Famously known for his outspoken views, MC talks to former Formula One World Champion, Jacques Villeneuve who expresses his opinions on women racers in the masculine sport of motor racing and as part of our special Retro issue, Jacques reminisces his late father, Ferrari’s legendary racer, Gilles Villeneuve.
We caught up with Jacques after his stint in the FIA World Rallycross Championship (World RX) recently in Franciacorta, Italy in a candid phone interview. He may sound very fortright in his comments here, but when he spoke to MC, he came across as a genuine character, a man who often speaks and drives from the heart.
You’re back in rallycross this weekend, how’s that going so far?
It didn’t go well, we were quick but someone ran into me on the first race but that was OK, but it damaged the car and it completely broke down in the second race, so same as every weekend, so yes, a little bit frustrating.
How different do you find rallycross compared to single-seater racing?
It depends on what aspects. The TV show that comes out of it is amazing but driving the car, the races are a lot of fun. But at the championship level, you don’t get the same. It’s a little bit random, which is frustrating, compared to a single-seater where you spend your time working and you have a lot of qualifying, where everything is a working progress, and in rallycross it just happens.
The first race you do, you take a number out of a hat and that decides who you race against. There’s no qualifying, and it’s your lap time over four laps that matters. So if you’re in a race with slow guys, you lose time and that’s it, just like today, when the guy ran into me, I lost 5 seconds and ended up 20th instead of 11th at the end of the day because it’s time that matters not the position.
After all these years, would you say that your motivation is as high as ever? Would you say that you were as competitive as you were before?
I would say at least I am as competitive as I was before and as long as you still have the hunger and you’re still willing to take the risk, and to make the sacrifices that racing takes, then experience will only make you better. Normally you start slowing down when you don’t want to take the risk anymore, so you start second guessing and you start judging what you’re doing then you end up going slower, but if you’re not at that point yet, then experience will only make you better and having driven a bunch of different cars in the last five years has also been good.
Would you say that Rallycross was a good overall experience for you?
The driving of it yes, the championship no, because every race there’s something that happens. Either a puncture, the brake on the cars, there has always been something every race weekend, so we never make the semi-finals or the finals. And the race before in Canada, I lost a fuel tank! So there’s nothing you can do, so that’s frustrating.
That was in Trois-Rivières, right?
Yes, correct. It was very frustrating but driving in those cars, driving against guys like Petter Solberg, the World Champion Rally driver, it’s just an amazing experience because to fight wheel-to-wheel against them and to bend some metal against them, it’s very exciting. When you race against guys like him it’s very professional, it’s clean, it’s fun, it’s exciting.
But the other issue is there’s 18 of us doing the championship, but there’s 40 drivers at every race, guys who only come for 1 or 2 races and so it’s not the same professionalism and then you get mixed up (with them). Though some races are really fun because you race against guys like Petter and they know what it means to race at the world level, but then you get into guys that are just trying to be a hero for one weekend, so then it’s not fun anymore. It just depends.
You caused quite a sensation earlier this year with your big comeback in the Indy 500. Could we expect to see you return to the series full time soon?
I would look into it, I would love it, Yes. It was an amazing experience. It has been 19 years since I had been there and it has been years since I’ve been in an open-wheeled car at high speeds. So jumping in the car, the first few laps was a big shock because I wasn’t used to those speeds anymore and so I was wondering… “OK, how will that end up?” but the body and the brain, when you go to sleep over it, a few minutes later, it becomes normal, and then it becomes easy. Then you start working at it and it felt the same as it had when I stepped out of the car 19 years ago. It was the same feeling and working on the set-up, it was the same thing, that was amazing and racing at those speeds was good.
Also America has a lot of respect for what has been achieved before, they like their heroes. Their welcome was positive for me because I was a previous winner. It was good because in some countries, say in Europe, when you go back to racing when you’re 40 years old, and they look at you and they’re like “why do you even bother?’ So you should be 16 years old and there’s no point. Then they say it’s completely the opposite. But in America,there’s a respect for what you’re trying to achieve and for coming back, and that was a very nice feeling.
In Malaysia, we don’t get much coverage on American racing like Indy or Nascar. So over here, you’re more well known for your Formula One career. How would you sum up your F1 career?
