The first race that Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe remembers from start to finish, and every detail in between, was the Indianapolis 500 that Jacques Villeneuve won almost 20 years ago.
The Oakville, Ont., native recalls being a wide-eyed seven year old watching one of his racing heroes come from behind to win in 1995 and hoping one day to stand in the Winner's Circle like Villeneuve and drink the traditional milk.
Now, the 27-year-old IndyCar driver will do something he never thought possible: Complete alongside one of his childhood idols in the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
"Selfishly, this is the greatest news — as a racing fan and a Canadian, I am so looking forward to the chance to get to be on the track at the same time with him, race against him, and maybe even get to know him a little bit because he was one of those guys for me growing up," Hinchcliffe said.
"I've been a fan of him forever. I followed him through IndyCar, through Formula One the good days, Formula One the bad days, and even into his NASCAR forays. I was a member of the Jacques Villeneuve fan club and I used to get letter every month from Switzerland."
Villeneuve, 42, announced last Wednesday that he will return for his third Indianapolis 500 in May, driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
Two decades ago, racer Villeneuve became the only Canadian to score a victory in the Indianapolis 500.
Getting his name on the famed Borg Warner trophy in 1995 along with the Championship Auto Racing Teams title that same year paved Villeneuve's way for a move to Formula One. A Formula One championship followed in 1997, putting Villeneuve in the Canadian record books again as the only driver from this country to claim the top prize in racing.
The Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., native is as close to racing royalty that Canada has ever had, the offspring of the driver who many feel is not only the greatest this country has ever produced but also one of the best to ever sit in an F1 car, Gilles Villeneuve. Gilles raced in F1 from 1977 to 1982 taking six wins. He died in a qualifying accident for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix when Jacques was 11.
Royalty or not, there's no doubt that 19 years is essentially a lifetime in racing. Cars don't just change over two decades, they transform into completely different machines.
With one chassis, one tire and only two engines available, the performance gap between individual cars is much smaller today than back in Villeneuve's days, which makes the quarters much closer. The fundamental nature of the Dallara DW12 chassis used by IndyCar, especially at the Speedway, makes the racing better because of the size of the draft it creates.
"I can't speak for how it was back then, but I think it is quite different," Hinchcliffe said.
"In terms of general feel of getting the car around the track kind of by yourself, it might actually be quite similar — you are dealing with a car that has more downforce and less horsepower — but I think the big difference for him is going to be when we get into proper racing situations."
"He'll probably be very unimpressed when he first peels out of the pitbox, but then I think his eyes will open up pretty wide when he's heading into Turn 1 for the first time."
May's race at the famed 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be Villeneuve's third kick at the can, with his first try at the Brickyard in 1994 delivering that year's rookie award for a second-place finish.
The big question now: Can Villeneuve win it again?
"It's a tough call," Hinchcliffe said.
"He hasn't been in an open wheel car since sort of the mid-2000s and even then he was racing in F1 and not IndyCar and oval racing is quite a bit different. He is immensely talented — we all know that— but this style of racing is just very different and having been out of it for as while it might take time to get back up to speed. I have no doubt that he could do it, but whether or not he can do it in a week-and-a-half of practice that we get at Indy, I don't know yet."
The last time Villeneuve raced in an IndyCar there were two tire suppliers (Firestone and Goodyear), three chassis makers (Lola, Reynard and Penske), and four engine manufacturers (Buick, Ford, Honda, and Mercedes). The cars of that era produced roughly 800-horsepower from their normally aspirated 2.4-litre V-8 engines and used tunnels build into the underside of the car (ground effects) along with the wings to create downforce.
The IndyCar that will run in May's Indianapolis 500 puts out about 700-horsepower from their 2.2-litre turbocharged V-6 engines supplied by Chevrolet and Honda and still use ground effects. Firestone is the only tire provider.
By the Numbers
In open-wheel racing's highest levels, Villeneuve took six poles and five wins in 33 CART starts along with 13 poles and 11 victories in 163 races over 11 years in F1. His last open wheel win came in the 1997 Luxembourg Grand Prix at the German Nurburgring track when he was driving for WilliamsF1.
He departed Williams in 1999 to join the new BAR squad founded by his then-manager Craig Pollock and raced there for five fruitless seasons. He drove three races for Renault in late 2004 before joining Sauber full-time in 2005 but left the team two-thirds through the 2006 season.
After a year off in 2004, Villeneuve joined the Sauber team in a comeback the next season. Success was difficult to find and Villeneuve and the Swiss squad parted ways 12 races into the 2006 season. He was replaced by a young up-and-comer named Robert Kubica, who quickly made a name for himself by taking a podium in his third start with the team.
The next season, Kubica narrowly escaped serious injury in a spectacular crash during the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix which saw his car smash into a wall and then disintegrate as it barrel-rolled down the track. He emerged with a concussion and a sore ankle and missed the next race in Indianapolis, which allowed a rising star named Sebastian Vettel to get his first F1 start.
The down-to-earth Kubica returned to Montreal in 2008 to take his and BMW's maiden win in F1, scoring a hugely popular victory at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
Quote of the Week
When asked why a 42-year-old with nothing to prove and a young family would want to drive in the Indianapolis 500 again, Villeneuve said: "I'm older in racing, got kids, and actually that's another drive. I'm a racer at heart and I will always be — that's what keeps me going, that's what keeps me alive. I don't want to be for my kids just the guy that used to race that they can see in books. I want them to see and live what I've already lived, to see it through my doing it actively. It's actually a positive effect to have kids."
The Last Word
Jacques Villeneuve is the last F1 driver to start in pole position in his first grand prix, a feat he accomplished in the 1996 season opener in Australia. Only three other drivers — Giuseppe Farina and Walt Faulkner in 1950, and Carlos Reutemann in 1972 — have been able to take pole in their F1 debut.
Falkner is the only one not to do it in the season opener after he took top spot for the 1950 Indianapolis 500, which was a part of the F1 world championship until 1960.
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Correction: Jacques Villeneuve took the pole in the 1996 opener in Australia. An earlier version of this story contained the wrong year.