Fast-lane throwback spells it out

meets Jacques Villeneuve, the Formula One leader not afraid to speak his mind
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The Independent Online
Jacques Villeneuve is holding court inside the William-Renault enclosure at Silverstone. Pleased with himself after a successful day's testing, he greets sponsor after sponsor with a smile, and autograph hunters, of which there were many, with a signature.

He has much to be happy with right now. Last season, his first in Formula One, he was seen as the promising apprentice learning his trade. One year on, and very much in pole position in terms of his performances so far, and the superiority of his car, Villeneuve feels much more like the finished article.

"There's a huge difference this year," he happily admits. "From the very first lap I can push and feel the car. It takes a lot less time to get up to speed and be competitive. Last year it was taking me as much as 20 laps. Now I have nothing to learn, I just need to improve on what I do. I learned all the basics last year."

The man, as you can see, is simply brimming with confidence. Leading the Formula One World Championship with 30 points after three wins out of six grands prix in his Williams so far this season, he plans to extend his lead over Michael Schumacher this Sunday where, to him, it matters most of all, in Montreal.

"Monte Carlo's great because I've lived there for so long and it's Monte Carlo, isn't it?" the French Canadian reasons. "But Canada has to be the most important race in the year for me. Montreal's special. There's great support for me there and the fans seem to be a little more respectful than their European counterparts."

He sounds like a seasoned campaigner, this 26-year-old who arrived on the Formula One scene like a bull in a china shop, and chased his former team-mate Damon Hill, all the way to the final race in the World Championship last November. This self-belief is borne out of his previous success in IndyCar and F1 racing, coupled with high expectation. Others, however, would see it as not only sheer arrogance, but a continuation of his unwillingness to toe the line and show a little more respect for the sport and its drivers.

So what is it, confidence or arrogance? "In reality I'm pretty easy going," Villeneuve answers, quite happily taking the question on the fin. "I get along with most in the paddock, but I've come to race and to win. I know, when I said last year that I would fight until the last race of the season, that people were thinking: 'Oh, what a big head he's got.' But I did exactly that, didn't I? I was pleased with that, but this year I'll feel bad if I don't win the World Championship."

Why? "Well, it's there for me to grab. I mean, it won't be easy and it won't be served up on a silver platter for me, but if I and the car perform then it's there for me. If we fail, then it's a case of us losing it, not someone else winning it."

In a very short amount of time Villeneuve has made himself noticed, and not just because of his daredevil driving on the grand prix circuit. Away from his car, the 1995 IndyCar champion has not been afraid to speak his mind, most recently regarding his concerns that his sport is becoming too safe. By doing so he has earned himself a bit of a "bad boy" reputation.

For example, sample this offering when asked about the difference between IndyCar and Formula One. "Safety's important in IndyCar, but they don't get sick over it like what's happending in F1," he says. "To be politically correct in F1 you have to say that everything has to be safer. Let's all go at a speed of 120kph [75mph]. And do you know what? It's not because of Roland Ratzenberger, it's because of Ayrton Senna.

"A lot of people ask me if it was hard after Ayrton's death, and I say: 'No, it was hard after Roland's death, because he was a friend.' And they reply: 'Oh yeah, yeah, but what about Ayrton?' " He shakes his head at this and looks down at the table.

How does he respond to people who say he wasn't around Formula One when Senna died at Imola, and therefore should not be pressing for less safety? "I say that I lost my father to motor racing, so I know what I'm talking about. I remember one IndyCar race when both Mario and Michael Andretti were involved. Mario had a horrendous crash and Michael went on to win."

He points his finger at nothing in particular. "Now, that's what I admire. That's how you have to be in racing. Even though the Andrettis were close, Michael went on to win."

Now these are the sort of comments that have earned him his image. Villeneuve accepts this, but then launches a convincing counter-defence aimed at all his accusers. "It's an image that's been placed upon me because I open my mouth and say what I believe, that's all. I'm not trying to be different, or trying to bug people. I just open my mouth when there's something I believe in and then try and make an intelligent comment about it. I'm not a bad boy, but it doesn't please everyone, that's for sure."