Oh, it started great and after that, I made decisions, I took some risks, and some challenges because building an F1 team is quite a big challenge, so when I built BAR (British American Racing), in the first season the car was breaking down every race but we were competitive, we were qualifying 6th or 7th, I was also racing in front of Michael Schumacher running 3rd, so we were competitive for a first year team that was a great effort, and then the 2nd year we started making podiums. So it was going the right direction and then sadly the politics started happening inside the team and that became impossible . That was a little bit sad because I put a lot of energy, money, effort, everything into that project and then it’s the team that ended up winning the championship with Jenson Button when it became Brawn Racing and that team is now Mercedes.
So I’m very proud of what I built up, it’s just a shame that we weren’t there when it started going well!
If you could have changed things, do you think you could have achieved more?
Oh, in results? Yes definitely! But some of my best driving was driving at BAR because it didn’t matter how difficult things were, I never gave up, always drove hard and on the limit and finding ways to make the car better. So I was becoming a better and better driver. It was just the results became very frustrating and the politics of it became even worse. So definitely, but then you pay the price for your decision and I knew it was a big risk and it was a great challenge and I’ve always wanted the challenges in my life.
I know that you haven’t been very happy with the current state of F1, and I think you once commented that it felt “clinical,” but do you think that this can be changed? In your view, is there a way of making the sport as interesting as it was back in the day?
Of course! But the problem is people don’t often know what’s interesting or what they want. Because a lot of people started complaining that there are not enough overtakings. So what they do is, they made a car with DRS now and there’s a lot of overtakings in a race. But guess what? People find it more boring now, so that shows you that people don’t know what they want.There were some races in the past with no overtakings but they were super exciting because you could see the work that was going in the driver’s strategy, just how he was trying to make the other driver make a mistake or try to survive on old tyres and it was actually exciting.
It’s like in the last race in Singapore when Lewis was there at the end – when was he going to pit? Will he be able to catch-up? And all that. The overtaking itself was not exciting because it was easy, but its like this every lap… will the tyres survive or not? That’s part of the excitement and that’s what has been taken out, in a way because we just need more overtakings and people want that at the end of the day. They want to see on a piece of paper, “There Were 50 Overtakings,” so that must’ve been a good race. No it wasn’t! Because overtakings that happens there wasn’t like the time we’re overtaking on the highway, you push a button, if you go 20kph faster than straight, then you’re top. There’s nothing to it. It’s wrong! So the purity of racing has been taken out of it and I don’t see how it can be fixed because you cannot go back on that, how people want to see 50 overtakings, it’s not that they want to watch it, even though it’s boring.
And also, another big attitude of F1 is that it has to be green, it’s not green! Don’t even try! F1 has to be good racing, F1 has to be extreme, it has to be out of this world. You should look at an F1 race thinking you can’t do it yourself and that’s not what you see. It’s like you look at it and you think “Wow! That looks easy” and that’s really wrong about it and it’s the same with the saving money thing. I don’t know why it’s the world now, but everybody seems to say “We’re saving money.” Ok, you must be a good person then. No. That’s not what F1 is and it has never worked so they cancelled testing. What happened then? They spent the money hey were spending on testing, they were spending three years later instead. So zero money, zero dollars, what’s saved? Zero.
It’s just that the teams that make 400 million, they will spend 400 million and that will never change. So you don’t cut costs and because of that, they’ve gone to five engines per season. Why is that good? People don’t give a push because they don’t want to damage the engine, or get a penalty and so on and it doesn’t help technology, because there’s no development, it doesn’t help the racing, it’s not formula one at all. It’s Le Mans, Group C, whatever.
So I think F1 has lost its roots, I think its lost passion somehow and its purity which …if you try to stage a show, normally, you will make a mistake. If it goes wrong, and it’s fun for one race, then it becomes fake. If you leave it pure, you’ll have a few boring races, but overall people will respect it and you’ll end up having some good racing so you should just leave it, stop touching it.
And also, you want to see grown-ups in the race cars, you want to see men or even if they’re women, that’s definitely not the issue but you want to see grown-ups. People that have worked their life, they have passion and have proved to the world that they are passionate and that they’re willing to sacrifice the rest of their lives and everything just to do it, to work for it and not for it to be given like a Christmas present. You don’t play at F1 like it will be fun. That’s wrong because when you see half of the drivers, you look at (Max) Verstappen next to you, 16 years old, I mean, they go home and they play Lego. It’s not a question of being young, it’s a question of being mature, of being used to having responsibilities, or not.
Basically, they’ve got to work their way to get there.
