Jacques Villeneuve Ain't Got Time for Electric Racing
We catch up with the Indy 500–winning CART and Formula 1 champion.
Jacques Villeneuve has been a motor racing fixture for so long it's hard to believe he's only 47. He won the 1995 Indianapolis 500 and that season's CART championship. He then moved to Formula 1 with the Williams team, winning four races and losing the 1996 title to teammate Damon Hill in the season finale. He came back to win the F1 championship in 1997, edging out Michael Schumacher. After he left F1 in 2006, Villeneuve competed in a variety of other series, including NASCAR, V8 Supercars, and, in 2014, FIA World Rallycross. He now lives in Europe and works as a TV commentator for F1 race broadcasts. We spoke to him in his home region of Quebec, Canada, during the Americas Rallycross Grand Prix de Trois-Rivières, where he was the guest race driver for the Subaru Rally Team USA.
Automobile Magazine: This is the first time you've raced a rallycross car since your season with Peugeot four years ago. Are you having fun?
Jacques Villeneuve: Yeah, I am now. Part of the fun is getting to work as a team—driving is just one aspect of it. It's fun to figure things out and make progress from there.
AM: How long does it take to get the feel back for a race car?
JV: As far as just driving, it only takes a couple of laps. It's easy to get too excited and overdrive the car. It gets better as the race weekend progresses, but you're always lagging a little bit behind the drivers who do race in the series full time.
AM: Are you happy doing what you're doing now?
JV: The TV work, which has me flying to every Formula 1 race, keeps me busy, but I'd rather be back behind a steering wheel. I don't have anything planned after this race weekend, but if the phone rings …
AM: Is the state of Formula 1 better now compared to when you were racing? Worse? About the same?
JV: It's different, definitely.
AM: Do you wish you were racing in F1 now instead of during your era?
JV: No. My era was better because there was still some grit. It was still human. But it was safe enough that if you got in a car, you didn't feel like you were going to kill yourself. It was a good in-between. And it was less politically correct, not like now when nobody says anything. And now most drivers are owned by teams, and the drivers get moved around like chess pieces. It's more like a franchise, and I find that a little bit strange. And because of that, I think there is less talent out there. Established drivers are being moved aside for younger drivers.
AM: Would you agree that it seems the racing was better when you were competing, that there were more than just a handful of teams that had a chance to win?
JV: No. That's not true. I don't know why people think that. The racing has never been as good as it is now, based on how close the grid is.
AM: Certainly technology has improved safety, but has it made F1 less fun to watch?
JV: Overtaking is different. There used to be battles, but now it's more of just a position swap. Drivers rely on opening up the rear wing [using the drag reduction system, which allows a driver to adjust the wing] and pass someone like you do on the highway. There's no battle. Fans don't come back from a race and think, "Oh, that move was amazing." You just don't get those moments that you will remember for the rest of your life.
AM: True, but F1 seems healthy enough at the moment.
JV: The sport is getting bigger and bigger. That's not an issue. But what is lacking for the fans is that there aren't as many heroes. It's not a bunch of gladiators out there anymore.
AM: A potential move to electric power is one of the most talked-about topics in the World Rallycross and Americas Rallycross paddocks. Good idea?
JV: Nobody wants to see electric racing. The truth is, in the F1 paddock, nobody even knows when the Formula E races are on.
AM: Still, manufacturers are lining up to race in Formula E, and there's a lot of interest from companies like Ford in seeing electric rallycross racing.
JV: I don't understand why they are pushing it so much. I think it's a niche thing. … The die-hard fans are the only ones who really keep up with it. I did a couple of races in Formula E, and I was happy to do them because the technology was interesting. You have power, you step on the gas—well, I probably shouldn't say "gas"—you step on the pedal, and you go somewhere. Fine. But ultimately—I don't know.
AM: Do you keep up with racing in the U.S.?
JV: When I can, but living in Europe, it's difficult. The Indy cars look fast because the cars are difficult to drive, and the racing is good. I'm not that interested in NASCAR because so many of the drivers I watched are not there anymore. I don't know the drivers who are racing now.
AM: If the opportunity arises, and we understand it might next year, would you like to do some more rallycross racing?
JV: Definitely. I love this kind of racing. I love the rubbing—that's one reason I really enjoyed the little NASCAR racing I got to do. With rallycross, I get the opportunity to make some contact.