In many ways, Villeneuve is a throwback to the days when Formula One was about the drivers and the races, and not about sponsorship, corporate hospitality, flotations and, almost incidentally, a race at the end of it all. He agrees with this point.

"Fifteen years' ago there was less money involved in Formula One so it didn't rule your judgement. When I cross the finish line my only thoughts are about whether I've won or not. I don't think of the money. That's why the drivers in the past were more like drivers should be. They raced hard and spoke their minds."

This, Villeneuve clearly reckons, is not the case today. "People inside the sport, and I'm talking team owners as well, should learn more about saying what they believe in so that they can have an influence. There are too many people in the sport today who kinda bitch about something and then, five minutes' later, accept it. Everyone apart from Ferrari, for example, agrees that the change of the tyres next year is the wrong thing to do, but will anyone else say it? They do in a small room, but when it's time to say something out loud and have an influence all you get is: 'Oh well, maybe they're the ones who should make the decision.'

"I reckon a lot of them have been pushed by their parents because it was their own personal dreams." Weren't you, though, Jacques, by your father? "I don't think so, no, I was too young."

Too young when Gilles Villeneuve died at Zolder during practice for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, is what he meant. Last year he spent much of his time being the son of Gilles. This year not much has changed.

"Do you know, there are still loads of people who refer to me, to my face, as Gilles. They don't notice they're doing it. I say to them. 'Actually my name is Jacques.' They say 'oh yeah, right, well anyway, Gilles.' I have to laugh at it."

But it presents a dilemma for Villeneuve Jnr. On the one hand he very much wants to be seen as his own man. On the other, he does not want to damage the aura his late father still possesses. By winning his seventh grand prix in Barcelona last month, he overtook his father's number of grand prix wins. Jacques feels the process has already started.

"I never got into Formula One thinking that I've got to beat my father. No way. I've never wanted to be in is shadow, or to overshadow him. He was who he was, and I am who I am. I'm super proud of being his son, and it's important to me, but I'm not the son the Gilles Villeneuve, the racing driver. I'm the son of my father.

"When I won in Spain it never crossed my mind that I'd won more races than my father until it was pointed out to me. The problem in admitting this is that people will say that I negate my father, and that he's done so much for me. I'm not going against him. He's accomplished a lot, and he's a legend.

"There's nothing I could do to diminish him, and I don't want to diminish him. It would really concern me if people started to say that my achievements overshadowed his." He pauses for a brief moment to collect his thoughts. "It's not a personal battle, but people will always make this association, won't they?"

Recognised as already the arch-competitor, does it grate with him that he is seen as having a huge advantage because of the Williams-Renault car? "Hey, believe me, having that car is a big help to me. I won't deny it, we clearly have the best car in the paddock and it allows me to be more relaxed. I don't think the gap is as big as some would believe. I accept it may be in qualifying, but not so much in the races. Besides, it also puts added pressure on me. Qualifying in third place for Monaco, for example, was seen as terrible by the media."

He seemed genuinely happy to talk for some time, but the bigwigs from Williams-Renault required his attention. What about this competitiveness, though? Is it the same in everything he does?

"I've always liked to win, in absolutely everything. I doesn't have to be just sports. I'm not a bad loser, but I'll be competitive to the end. That's why I wouldn't have come to F1 if there hadn't been a top team for me, like so many other drivers do. They're just happy to be part of it, ending up in Europe in the minorities of Formula One. I couldn't accept that."

One final, hypothetical question. If I were to beat him at a computer game like Space Invaders, what would happen in the return match one week later? Villeneuve, already on his way to his team bosses, stops in his tracks, turns round and looks me straight in the eye.

"I'd beat you," he said, delivered with utmost certainty. "Yep, without a doubt."

"How can you be so sure of that?" I ask.

"I'd practice non-stop, every single day to make sure," came the reply as Jacques Villeneuve delivered a self-conscious smile. "That's why I'd win."