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Villeneuve Returns To Indy Looking For Second Win

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 24 2014

Jacques Villeneuve is a former winner at Indy. He wants a repeat on Sunday. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

INDIANAPOLIS – It took Jacques Villeneuve exactly one lap on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval to ask himself,  ”What have I done?’’

Nineteen years after winning the 1995 Indianapolis 500 the Canadian-born driver decided it was time to come back. The first few trips around the 2 ½-mile oval at speed gave him some serious second thoughts.

“It was almost too fast,’’ Villeneuve said, grinning. “It was a big shock to the system because it was the first time in an open-wheel car since 2006.’’

But, by his second stint on the track at speeds above 200 mph, Villeneuve suddenly felt his comfort level shoot up.

“Your muscle memory kicks in and your senses catch up with the speed,” he said. “Now it feels as if 19 years ago was yesterday.’’

Villeneuve has not been among the fastest drivers in practice and he is starting 27th in the 33-car field in Sunday’s 98th running of the 500. But he is confident that there is enough speed in his Sam Schmidt Dallara/Honda to be competitive.

“The big thing is to avoid the stupid things that happen in the early part of the race,’’ he explained. ”Somebody always does something stupid and, if you can stay away from that and get to the second part of the race, you can settle into the rhythm of the race and see what happens.’’

After coming from two laps down to win the 1995 500, Villeneuve went on to win the championship in what was then the CART series, moving to Formula One, where he won races and a championship over the next few years.

Since leaving F1 in 2006, Villeneuve has bounced around, getting occasional rides in several NASCAR series, sports cars and rally cars. When this race is over, he will return to Europe to drive in World Rally Cross and do commentary on F1 races.

So what brought the 43-year-old Villeneuve back to Indy after all these years?

“I started to watch the races again recently and saw how competitive it was and how good the cars are,’’ he noted.

“It got me interested again and one thing led to another. I just love racing,’’ he said. “It’s great to be back at these speeds. There’s nothing that compares to it. You can’t beat the cornering speeds here.

“The great aspect of racing in North America is that you win a big race or a championship and you’re respected forever. In Europe, it’s not the same. You win this year and next year they ask when you will win again and is it time to quit.’’

The trim, youthful-looking Villeneuve is excited about racing at Indy again. And he is cautiously optimistic.

“It gets to the point where 200 miles per hour doesn’t feel fast any more,’’ he said. “That’s dangerous. But I’ve hit the wall here and that keeps me from getting complacent.

“Nineteen years ago, the only laps you did all out were in qualifying. Now, you’re on the edge every lap. And these cars are quite forgiving, which allows us to take chances, which is dangerous.

“A lot of people, especially some of the young guys, don’t respect the speed here,’’ Villeneuve added. “They think they are still in a video game. They don’t grow up thinking racing is dangerous.’’

Villeneuve hopes that his experience will play a big role in his race on Sunday.

“It’s always a race that’s won with your head,’’ he said. “When I won in `95, my race could have been over early. The moment that changed the race for me was when we got a penalty.

“We could have just given up at that point, which most people would do. But (car owner) Barry Green and (engineer) Tony Cicale and I all reacted in the same way. They said, `Let’s go for it.’ ”

Everything worked out just right that year for Villeneuve as Scott Goodyear was penalized on a late restart for passing the pace car and Villeneuve, who was in second, went on to win the race.

“It was a tough decision whether to go with Scott or not and I had to make that decision in an instant,’’ Villeneuve said. “If I had gone with him, probably everybody behind me would have gone too. I don’t think CART would have penalized 15 people and Scott probably would have own the race.

“But I waited and it worked out for us. Maybe it will happen again,’’ Villeneuve said, grinning.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 24 2014
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