Yes, driving at those speeds, you see some drivers doing some dangerous stuff like (Kevin) Magnussen has done a few dangerous stuff, this year. That’s because they’re not used to having responsibilities, anyway, for them it’s a game. They don’t owe up to it, and that’s my issue now with the age thing, they don’t put men in the car.
Is there anyone you look up to in the world of motorsports?
Actually right now, on the driver’s side, well, I’ve always respected (Fernando) Alonso a lot. He’s a true warrior when you see him out there he gives his heart out, everything is there and you can see the way he overtakes, he prepares it. It’s not a lot of weaving and blocking like you see happening, so I have a lot of respect for him. Lewis (Hamilton) is also fighting back quite well. (Daniel) Riccardo has impressed me because he’s been driving very maturely. He does’t seem like a kid even though he’s young, he’s not a kid, so that’s my point, he has potential there.
But for me I’ve been finding the Indy Car races a lot more exciting, because when you look at a race, you think, Oh wow! these things look like beasts! These things look so hard to drive, so tough. And when you see them get out the car, they’re not thin like skeletons, they actually look like men with muscles and when you look at an F1 driver now, you think, oh wow, that’s not a grown up man, it’s a guy who weighs 40 kilos.
Let’s move on to the topic of women in racing. Since it’s such a masculine sport, do you think that there will ever be a place for a woman at the top?
Yes! because racing is all about money. Now imagine a competitive, good looking woman in F1. You add one more zero to how much money comes into the team, everybody wants that but it’s hard to find because there’s not many women trying to be race car drivers. if you look at how many try compared to men, there’s maybe 1% that are women. So, it’s harder to find talent.
Do you think that more women should be involved in this sport?
Well, with respect, I don’t care if it’s a man or a woman, ultimately, you just want good racing and a good sportsperson. The problem that has always been with women in racing, because it’s such a man’s sport, there’s always this perception that because she’s a woman, the team will make sure that she’s not overweight. If you have a woman that’s not talented, instead of accepting that she’s not talented, she will so “oh, it’s because I’m a woman, they don’t want me to be fat,” and it becomes very political. So the teams now are being very careful to take that risk because it backfires so easily
And there’s a lot of pressure for the women as well.
Yes but if a woman approaches racing the same way man approaches it, then it’s fine. There’s no issue and she will be treated like a man, like a racer basically.
And for some reason there’s this perception that you have to treat women racers a bit differently.
Yeah, but that’s wrong, you shouldn’t. You’re racing and you’re treated the same way, you know and that’s the end of it. If a woman is as competitive as a man, there will be a lot more money involved. It’s the dream for any team or any sponsor to find the right one.
Perhaps a woman’s category in F1, what do you think about that, will such a thing work out?
No, because like in most sports, people want to watch more of the men’s sports for some reason and racing is one sport where physically a woman can’t be as fast as a man. Even women would prefer to race against men and beat men anyway.
Let’s move on to a few lighter questions. How do you relax in your free time?
Well, I don’t have a lot of free time, my free time is mainly in planes and hotels, so…read a book watch a movie. I like reading a lot so I do that a lot. When I get home I have four kids that I’m raising.
Has having a family changed the way you lead your lifestyle?
Yeah, I wake up earlier so it’s changed my responsibilities. It’s changed the fact that you cannot just travel for two weeks, change your mind or stay in different places in between races and also it makes you want to build something for the future and to show a good example to your kids. You have to think about some things in life so you need a good education, you need to work and deserve the things you get and that has become more and more difficult to do in today’s society. Whenever my kids bring their friends over you can see that. It becomes hard with education these days and it has become more and more difficult to actually even allow to educate your kids, it’s strange.
What’s your favourite pre-race meal?
I need a big steak, I need proteins. When I first got into F1 I was eating pasta like everybody else and that was the worst thing you could eat because it creates a lot of acidity in the stomach. It makes you sleepy and it doesn’t last the whole race. Halfway through the race, you were hungry, so what’s the point? Everybody has different ideas but your body knows what it needs. So I’ve tried different things and if I had a steak before a race I survived the whole race.
Where’s the best place you’ve been on holiday?
