Motor Racing: Villeneuve intent on being the heir with flair: The Indy 500 will prove the toughest test yet for the son of a grand prix legend. Jeremy Hart reports

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The Independent Online
ROW TWO on the grid for the Indianapolis 500 is heady stuff even for the best in the business. For most rookie drivers, such a dizzy starting point for the toughest IndyCar race of all would be unnerving, unless your name is Villeneuve.

Jacques Villeneuve, son of the late Gilles, tackled qualification at the Old Brickyard with all the flair the heir to a legend in motor racing would be expected to show. His 226mph was the fourth fastest, but outperforming the IndyCar champion, Nigel Mansell, who qualified seventh, was nothing new.

In his second IndyCar race, the 23-year-old Canadian put his Reynard-Ford on the front row at Phoenix, beating three former Indy 500 winners and four IndyCar champions, including Mansell. However, qualifying is only part of the show; now he has to demonstrate that after three races he can finish among the leaders.

'I never expected to be this fast,' Villeneuve, one of nine rookie drivers in the 33-car field for Sunday's race, said. 'I was going flat out and it feels great to be on the second row. It's a very long race and I haven't got a clue what to expect because it's so different to anything you are used to.'

Gilles Villeneuve was killed in a practice accident at the Belgium Grand Prix in 1982 and for many sons, who lost their father in such a violent way and at such an early age, following in their footsteps would seem painful and a great temptation to fate. Not Jacques, who was nine when his father died. 'I don't remember too much about his racing, but I have always wanted to race,' he said. 'I really remember the crazy stuff dad and I used to do together, like driving four by fours in sandpits and riding snowmobiles. You always retain some things from your parents, Hopefully, I retained the good things.'

Racing bit the young Villeneuve hard, becoming an addiction that cost him his education. 'I was doing great at school,' he said. 'But when they found out I was racing they kicked me out for missing lessons. I might have gone into engineering or something musical if I hadn't gone into racing. I played keyboards on Simon and Garfunkel-type songs.'

Without schooling and with intense pressure from companies keen to sponsor a second-generation Villeneuve, he had little option but to follow the road his father had paved almost two decades earlier. 'Racing just happened, I guess,' Villeneuve said. 'I had sponsorship from Camel and an offer to join the Prema team in Italy for Formula Three. It was a really tough championship, so tough that to be a second off the pace, which I was, meant being 10 places down the grid.'

Leaving the Italian F3 championship in 1991 without a win was a blow. The media's hopes of a second Gilles Villeneuve, especially in Italy where the Ferrari driver was such a god, were shattered.

The turning point came in June 1992, exactly 10 years since the death of his father in a 180mph crash at the Zolder track in Belgium. While his father's death was being remembered at the Canadian Grand Prix on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, Jacques qualified second in a Formula 3000 car on Japan's Nishisendai course, and won the subsequent race.

However tempting the subsequent offers from Japan, it was another brush with fate and his father's past that swayed Villeneuve back to Canada. During 1992, he had been offered a drive on the challenging Trois Rivieres track in Quebec. It was the circuit where James Hunt had 'discovered' Gilles Villeneuve. The same track and the same Formula Atlantic race brought Jacques as much luck. Finishing third, in front of an emotional crowd, he was offered a drive in the 1993 Formula Atlantic series, plus a chance to move into IndyCars for 1994 and 1995.

''Formula One looks as if it's going downhill a bit, so for now IndyCar looks good,' he said. 'Maybe one day I will do Formula One. F1 is still F1, it will always be a notch higher (than IndyCar).'

Barry Green, for whose Forsythe-Green team Villeneuve drives, has every confidence that his protege is learning from his mistakes. 'Jacques is by far the best up and coming driver I have seen for a long time,' he said. Green has nurtured Al Unser Jr, Michael Andretti and Bobby Rahal to IndyCar prominence, but none has the emotional advantage of the Villeneuve name.

'Because of dad, that has always made for a lot of pressure,' Villeneuve said. 'So far, it's helping, but it could just as easily work against me. I just hope he would be proud of me.'

(Photographs omitted)

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