It's an unfortunate fact of life for F1 drivers that they live under a microscope. Their words and deeds are dissected, analysed and magnified beyond normal proportions, and the more successful they are, the more we want from them. And if your name happens to be Villeneuve, you become a very large target.
So much has been written about Gilles Villeneuve during his lifetime and afterwards that any references to his son are almost always coloured with comparisons, many of them gratuitous and not all of them complimentary. It is as though some of the fans (and media) who miss the Ferrari driver are seeking to re-invent him, a fact which causes the younger Villeneuve a certain degree of annoyance. "I have always been my own person and I race for myself, " Jacques declares when asked to explain for the hundredth time why he does not like being compared with his famous father.
One gets the impression Jacques would always have gone his own way in any case. At school he learned several skills useful to an aspiring racing driver, including Italian, English, and how to keep his nose clean, before the call of motor racing became too strong to ignore, and he was politely asked to leave. As Jacques puts it, he was "always in the middle of trouble, but hardly ever caught." He also met his current manager, Scotsman Craig Pollock, the sports master who spotted Villeneuve's exceptional talent for skiing. During his teenage years Jacques experimented with base jumping, motorcross, ice hockey and water skiing. He competed in Alpine skiing semi-seriously for a while, but gave it up when the constant demands of training interfered with the 'fun' side of his life, i.e. girls, parties and racing cars.
His racing career up until 1993 is a bit of a mish-mash: Formula Fords, Alfa Romeos, Italian and Japanese F3 and Group C touring cars. He made steady but uninspiring progress and discovered the ups and downs of his celebrated name. Doors were opening for him but merciless criticism followed if he did not produce instant results, especially in Italy where the Villeneuve name is so feted.
However, Jacques persisted with determination and eventually it paid off. He was invited to Trois Rivieres in 1992 to compete in the Formula Atlantic street race, and fell into the luckiest set of circumstances he was ever likely to encounter: an Aussie Indycar crew chief called Barry Green who wanted a driver for a new team, and who had as a possible engineer a recently retired aerodynamicist named Tony Cicale.
The combination of these two vastly experienced and racing-wise men was probably the single most important factor in the rapidity of Villeneuve's rise to success in the past 3 years. Cicale is an erudite man and brilliant engineer, and it was not long before these two realised they were en rapport. Green is renowned for his ability to harness a group of individuals and turn them into a well-greased and efficient machine. The rest, as they say, is history.
So can Villeneuve make a successful switch to F1 and survive the Andretti syndrome? And when will he be recognised as a star in his own right, rather than the son of you-know-who?
Answers will have to wait, but my personal impression is of an extremely intelligent, dedicated racer with an impressive battery of skills: a technical ability Cicale describes as 'awesome', supreme powers of focus and concentration, and an unswerving ambition to perform to his absolute potential. The personal satisfaction of driving to the best of his capability is far more important to him than just winning for its own sake. He is a perfectionist.
This doesn't stop him from making mistakes, but what is admirable is his willingness to acknowledge them. "The best way to learn is to make your own mistakes", he says. How refreshing. It is generally either the car or the other driver who is at fault these days. A driver able to admit a mistake and turn it into a strength is a rare commodity. He is also able to absorb pressure like a sponge. "The more pressure you put on Jacques, the better he goes," says Barry Green. "His whole approach is that of a veteran. It's like he was born to do it."
Pressure during the race is one thing. The sort of pressure which Jacques can expect from now on will come between the races and in greater intensity. Testing sessions are a classic example. They need to be put into perspective. Car configuration, track conditions, and the goals the test team are actually trying to achieve all need to be understood before test times have any relevance. Unfortunately, these do not fit into a headline. And as Jacques is news, he generates headlines around the world, usually of the variety: "Villeneuve slower than Coulthard"... rather short on the aforementioned perspective.
Neither will he be allowed an extended honeymoon with his new team. He will be expected to produce results, if not immediately, certainly within the shortest time possible, please. Sponsors are not famous in F1 for their willingness to invest long-term. They demand quick returns.
Jacques knows his learning curve will be short and very steep, but he seems a rock-solid character and has grown a useful layer of armour-plating without compromising his good nature. Hopefully this will serve him.
As a driver, people say he is not as spectacular as Gilles was. Well, times and cars have changed, but on the surface this is true. His whole style is different: controlled precision with a silky smooth finesse. Schumacher takes to the track with an axe; Jacques uses a knife and fork. His car control is seldom appreciated because it is not obvious. But he can place the car anywhere he wants to and look after it at the same time, for which the Williams hierarchy should be very grateful (especially after some of their current drivers' recent exploits).
Add to all these ingredients a large dose of charm, a cupful of common sense, plenty of down-to-earth honesty for sauce, and a pinch of mischievous humor (but hold the ego), and Williams have a recipe for success. They, as much as Jacques, are responsible for ensuring that he doesn't make a cake of himself.
Mandy is a 37 year old female from Australia who is married to an airline pilot. She occasionally races an Aussie V8 "not very well around Sydney." This is Mandy's first artice in Atlas Team F1. Being a great Villeneuve fan, we hope Mandy will share more of her thoughts on and during the 96 season.