20 years ago, Jacques Villeneuve had a shot at winning the championship – though there was one man that stood in his way, Michael Schumacher.
At the time, Schumacher had built a reputation for being a “dirty” driver, wrecking people at times to accomplish what he needed to do. However, Villeneuve wasn’t set to give up, ready to face the challenge head-on. Even after being disqualified in the second last race of the year, the never give up attitude didn’t sway. Instead, a new strategy was set in place to make it happen.
Beginning a week before the finale, Villeneuve used the media to his advantage, telling every reporter in his sight how Schumacher had won his previous championships, and the fact he was a dirty driver – all to put pressure on the FIA to say something.
“It worked as they said before the race if anyone did anything, they’d be disqualified,” he said. “That made a big effect because when I went for the move, he didn’t expect it. Instead of putting me into the wall like other drivers, he was surprised I was there and reacted badly. I remember driving by the next lap and seeing him standing on the wall, looking angry. He wasn’t believing that could’ve happened. I can still see his face and the sweat – he didn’t sweat, except for that day.
“Even after that, I was very lucky. I slowed down because I was worried about the car being broken – and it was a good thing as the battery was only holding on by cables. If I had not won, I don’t think they would’ve disqualified Michael for the championship as he was second anyway. But, it all turned out good and ended up being a fairy tale.”
Everything came together at the moment, and Villeneuve walked away as the 1997 Formula 1 Champion, the only Canadian to accomplish the feat.
“It was the combination of a career,” he told POPULAR SPEED. “It’s what I’d worked all my life to do all season, and because being the underdog coming from behind, it made it more special. I wasn’t supposed to as I was disqualified the previous race. Everything was put in place so Ferrari could win again and we beat the establishment. We beat what was written, and that’s what made it special.”
It’s a moment which Villeneuve can recall clearly, and feels it will always be stuck in his mind forever as when “anything big happens, you remember.”
“When it is given to you on a platter, you forget – but the way it happened, it’s memorable,” he added. “That kind of victory was the reason I was racing. Winning races and championships were great, but outsmarting someone on the track is what makes racing very special.”
Beyond the championship, Villeneuve also had plenty of other successful moments in racing, including five CART wins with a championship in 1995. He also built a fan following through the years, noting they “were just crazy and amazing,” noting how passionate Canadian fans are about racing.
It’s a passion he hopes is shown this year with Canadian Lance Stroll set to embark on his rookie campaign in Formula 1 as the country celebrates their 50th year of Formula 1 racing in Canada.
“It’s exciting for Canada,” he said. “He’s very talented and won everywhere he’s been, which is good. He’s very passionate and educated and intelligent, so the ingredients are there. He still needs to build his make-up as he’s only 18 and it’s still happening. For the first year, I think he’ll race mid-pack, so we’ll see how it evolves.”
Despite the success he’s had in Formula One in the past years, the positive sentiments don’t remain in how the sport has changed since then.
“If I wasn’t already a fan because I have been my whole life, I’d find it difficult to be a fan,” he said. “I want Gladiators in the same way that you watch motorbike racing or downhill racing. When you watch a guy win, you see they put it on the line, show all their passion, and think that you couldn’t do it. With that said, I wouldn’t become a fan.”
While the series has made recent rule changes to make things better, Villeneuve isn’t sure if they’re enough.
“It should make it slightly more physical to drive, but it’s still the same technology,” he said. “It’ still the same complex engines. The tires will still overheat, and the pressures will go, and the drivers won’t be able to be aggressive on it. So that has not changed. It just means they’ll be more cornering speed, more physical, more fun.”
It’s why if he were in charge of the series, he’d get rid of the “politically correct” engines, instead putting big engines back in the cars, and “let the races go at it.”
“I’d remove all these asphalt run-off areas and make it back what racing is supposed to be – gladiators, fighting at the edge of your seat. When the overtaking happens, it is tough and well thought-out,” he said.
The Williams F1 car driven by Villeneuve at the 1997 European Grand Prix in Spain to the championship is currently on display at the Canadian International Auto Show as part of the “50 Years of Grand Prix Racing” exhibit. The show takes place from February 17 to February 26 at the Metro Toronto Convention Center. Details surrounding the show can be found at http://www.autoshow.ca.
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