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Smith: Was Jacques Villeneuve’s Formula E departure inevitable?

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When Jacques Villeneuve announced back in August that he would be entering Formula E from the beginning fen season two with Venturi, the reaction was mixed.

The more idealist fans and observers saw it as one of the biggest coups scored by the infant series to date. Regardless of his reputation and somewhat backwards career path, Villeneuve is a former champion in both Formula 1 and CART – and that alone lends a great deal of credence to the series.

The cynics immediately scoffed at his arrival. Given his abrupt and failed foray into NASCAR and the nature of his departure from F1 midway through the 2006 season, few believed that Villeneuve would last long.

I personally belonged in the first camp. My love for F1 and motorsport was encouraged by my mother, who told me stories of seeing her hero, Gilles Villeneuve, race back in the 1970s and 1980s. Reading about the Canadian only increased my amazement.

So this idealist fool put a post up on Facebook on the day that Jacques confirmed his arrival into Formula E, cooing at the fact I would see a Villeneuve out on track the very next week at Donington Park for the first pre-season test.

Naturally, the cynics hit back. The responses read like a bad song list on a new album, fitting since Villeneuve also tried – and struggled – to venture into the music world post-his F1 career.

“You’re looking for the wrong Villeneuve,” one colleague said. “How long until the mid-season walk-out?” quipped another. “Every race needs a 14th place finisher,” added a third.

Villeneuve had long expressed an interest in Formula E as a concept, though. He did try and set up his own team upon the formation of the series, but was unsuccessful. As a result, his arrival at Venturi couldn’t be considered that surprising.

“I got in the car and immediately enjoyed it,” Villeneuve said of a test that helped him make up his mind. “It drove like a proper single seater and I was happily surprised by the feeling in the car and the team atmosphere was great.

“So it was an easy decision to do the full season. It’s a series that will keep getting faster and if you look at the rest of the racing world they try to make them slower, so that’s definitely a positive.”

There were early teething problems, though. The rule change for season two that allowed teams to develop their own powertrains, a task that some managed more successfully than others. Venturi was by no means the worst offender when it came to stoppages, but Villeneuve did suffer a number of issues during his test running, with one leaving him to help push the car back to the garage after grinding to a halt at the end of the pit lane.

Nevertheless, Villeneuve appeared happy. Sporting his famed baggy overalls, he caught up with Jarno Trulli, a driver with whom he raced against the majority of his F1 career. There was a certain nostalgia to it all; the old boys giving it a go against the up-and-comers.

And yet the enormity of the task facing Villeneuve became clear when Formula E hit Beijing for the first race of season two. The Canadian had a nightmarish first race that was interrupted by a tangle with Antonio Felix da Costa when battling over 14th place. He eventually came home in P14, finishing one lap down on race winner Sebastien Buemi.

Putrajaya went little better. Villeneuve came close to scoring a breakthrough point by finishing 11th, yet this was out of just 13 finishers. At the end of a race full of carnage, the opportunity was there for the midfield runners to step up to the plate and pick up some points. Villeneuve missed out here.

He didn’t even make the start in Punta del Este, though. A crash in qualifying left his Venturi car beyond repair, bringing the curtain down on his time in Formula E – unbeknownst to us at the time, of course.

Earlier this week, the team confirmed that Villeneuve had left by mutual consent after “a disagreement over the future direction of the team.” Clearly, Villeneuve wasn’t expecting to fit into the ‘employee’ role that most drivers do; he was always expecting an increased position.

Was his exit from the series inevitable? The aforementioned cynics should in fact be called ‘realists.’ If Villeneuve couldn’t stick it out in a midfield running BMW Sauber back in 2006, what were the chances of him doing so in Formula E? Surely one of F1’s most vocal critics would be unable to find joy in such a young series that, while moving rapidly, still has teething problems?

Perhaps it depended on how he started. Had Villeneuve been battling towards the front early on, it’s unlikely he would have left Venturi. The ins and outs of his departure are not known, but at the age of 44, why would he want to be trundling around at the back?

The level of belief Villeneuve had (and still has) in Formula E is another key factor in his departure. Perhaps he had higher hopes for the championship, only to be disappointed when he arrived in it. Or maybe he felt Venturi weren’t meeting the potential that Formula E offered teams. Maybe he thought it better to go it alone.

So who knows – perhaps this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Jacques Villeneuve in Formula E. The likelihood of him starting his own team anytime soon is low given the grid is at its maximum capacity as of season three with the arrival of Jaguar. All of the other teams appear committed, making a takeover unlikely.

Time will tell on this one. But regardless, Villeneuve may have brought his reputation to Formula E, but the series has proven that no driver – even an ex-F1 and CART champion – is bigger than it as an entity. And that surely is a major victory while it remains at such an early stage.

NBCSN will present ‘Race and Sports in America: Conversations’ Monday

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With motor racing reckoning with its own issues of diversity and equality, “Race and Sports in America: Conversations” will tackle the topics of social justice with several athletes. The show will air at 8 p.m. ET Monday, July 13 on NBCSN, Golf Channel, Olympic channel and on regional sports networks.

The roundtable discussions will be hosted by Damon Hack and feature Charles Barkley, Steph Curry, Jimmy Rollins and Ozzie Smith in one segment. The other segment will include Kyle Rudolph, Anthony Lynn, Troy Mullins and James Blake.

Race has been a major topic in motorsports this year.

NASCAR banned the Confederate flag at its race after lobbying by Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in the premier Cup Series. In Formula One, six-time series champion Lewis Hamilton has joined Black Lives Matter marches in London and also formed a panel on diversity. The lone Black driver in F1 also led 14 of 20 drivers taking a knee before the season opener in Austria.