Some men are born to live sedentary lives. Jacques Villeneuve was never one of them. But gone are the days of tearing around Monaco, foot floored, a 755-hp Renault engine screaming from behind his head, deafening rich oligarchs and celebrities cheering him from their yachts and grandstands. These days, Villeneuve is a stationary object, idling in his Westmount, Que., mansion—willing the phone to ring and hoping that whoever is on the other end has a car for him. A fast one, so he can do what he was born to do. What his father died doing.
Racing always has been a sport for the young—those with everything to prove, but who live for nothing but the thrill of pushing a car, and themselves, to the brink of death. Sometimes drivers crash. Sometimes they die, and are remembered as they were. Other times they grow old and are forgotten.
Thirty years ago this month, Gilles Villeneuve sailed his Ferrari off the rear wing of a slower car, flew into the Belgian sky, smashed his chassis to pieces and launched his body into a fence. His death was mourned by race fans as his checkered flag–draped coffin was lowered into the ground in front of the son and daughter he left behind. Eleven years later, that son raced to his first checkered flag at the Montreal track named after his father. It remains Villeneuve’s best finish in front of his hometown fans, who would support him through his winning years and forget him when he fell into racing obscurity.
Seventeen years have passed since Villeneuve chugged from the ceremonial milk bottle awarded to the victor of the Indianapolis 500. Fifteen years since he snuck from the slipstream of Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari and into the lead at the final race of the 1997 Formula One season to win the F1 Championship.
“I kept alive the legacy that my father had started,” he says of that victory. Jacques and Gilles were always distinct men and have their own legacies. But both were known for pushing cars beyond their structural limits. When Jacques was in his prime, insiders worried the boy had a death wish—that what made him so fast was an unwillingness to let off the accelerator while others slowed for their own safety. Villeneuve, always outspoken, vowed never to let up. Called it “driving on the edge” and said, “I’m not afraid of death. It’s natural.”
His opponents (“corporate robots,” he called them) frowned at this talk. His fans closed their eyes and prayed Villeneuve’s story wouldn’t end like his father’s. Then something happened. Villeneuve lost that edge. He got old; slowed down. By the end of the 2003 season he had lived longer than his father. But he had fallen well off Schumacher’s pace and no one knew quite what had happened. “It was politics,” he insists.
Those “politics” began when he left Williams a year after winning the F1 championship, following his manager, Craig Pollock, who was starting British American Racing. Villeneuve struggled for five years in a car prone to blowing its engine apart mid-race. Then Pollock left, and new owner David Richards began suggesting Villeneuve wasn’t worth the $20-million a year he was getting to be lapped by Schumacher. At the 2003 Japanese Grand Prix, Schumacher claimed his sixth world title. But Villeneuve wasn’t just a lap back; he wasn’t even there. He’d flown home before the race after learning he was going to be replaced at season’s end by a younger, cheaper driver.
He sat out the first 15 races of 2004. Then he was called in as a replacement driver for Renault. Again he was off the pace, finishing the season 21st in a field of 25. Still, he landed a ride with a perennially mediocre Sauber team for the next year. Thirty-one races and no podiums later, Sauber told Villeneuve to find whatever it was that once made him the fastest driver alive or his seat would go to a rookie 13 years his junior. Frustrated and hurt, Villeneuve—the man who stole the pole in his first F1 race back in 1996—lost control of his car at the German Grand Prix, launched it sideways into a tire wall, climbed out of the cockpit and walked away from his contract. “Screw this,” he told reporters. “It’s time to get on with the rest of my life.”
Villeneuve the playboy decided to grow up. He married his Parisian girlfriend, purchased a three-million dollar mansion overlooking Montreal and started a family.
By 2006, his F1 career was over, but few people noticed. Even fewer cared when, weeks later, he announced both a move to NASCAR and his intention to become the second driver in history to win the triple crown of motorsport: The Indianapolis 500, F1 Championship and 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Le Mans, he says, is a stop for broken-down F1 drivers. He never betrays a belief that he might be one of them. Few F1 drivers excel in Le Mans, considered the most gruelling of all motor races. But Villeneuve got his chance in June 2007 with Peugeot. He qualified fourth and was running in second when his engine gave out. He returned the following year and took pole. Peugeot led early on, but as night fell they lost the lead and Villeneuve could not get it back. Finishing second, he says, was the greatest letdown of his recent career.
He once vowed to keep racing in Le Mans until he won, but has not secured a ride since his second-place finish. Getting a seat with a competitive team is difficult and Villeneuve is not interested in competing in a car that’s off the pace. He did that for eight years after winning the F1 championship, and though he does not regret the time spent at the back of the grid, he sees little point in doing it again. “I’m not going to embarrass myself,” he says.
Rebranding himself as a NASCAR driver was even more difficult than getting into a top car at Le Mans. The one-time F1 champ searched for sponsors, but says his name—revered in Europe and Quebec—gets him nowhere with the good ol’ boys. Few in NASCAR were impressed he had won the Indianapolis 500 or driven wheel to wheel against Schumacher and won. “They think because you’re used to F1 you don’t know how to drive on an oval,” he says.
To date, he has raced just three times in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. His best finish: 21st at Talladega. His record in the lower-grade Nationwide Series has been marginally better. Seven races in four years, the highlight coming last August when he took pole on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Montreal was abuzz with hopes the old Villeneuve was back. Then he locked his brakes with 30 laps to go, slid into the grass, T-boned the eventual race-winner and finished 27th.
Now divorced and 41 years old, Villeneuve is a single father of two boys, Jules and Joakim. Villeneuve says children have changed his view of life and racing, but insists he can still find the edge and race on it as he once did. Always known for doing whatever the hell he wanted, he has tried the past two years to get back into F1 and to force his way into NASCAR, each time attempting to buy his own team and hire himself as a driver. Both attempts fell through. “I’ve never had a dream of owning my own team,” he admits. “My primary goal is to race in the best league possible. I grew up on a racetrack. I’m not ready to stop.”
And yet, he’s stalled. Left with little to do but sit in his mansion and wait for a ride.
Ferrari called a few weeks back, asking if he’d be willing to climb into his father’s old car—the one he raced to three memorable victories in 1979—and lap around the team’s track in Italy, part of a ceremony to mark the 30th anniversary of Gilles’s death. It’s not the ride Villeneuve has been hoping for, but he accepted the offer. “My father’s legacy is still very big over there. He’s still alive in Italy,” says Villeneuve. “I remember sitting in a fig tree, watching him race around that track. It’s one of my fondest memories of him.”
So the fatherless son prepares to grab his old helmet and pay tribute to the man who gave him his passion.
And after that?
“Who knows?” Villeneuve says.
Maybe he’ll relax a bit. Spend more time with his sons, already fascinated by race cars, just like their father. Just like their grandfather.
Or maybe he’ll pick up the phone. Call old friends in old places. Remind them that he’s still Jacques Villeneuve, that the man he is is just an older version of the boy he was. The one they used to cheer. The one who drank a bottle of milk at the brickyard.
“Maybe I’ll go back to Indy,” he says.
This article originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine.