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Jack: New chapter into the unknown for Villeneuve at Indy

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Kristian Jack
5/21/2014 9:19:22 PM
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Twenty-four-year-old Jacques Villeneuve drives out of the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the world at his feet.

It is the Monday after the day before, a day that forever changed the life of the young Canadian.

That day Villeneuve, fittingly driving the number 27 that become so synonymous with his father Gilles at Ferrari, comes from two laps down to win the 1995 Indianapolis 500.

He had spent the day smiling and posing for hundreds of photographs that are beamed all across the world. By the end of the year he has a multi-year contract in his pocket at the best team in Formula One, Williams-Renault.

Within two years Villeneuve is World Champion and is a star everywhere he goes.

Meanwhile, the Indianapolis 500 continues on without him.

As Villeneuve departed for Europe, IndyCar split in two and has never fully recovered from the bitter divorce. The Indy 500's list of drivers in the late '90s lacked real star power and it lost a grip on being the biggest race in the world.

Slowly the giant teams like Penske, Ganassi and Andretti returned and with them came world class, elite drivers. For some ten years now, the Indy 500 is back to what it once was, testing some of the greatest single-seater drivers the world has to offer.

It is the second Sunday in May and Jacques Villeneuve, now 43, drives back inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Dressed in a yellow race suit with 'Dollar General' written all over it he looks nothing like what many would expect a former F1 World Champion to look. He doesn't have the amount of hair he once had but he is back at Indy as a driver, the first time in 19 years.

He stops to sign autographs and pose for photographs as he makes that famous walk, paved by greatness, that the likes of A.J. Foyt, Jim Clark, Rick Mears and other stars have taken, alongside Gasoline Alley to the pit lane.

The diehard fans stare and flock towards him but he is far from the main attraction at the Speedway. Villeneuve, not a regular on the IndyCar circuit, does remarkably well with attention but here he is just another driver, one that doesn't travel in packs with fellow drivers. He is a man from past glories back to recreate new memories of his own.

"I hardly know anyone to be honest. I know (Takuma) Sato, but I never raced against him and I have never raced against anyone who is a regular in this series. That is weird because I don't know what to expect, I don't know how they race. Which one is clean? Dirty? Crazy? So it's definitely a bit strange, yes."

The answer is typical Jacques. He talks of not knowing anyone but immediately he means as drivers, not as men.

Our conversation immediately turns to scenarios that can take place on the track. Villeneuve doesn't talk in clichés and for someone who has done as much media as he has in his life, he remains a refreshingly deep-thinker who can take you on the same journey as his mind.

We talk about this upcoming Sunday and the Indy 500, and the point when he will be travelling in excess of 230 miles per hour with cars all around him.

His eyes squint as he dictates word-for-word his precise thoughts as he gets set to compete in what he describes as 'the biggest race in the world'.

"The complexity of this race now is running in traffic. The cars have two hundred horsepower less than 19 years ago and much more grip and to be able to stay super close to the cars, while everyone is running flat out, the key is to stay close to someone else, (ready for) when he has to lift, back out a little bit because of the traffic in front of him, then you steal his momentum.

"That's really tough, as you get in the turbulent air behind someone, your whole car is shaking and that's when the car starts sliding and you can lose the front end or the rear end a little bit and, at that point, do you have the guts to keep your foot down or not and is your car working in that situation?"

This is a world he has little control in, a frightening thought for even the greatest of race drivers.

Villeneuve, who will start, fittingly, in the 27th spot for Sunday's race, continues: "I will be surrounded by guys who respect the danger and others who think it's a video game and, at those speeds, it's risky and that's what I still don't know, who to trust and who not to trust out there. With more grip and less horsepower, the cars are very forgiving. I have got sideways a few times already this month and if I did that 19 years ago I would have been in the wall.

"I think they give a false sense of security for some of the drivers and that's why you see kids coming in and, within three laps, they are flat out because I don't think they respect how dangerous it is. Once you get caught out, then you start respecting it and at Indianapolis there are two kinds of drivers, the ones who have hit the wall and the ones who haven't hit the wall."

It is clear Villeneuve is almost as concerned about those who haven't hit the wall than hitting the wall himself.

"This is not a track where you want to make a mistake. The speeds we go is exciting, it is unparalleled. It is a long race and my approach (in the past) was to mind your own business and it will come to you. You have to know when to take a risk and when not to. Normally in the first half, the idiots will crash themselves out so if you can stay clean to 100 laps then that can be useful!"

There aren't too many drivers in IndyCar who will refer to some of the colleagues as 'idiots' but this is what comes with the honest, direct Villeneuve who survived the world of Formula One without turning into a robot, something very few have done in recent years.

He admits he still watches Formula One but not the same way he once did: "I don't like or understand the reason behind the new rules but we have had some amazing races this year. Why? Only because the teammates have been allowed to fight. When you had Prost and Senna (at McLaren in the late '80s) they would lap the field but everyone was happy so we have a bit of that now with Lewis (Hamilton) and Nico (Rosberg).

"The rules themselves, though, are not F1. The sport should be out of this world, not reality. You should look at it and say 'that's crazy how do these guys manage to drive these kinds of cars at those speeds'. In the original turbo engine era they would do qualifying and then throw the engine in the garbage. That's F1. It should be so extreme that when you are at home, and you are not a racer, you know that's another world. Now you are at home and think 'I could do that'. There is nothing special about it anymore."

The man who won 11 Grand Prix races has never been one to focus too much on the past but it is clear he knows those eras were far superior to modern day F1. He smiles when asked about the 1997 season but moves off from it as quickly as it comes up.

"It was fun but I don't dwell on the past, I never have and that's why I want my kids to see me drive. I don't want to be for my kids, the guy that used to race that they can see in books."

Those books tell a remarkable tale of one of the finest Canadians to ever compete in any sport. On Sunday at the 'Greatest Spectacle in Racing' another chapter is to be written.

Jacques Villeneuve (Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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