Jacques Villeneuve: Formula 1 champ hoping to achieve goal of Daytona 500 start

Jacques Villeneuve(Photo: Getty Images)

During his racing career, Jacques Villeneuve has accomplished what many racers can only dream about. The 50-year-old Canadian has succeeded at the highest levels of motorsports in terms of both race wins and championships. However, there is still one goal he hopes to achieve, and in 2022, he is taking steps toward doing exactly that.

Villeneuve’s 1995 season was a remarkable one as the son of legendary racer Gilles Villeneuve earned the CART Series championship along with a win in the racing’s most prestigious event- the Indianapolis 500. From there, he stepped onto the world stage and earned the much coveted Formula 1 championship along with 11 Grand Prix wins while driving for Williams in 1997.

This past week, Villeneuve was at the Daytona International Speedway taking part in NASCAR’s test session for its new Next Gen car. Driving for a newly formed team with European ownership, the driver who previously made an attempt to compete in NASCAR a decade ago is back with hopes of making his first career start in the Daytona 500.

“It would be amazing,” Villeneuve replied during a NASCAR Media appearance when asked about racing in the Daytona 500. “The last time I was in NASCAR in North America was quite a few years ago, I think it was Sonoma the last time and that was a lot of years ago. It would be extremely special because it is a standout race. It would be a special race to participate in. It’s hard to get in the show when you have to qualify on time or in the Duels. It makes it a little more stressful so making the show would be something special.”

Villeneuve has driven for the last two seasons in NASCAR’s Whelen Euro Elite 1 Series teamed with Dutch driver Loris Hezemans. When the newly formed Team Hezeberg decided to enter NASCAR in the United States, they originally chose that driver to steer their cars. However, Hezemans was not cleared to race on NASCAR’s super speedways so Villeneuve was chosen to take the wheel.

“I’ve never stopped racing, it’s just a question of opportunity,” Villeneuve pointed out. “I’m living in Europe and that makes it a little more difficult to focus on racing here in North America. I’m very busy also doing TV commentary for Formula 1, and making babies, so that takes a lot of time.”

Team Hezeberg tested at the Charlotte Roval when NASCAR went there to put the new Next Gen car through its paces and they have plans to also attend the upcoming session at the Phoenix Raceway with Hezemans in the driver’s seat.

So is this organization that is a collaborative effort between former sportscar driver Toine Hezemans, Dutch businessman Ernst Berg, and Reaume Brothers Racing serious about making a run at the Daytona 500 specifically as well as a limited NASCAR Cup Series schedule in 2022?

“That’s why we’re testing unless the team changes its mind,” Villeneuve replied. “At this point, it’s all self financed by the owners. The reason they came into the series is because it’s a new car that you buy off the self then, obviously, the teams work on them. They’re discovering now that a lot of work has to be done. Right now it’s a new team, it’s a small team, and there’s still a long way to go. Right now we’re focusing on Daytona and hopefully we’ll do more races.”

Villeneuve attempted to make the Daytona 500 in 2008 in a car prepared by Bill Davis Racing. The driver says he learned a lesson back then that he hopes his new team will apply for this attempt at NASCAR’s biggest event.

“The experience with Bill Davis was very useful because we were trying to qualify on time and we had set the car up to be really slick and then in the Duels it made it almost undriveable,” he described. “That was a lesson hard learned because I think I got sideways three times in 20 laps until I ended up putting it in the wall which is not normally something you do here. That’s not the direction we will take this time.”

After participating in both the Daytona and Charlotte Roval tests in his No. 27 ride, Villeneuve likens the Next Gen car to another type of racing machine. While those who have raced in this form of motorsports for several years have pointed out some of the difficulties, or differences, in regard to the new car, this driver from outside that realm offers a different point of view on the 2.5-mile super speedway.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect because the last time I had been here was when the track was really bumpy, over ten years ago, so it wasn’t resurfaced yet,” he recalled. “But these cars have a lot of downforce and they run quite stiff, closer to a GT car, and it turned out to be very easy to drive. Right now, we’re not quick in qually(qualifying) trim but in the pack it’s super easy to drive. There were no surprises. I remember when I tried to make the show years ago it was really tough. You were holding your breath every time you got to the corner. It was nasty and yesterday was quite easy and relaxing which is a weird thing to say here at Daytona but that’s how it felt.”

However, the road course specialist did find the Next Gen to be a bit tricky on the Roval.

“I did a few laps on the Roval test which was very complicated,” he explained. “The car was strange to drive there. To get back on the Speedway, this is a ‘The’ race. There are a few races in the world that stand out. You have the Indy 500, the 24 Hours of LeMans, and Daytona so it’s part of that very small group of special races to do or tracks to drive at.”

In Villeneuve’s first try at NASCAR in the U.S., there were some difficulties. But he also found some success, particularly on road courses in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. In nine starts on NASCAR’s ‘second series’ the native of Montreal earned four top-5 and six top-10 results along with a pole on his home track.

He says that desire to make it in American stock car racing has not diminished.

“I’ve always wanted to race in NASCAR,” he proclaimed. “It’s not something I’ve put behind. It was a matter of opportunities as well and it became more difficult to get racing. I focused more in Europe for other reasons, not because of the racing itself.”

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Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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