Villeneuve has adapted brilliantly to Formula One as Damon Hill's team- mate at Rothmans Williams-Renault, and his score of one victory in seven races (not forgetting his serious flirtation with victory first time in out in Melbourne) have marked him as the most impressive rookie in years. Out of the cockpit the individual style has also been evident. He trudges round the paddock like Captain Grunge as if dressed in overalls two sizes too big that he happened to pick up in a bring-and-buy sale. And behind the scenes he is the only top-liner not to join the Grand Prix Drivers' Association. A strong-minded fellow, he refused to be railroaded, considered the facts and the reasons for joining, and then made up his mind not to.
Landing such a hot seat has brought massive responsibility that he has borne well, but nothing he has faced so far matches the pressure he will face next weekend. At a time when some factions within Williams have expressed private disappointment in his development, especially after a lacklustre run at Monaco, great things are expected of him by countrymen starved too long of a Formula One hero. And there will be the added frisson of racing on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
Nothing is harder than competing in an arena where a father starred and when that father is an icon, an intrinsic part of the sport's folklore, it gets tougher still -as Damon Hill will tell you. The danger of false comparisons with the Ferrari star, who was killed during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix 14 years ago, is huge. While Villeneuve respects his father's achievements and acknowledges that the family name assisted him in terms of sponsorship and rapid career advancement, he is desperate to be judged on his own terms. He does not like to hear people expecting him to bring the legend alive again.
"I'm very proud to be his son," he responds to the inevitable question, "because he accomplished a lot. On the other hand, I'm not in this to continue what he started or to walk in his shadow. I race because I enjoy it myself."
It's been a long road to Montreal. With help from his mother, Joann, and some of his father's old friends such as the French driver Patrick Tambay, he started at the same racing school in Mont Tremblant that Gilles attended (and was asked to leave his exclusive Swiss school, Beausoleil, as a result). He then raced Formula Three in Italy and Japan before heading back to North America in 1993 to race Formula Atlantic and then IndyCars. Last year he won the Indianapolis 500 and the national title. As the great Steve Podborski discovered when he taught Villeneuve to ski, he is a fast learner.
Montreal should favour Williams-Renault again after Michael Schumacher's brilliant drive for Ferrari in the rain in Spain last week. "Now they have got rid of their slow chicane, there is a fairly long straight line," Villeneuve said. "It should be an interesting track now because you have got a lot of heavy braking, so it should be good for racing."
Fun, racing, the edge - these are all words that feature regularly in the Villeneuve vocabulary. Other parties within Williams believe that next season, with a full year's experience of all the circuits beneath his wheels, he will make a major step forward. Next Sunday, on a circuit he knows intimately, he has the perfect opportunity to quieten doubters with an early preview to future success.Reuse content