been cleared up and there is only one go between, (Angelo) Sticchi Damiani, the president of the Italian Automobile Club.”

The Italian GP next year is scheduled for Sept. 4.

Alternative engine solution rejected by F1 Commission

Nico Rosberg

Plans to introduce a new alternative, cheaper engine into Formula 1 for 2017 – hypothetically a 2.2-liter V6 similar to what is seen in IndyCar – will at least temporarily go on the backburner.

The F1 Commission has rejected the so called “alternative engine solution,” where several companies submitted proposals to be that alternative supplier.

“The F1 Commission voted not to pursue this option at this stage — however, it may be reassessed after the Power Unit manufacturers have presented their proposal to the Strategy Group,” the FIA said on Wednesday.

“The parties involved have agreed on a course to address several key areas relating to Power Unit supply in Formula One,” the statement added.

Meanwhile the statement outlined four things the current manufacturers – Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and Honda – would be tasked with improving on the current 1.6-liter formula:

Those are:

  • a guarantee of supply to teams
  • the need to reduce the engines’ cost
  • simplification of the specification
  • “improved noise”

Further meetings between the manufacturers and the governing body are scheduled, including one this weekend at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix season finale.

As F1 heads into the final weekend of the season, political/paddock items such as Red Bull and Toro Rosso’s respective power unit futures, whether Renault’s takeover of Lotus will finally become official and what will happen with Manor’s team leadership stake – this marks Graeme Lowdon and John Booth’s final weekends although ex-McLaren man Dave Ryan has been hired as the team’s new racing director – are among the talking points.