Interview: Jacques Villeneuve: Off the beaten track

No matter that this has not been Jacques Villeneuve's most glittering season. With his radical hairdo, irresistible Gallic charm and adoring female following, he's still Formula One's brightest star

JACQUES Villeneuve, peroxide heart-throb and Formula One's reigning world champion, has offered an interview. Which is slightly strange: the last thing he needs is a higher profile, another window in his diary wiped out, and more questions on why this season, unlike last, has gone suddenly sour (he has only 12 championship points so far). But as a company car glided along the motorway, taking me to the Williams garage at Silverstone recently, it became obvious that his generosity is part of Formula One's Faustian contract with tobacco; for Rothmans has a new cigarette sponsor for Villeneuve, and the powers that be want maximum exposure.

None of which says anything about Villeneuve, except to show that, with all the ferocious marketing, he's only a cog in a very large industry; an industry which, with Blair's friend Bernie Ecclestone at its head, is as much about shifting products - petrol, tyres and of course tobacco - as it is about racing fast cars around a track.

"To start with," says Villeneuve, fixing me with his blue eyes, "I don't like people telling me what to do. I'm very independent." We're sitting on the tarmac, surrounded by the vast trucks which ferry the expensive cars to the track. People in overalls, peppered with logos, are everywhere, many of them - surprisingly, given the waft of petroleum and oil - smoking the regulation cigarette.

Villeneuve, despite being the apex of F1's endless promotional push, is very much sui generis. In many ways, he's like the Spurs footballer, David Ginola: prodigious and impulsive talent, Engleesh wiz ze slight French accent, and suspect in the minds of the suits for having an eccentric coiffure and endless female adulation. (After my interview, he's rushing off to do a shoot for Playboy, to have his overalls unzipped to his waist and be draped in women; "it could be interesting" he says.) Recently split from his girlfriend, Sandrine, Villeneuve is the only pin-up in the sport: those eyes, thick lips, boyish dimples. "The rest are married," he says modestly, by way of explanation, "but when I started getting this attention I was laughing and excited. It is fun." He gives a contented, Gallic shrug.

He's very much F1's fresh air amidst the exhaust. In a sport where car technology is so important now, Villeneuve - like James Hunt before him - seems much more man than machine. "I would rather have racing without computers," he maintains. "The human side is forgotten, and instead of talking over what's happening and just trusting the feel of the driver, the data becomes almost more important. Sometimes you hear commentators say, `Oh, you're driving the car the wrong way, if you drove it this way then it would be quicker.' I find that very annoying. We spend too much of our time looking at graphs."

Now 27, Villeneuve has an astonishing CV: born in Quebec, the son of the legendary driver Gilles, he won the American IndyCar title in 1995, so earning himself a contract with the Williams team in F1. In his very first season in the cramped cockpit he came second only to Damon Hill. It was mid-way through last season that, going blond, he immediately branded himself a maverick. Surrounded by so many automatons, it was a statement of independence which was not entirely welcomed. As Paul Fearnley, editor of the new GPX magazine says, "it was like the world had stopped: compared to the Val Doonicans of F1 it all seemed very grunge."

By last year, in the concluding race of the season at Jerez, he was competing with Michael Schumacher for the world championship. The German, steely and mechanical where Villeneuve is involved and passionate, tried to cut Villeneuve off at a corner, damaged his own car, and cost himself the race. Villeneuve, at only 26, was at the summit of the world's most lucrative and glamorous sport.

I ask Villeneuve whether, like many other sportsmen, he employs a psychic or something similar. "I would never do that," he says sternly. "I am too proud to do that. And if you need something like that then you shouldn't be at this level anyway. If a racer had that sort of help, I would lose a lot of respect for him." But even the England football team have their own faith healer. "Yes, but it doesn't go well with racing. A team sport is different because you have to work with other human beings as a team. With racing we're alone on the race track. We work with the team to prepare the car for racing, and we communicate during the race about pit-stops and strategy, but when you're driving you're by yourself, and you need to be strong mentally for an hour and a half. If someone from the team proposed that I needed a psychic it would really, really annoy me."

He's critical of cotton-wooling in the sport, of the creeping safety procedures in the aftermath of Ayrton Senna's death (slower, grooved tyres have been introduced this season). "I'm not that happy with most of the modern things which are being done," he say. "One of the tracks which is very modern is the one in Austria, which used to be an amazing course, but now they've destroyed it with loads of hairpins. Most new tracks are designed saying, `OK, we've got a small piece of land, let's put as many corners as we can on it.' It means there's no logic to them."

Villeneuve is normally spoken of as an adrenalin junkie. In his autobiography, modestly entitled Winning in Style, he talks about learning the courses by roller-blading around them, memorizing the curves and inclines. He gets excited when he talks about life behind the wheel: "I love a lot of high speed turns, turns where you have to push yourself, force yourself to go fast. Then there's something telling your foot to lift off, because it's so fast, and it's impressive when you get that feeling and just drive on." He used to race on skis: "I get as big a rush out of skiing as I do out of cars. I use it for mental training, and for fun also."

The other side to Villeneuve is the slightly nerdish boy indoors. "I'll just go at it sometimes," he says, when I ask him about his guitar playing. "I will sit with it for six hours sometimes, I won't even have a glass of water, anything. I'm getting better, the nails are growing," he lets out a modest, high-pitched laugh. "It's supposed to be classical, but it doesn't sound like much. Chords are not the point, it's more to make it sound like it's a flowing thing, not just like a hesitation. You do something and then, `uh, what's coming next?' and you get ready. It's like anything, you have to do it with precision, and it becomes a habit, you do it without thinking and it happens by itself. It's the same thing with driving. Anything I do, I want to do it to perfection."

That manic dedication is the same in front of a computer screen. "You end up losing so much time doing nothing on the Internet, trying to surf. But I'm an avid role-player, like Dungeons and Dragons, so I use the Net for that. You'll play for 20 hours, and only stop for a sandwich and a salad. You can get a lot of ideas through discussions with people on the Net."

That anonymous computer communication might be the only way Villeneuve can meet people any more. He has something of the Ronaldo about him: the bewildered kid on the world stage, celebrated for his unique skill, but also isolated because of it. He complains about all the recognition away from the race-track, and as the conversation drifts from motorcars to music, he sounds just like any other twentysomething: before a race, apparently, he usually listens to The Beautiful South. "It's relaxing and it has some dark humour in it. I find that amazing, I love the way the words are written. You just listen to it and think, `woaah that's a funny song', and then you really listen to the lyrics and think `Oh my god'.

"I have tons of CDs, I buy more than I have time to listen to, so there's not one group that I listen to. You know, the first bands I bought when I was 16 were Erasure and The Cars, I still listen to that now. I've evolved a little bit though, I listen to a lot of names, Natalie Imbruglia. It depends on what kind of mood you are in, but normally I like music that will just get inside of you with some special sounds."

Just before he leaves for the Playboy shoot, I ask him about the cigarette sponsorship. "If you're against cigarettes then ban them, don't tax them," he says, fixing me with those eyes again. "Everyone should be allowed to do whatever they want. Otherwise, you should ban cars also, you should ban everything. That's why I stay away from politics, because it's very difficult to read the truth..."

The new, tobacco-appended name of the team, by the way, is Winfield Williams.

Jacques Villeneuve competes today in the German Grand Prix, at Hockenheim

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