Well it depends for what and I’m not big on holidays because I travel so much and for me, I’m happy to be home, I want to be home, basically. But I would say, I like skiing so, I could go for a few days in a very special mountain, but I would say that the place that I would most like to visit is Greenland, because it’s so different. It’s not like just going to another beach, to have a few drinks and OK…it’s just another beach, maybe the sand is better but ultimately, it’s still just another beach. I don’t know if that makes sense (laughs). Yeah, but holidays for me is being home so I can spend time with my kids and raise them and see how they evolve with school and get them skiing, get them to play ice hockey and all those kinds of stuff.
Would you ever want to see your kids in racing?
I don’t know, if they’re passionate about it, yes, but not because I’m doing it.Not because, “oh, that’s great. I’ll be in the race.” Not that kind of thing. If it’s your passion and you’re willing to take the risk then yes, and I’m lucky because my wife thinks the same thing.
What do you think you’ve inherited from your father other than your love of racing?
Well, some education and a lot of racing obviously, but more the love of pushing the limit and getting better at it. So it’s not only in a race car, it could be skiing even and so if there was a big cliff to jump and nobody could jump it, I would make sure that I could when I was at school because the other ones couldn’t so it was always that little element of doing something a little bit better, stronger, more difficult than the others and being better at it, but not just winning a race. That’s why in F1 I was going through a corner flat when other people couldn’t and there was always pride in that and if I had an accident I just made sure I got out of the car and even if I was hurt, I would hide that. There was a pride in not being hurt, so it’s like the opposite of football where everybody wants to show that they’re hurt.
My father was at home the way he was at racing, when I was 10 years old, he had a helicopter, he made me fly it he said, “OK, it’s your turn” I don’t know what I was holding, but thought Wow OK! So he taught me without me knowing, because he wasn’t really present… on how to respect the opponents, how to respect the danger of how to push the limit, how to race cleanly basically. So I think I took all that and that has been a big lesson in life, respect, common sense, education. When I looked back, two years ago, I drove one of his Formula 1 cars in Italy, the 1979 car, and it was the same mechanics who were working with him who actually prepared the car for me and I was sitting in his seat and it was moulded for him and it felt like it was made for myself, so it was perfect.
That moment I was in the car, I thought…OK, when he sat in this car the first time, for him that was a new technology and I was sat in this car thinking that it was a like death trap, it was like being in a sardine can of metal and I was trying to be in his thoughts at that point and that was an amazing moment. So I have a lot of respect for these old guys and my first hero in racing was Emerson Fittipaldi and I was lucky because I raced against him , Mario Andretti and Nigel Mansell, all these guys in Indy Car when I started. I raced against my heroes and to me it’s goes back to when racing was really a passion. When these guys got into the car everyday, they knew they could die, they knew they were living on the edge, and that’s why people respected them. That’s why people watch these races thinking, “oh wow these guys are special.” I think it was Jackie Stewart or someone who once said… what has changed in the past, “racing was dangerous and sex was safe, today sex is dangerous and racing is safe.”
And you don’t get heroes in F1 anymore these days because of that?
No, you don’t, I mean they’re little boys, they’re not men and they don’t have anything interesting to say. People like (Ayrton) Senna, (Alain) Prost, people in the 60s, 70s, 80s, they always had something to say. You could see that it was their life, they were living it and their life was not F1, their life was racing, the passion of pushing the limit. Now a lot of people don’t say “I will be a race car driver, they say “I will be an F1 driver.” it’s not the same thing anymore, it has become like F1 is not racing anymore, it’s become a talent show.
You mean like a talent contest?
Yes, but not for everyone, there are a few drivers like (Fernando) Alonso, because he worked so hard to get there and because he’s so good and he knows why he’s there and he’s such a hard fighter so that’s why I have a lot of respect for him.
What’s next for you? Any big plans or projects you’d like to share?
Well, not yet. For the last two years, I’ve been doing a lot of TV work for F1 in French and Italian TV so I’m going to most of the races and I’ve been doing Indy 500 and Rallycross but I haven’t been able to focus fully on racing. So I would like to get back (to that) in the future. I don’t know maybe in Indy Car maybe something…well, we’re not there yet. There are a lot of opportunities, there are options, hopefully we can just close the door in our direction, now there are a few doors open, so hopefully it will work out, because racing is in my blood, when I’m behind the wheel and the engine is running and I’m pushing that limit and suddenly that’s when I have a big smile and when my heart starts beating and that’s why I do it.
Also since I’ve had my kids I don’t want them to see me as the next racer, sitting on the couch doing nothing, I want them to see me work for it and I think that’s the best lesson you can give.
Jacques was speaking to Amylia Hilda