Snow business of Uncle Jacques

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The Independent Online
Whenever anyone asks Jacques Villeneuve about the dangers of racing, he just laughs.

"There's nothing to be nervous about," he says. "You just get out on the track and drive as fast as you can." Just what you might expect, except that this Jacques Villeneuve is the 43-year-old uncle of the Formula One driver and the brother of the late great Gilles, and he is talking about snowmobile racing.

Once, as is the family way, he raced cars as well. Indeed, as a driver for the Arrows team (now featuring Damon Hill) he tried - and failed - to qualify for two grands prix in 1981. But he's had to give it up. "They say I'm too old," he said. "It's not that I don't want to, it's just that I can't get the sponsorship."

He has no plans, though, to give up his snowmobile racing any time soon. Despite being seriously injured in a crash during a race in Eagle River, Wisconsin, six weeks ago, Villeneuve was relaxed and happy as he watched his mechanic work on the gearbox of his "sled", a Formula One racing snow- mobile. "It kind of runs in the family. I started racing snowmobiles when I was 17. It's the only thing I know how to do."

Snowmobile racing is a high-risk sport. The track is covered with snow, which high winds can kick up into a blinding cloud. Racing sleds, which look a little like army half-tracks with steerable skis instead of front wheels, are high performance machines capable of speeds exceeding 150mph. They are less stable than cars and each kicks up a huge cloud of snow and ice chips as it roars around the half-mile oval track. Visibility is poor for all but the race leaders and crashes are common. Fatalities are rare, but most drivers have suffered broken ribs or concussions at least once.

Villeneuve, one of the oldest drivers on the circuit, has crashed more times than he can remember. "This last one, I don't know what happened. I think somebody's ski caught my sled from behind and I flipped over," he said. "I got squeezed between the machine and the wall, and I don't remember what happened after that."

What actually happened was that Villeneuve was knocked unconscious by the impact, suffered concussion and broke bones in his face, shoulder and ribcage. He also damaged tendons in his left arm.

Just over a month later he arrived in Beausejour, a small country town in the Canadian province of Manitoba, for the Canadian Power Toboggan Championships. It is the premier snowmobile race in Canada and this is the big event of the winter for the town. Drivers and fans came from all over North America for the race, and although the prize money for the winner was only $2,500 the prestige is enormous. Villeneuve has won twice, way back in 1974 and again in 1987. A crowd favourite, he was trying to become the event's first three-time champion. Villeneuve won his qualification heat for the final, averaging just over 100mph during his final run.

"The machine was really flying out there," he said. "I just hope I can hold it together for the race. My shoulder gets pretty tired during the long runs."

Race day produced absolutely perfect conditions - a clear, sunny sky, almost no wind and a temperature of -10C. The grandstand was full of spectators, more than 2,000 of them, and the crowd buzzed with expectation. In the pit area, drivers and mechanics hurried around, making last-minute adjustments.

From the start, though, Villeneuve was eclipsed by a young American driver, Terry Wahl, who took an early lead and held it throughout the 20-lap race. The real battle was for second. Villeneuve took the first turn just behind Wahl, with Bruce Vessair of Ontario right behind him. Wahl's lead increased as Villeneuve and Vessair engaged in a furious battle. Wahl eventually won by a good five seconds, and Villeneuve nosed Vessair out for second.

As Wahl was mobbed after the race, he smiled broadly and laughed, hardly able to believe he'd beaten Villeneuve. "It feels just great," he said. "But if Jacques had been feeling better, he probably would have won because he's got the fastest sled. He's still got all those wounds from Eagle River, and you've got to give him credit for even trying." As for Villeneuve, he just shook his head. "It just wasn't there today," he said. "Terry deserves all the credit. He ran a hell of a race."

Someone then asked Villeneuve if he would be back next year. The answer was instant. "You bet," he said with a grin.