Indy 500: Experience is a virtue for former champ Jacques Villeneuve

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After running around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval for the first time since his 1995 Indy 500 triumph, Jacques Villeneuve needed a moment to get himself together.

But eventually, the experience from all those years ago kicked in.

“The first 20 laps was a big shock to the system because I hadn’t been in an open-wheel car since 2006,” he said of the experience last month. “If I had jumped from F1 directly to Indy, it would’ve been a non-issue. But the first 20 laps – your body, your brain, your eyes – they’re just not used to those speeds anymore and it’s a big shock.

“You just need to do a few laps, get out of the car, take a breather and then when you get back in, it’s business as usual. The muscle memory is there. It’s like riding a bicycle. You start doing a few set-up changes and you settle in.”

19 years later, Villeneuve – who also became a Formula One World Champion in 1997 – is returning to the ‘500’ this year in a third car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

A lot has changed in 19 years, and Villeneuve doesn’t seem to like some of those changes such as the shift to a “fixed” chassis formula with the Dallara DW12. He says he understands why IndyCar did it, but in his mind, it doesn’t attain the obvious goal of cost-containment for its competitors.

“If you open it up, people will start making cars again,” he said. “It’s never been a bad thing. If you look at every series through history that went to one manufacturer, one engine, one tire, they never made things cheaper.

“It’s supposed to do that but it doesn’t, and it just stops the evolution. When you’re a world series or a top-notch series, it needs to be open to be respected.”

He also believes the level of respect that drivers gave each other on the race track has decreased as well.

“Some younger drivers didn’t even grow up seeing real racing as being dangerous,” he mused. “A lot of drivers, when they break their little finger, they’re surprised. I’m like, ‘Be happy!’

“Sometimes you see things happen that you’d never see in the past, because the drivers back then knew you needed to respect the danger, and they don’t.”

Villeneuve is hoping not to be around those particular drivers if and when they have a problem Sunday. He also hopes to use the first half of Sunday’s race as a chance to gauge his car’s capabilities in the draft.

That could prove to be the biggest challenge of all for the 43-year-old Canadian.

“Once you back out a little bit, it’s similar to throwing a parachute,” he said. “If the guy behind you has managed to stay close to you without backing out of it, you’re done. When one car gets you, the car behind him will get you and so on, and you can never get your rhythm back and that’s what’s tough.

“Early in the race, it shouldn’t be an issue and you can run wide. But as soon as the marbles get on the track, then you really have to be careful in how you let guys pass you if they’re getting a run on you.”

You certainly can’t be passive in a situation like that. But that should be the last problem we’ll expect out of Villeneuve now that he’s re-acquainted himself with the Brickyard oval.

“It feels as if 19 years ago is yesterday and that is weird. 19 years is a long time and suddenly, the speeds felt normal,” he said. “…You get to the point where it doesn’t feel fast anymore and that’s where the danger lies.

“You become too complacent and you get caught out. The good thing is I’ve been here before, I hit the wall here before, so I know not to get caught with that.”

Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023; leaves open possibility of returning at Ganassi

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Though he remains uncertain of his plans for next year, Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023, scaling back his schedule after running a full 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.

“This was a difficult choice for me, but in my heart, I know it’s the right one,” Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “I’m not exactly sure what the next chapter holds, but if an opportunity comes along that makes sense, I will consider it. I still have a bucket list of racing events I would like to take part in. Competing at this level in IndyCar has been such a great experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to race for than Chip Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing. Everyone worked extremely hard for the last two seasons, pushing to get the best performances out of me every single week. The support from my crew and teammates Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon), Tony (Kanaan), Marcus (Ericsson) and Alex (Palou) went above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON: An analysis of his racing options for the 2023 season

Driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson ranked 21st in the 2022 points standings with a career-best fifth place July 24 at Iowa Speedway.

After running only road and street courses for Ganassi in 2021, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion added ovals this year. In his Indy 500 debut, he qualified 12th and finished 28th after a late crash.

“I do have a desire to go back (to IndyCar), it’s just at this point, I know what’s required to do a full schedule, and I don’t have that in me,” Johnson told AP. “I don’t have that passion that I need for myself to commit myself to a full season.”

That leaves open the concept of Johnson returning part time with Ganassi, perhaps exclusively on ovals.

“We are fully supportive of Jimmie,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He has been a valued member of our team and if we can find a way to continue working together, we would like to do so.”

During IndyCar’s season finale race weekend, Johnson told reporters Sept. 9 that he planned to explore his options with wife Chandra and daughters Evie and Lydia. Johnson told the Associated Press that his family is considering living abroad for a year or two, and he has toyed with the idea of running in the World Endurance Championship sports car series because of its international locales.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out IndyCar, IMSA sports cars or even a cameo in NASCAR next year. Since retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, he has entered the endurance races of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac (including Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale). Johnson also wants to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is a prime candidate for the Garage 56 entry (a joint project of NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports).

Johnson told the AP he is interested in becoming the latest driver to try “The Double” and run both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day (the most recent was Kurt Busch in 2014).

“You know me and endurance sports, and ‘The Double’ sounds awesome,” Johnson, a four-time Coke 600 winner, told AP. “I’ve always had this respect for the guys who have done ‘The Double.’ I would say it is more of a respect thing than a bucket-list item, and I’d love to put some energy into that idea and see if I can pull it off.”

It is less likely that he would return to IMSA’s endurance events because its top prototype series is being overhauled, limiting the amount of inventory available for the new LMDh cars in the rebranded GTP division.

Johnson has confirmed that he would retain primary sponsor Carvana, which has backed him in IndyCar the past two years. He revealed his decision Monday during the last episode of “Reinventing the Wheel,” Carvana Racing’s eight-part docuseries about his 2023 season.

“I’m thankful for the partnership with a company like Carvana for allowing me to take this journey in IndyCar, for seeing the value in our partnership and being open to future opportunities together,” Johnson said. “They have truly showed me that there are no finish lines in life. Along with Carvana, The American Legion, Ally, cbdMD and Frank August were there every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Most importantly — and the true rockstars in all of this –my family, Chani, Evie and Lydia. They have always allowed me to chase my dreams, and we are all just really excited about what the future holds for all of us. I have enjoyed every minute of these last two years.”

Said Carvana co-founder Ryan Keeton: “During the past two years, Jimmie Johnson has been so amazing to collaborate with. Our team admires his passion, hard work and commitment to continuous improvement while also having fun, and we look forward to continuing to support him next year in this new chapter.”