Jacques Villeneuve is about to go back in time.
The 1997 world champion will peer three decades into the past next week when he drives one of his father's Formula One cars at Ferrari's Fiorano test track to help Gilles Villeneuve's former team mark the 30th anniversary of his death.
While he's previously avoided public displays related to his father's fatal accident, Villeneuve immediately felt driving the 1979 312 T4 Ferrari in Italy for Ferrari was going to be different.
“I got a call from Ferrari [and]they wanted me to do something for the anniversary,” he said. “I have never been keen on it in the past, but it was the 30th, and this was Ferrari themselves, and it's at Fiorano, so it's a proper test. I thought it would be nice.
“It won't be a moment of crying and being sad and all that; it's been 30 years. It's just special to be able to drive a car that he actually raced at Fiorano and the whole history that goes with it. In a way, it's a moment to rejoice in the good things that he did and his achievements.”
Gilles Villeneuve died after a massive crash during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder on May 8, 1982. His Ferrari touched wheels with another car and disintegrated as it flipped several times. Villeneuve was thrown from the car in the violent crash and died later that day in hospital. Jacques was 11 years old at the time.
At the time, Gilles Villeneuve was easily the most popular Canadian on the planet and a gigantic source of pride at home. Thirty years later, it is not uncommon to see Gilles Villeneuve signs, flags, and t-shirts at F1 races, especially in Italy, where he is still revered for his ability to drive on the knife's edge and his never-give-up attitude.
In 67 races in F1 between 1977 and 1982, Gilles Villeneuve scored six wins, two poles and 13 podiums. His best year was 1979, when he finished second in the world championship behind his teammate Jody Scheckter of South Africa. In his eulogy at the funeral in Villeneuve's hometown of Berthierville, Que., Scheckter described his former teammate as “the most genuine person I have ever known.”
Jacques followed in his father's footsteps, beginning a racing career three years after Gilles' death. In the end, the son did what the father never had the chance to do when he won the ultimate prize of an F1 world championship. Along the way, Jacques took the 1995 Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) title and is also the sole Canadian to have won the famed Indianapolis 500.
In his F1 career, Jacques Villeneuve won 11 times and took 23 podiums in 161 races. He started his first grand prix in 1996 with Williams, and last raced in F1 in 2006 with the BMW Sauber Team.
On Tuesday, Villeneuve will return to an F1 cockpit to drive the Ferrari that Gilles piloted to three wins and second place overall in points.
It's not the first time Jacques will have driven one of his father's cars. At the 2004 Goodwood Festival, he got behind the wheel of the Ferrari 312 T3 that Gilles drove to his maiden F1 victory in the 1978 Canadian Grand Prix.
While the Goodwood drive was a short, low-speed demonstration run, the son hopes to use the Fiorano experience next week to get a better sense of the car that his father pushed to the limit as he thrilled fans and amazed competitors alike.
“I am not going to take stupid risks – those cars were lethal and it is 30 years old,” he said, with a chuckle. “It's been well-maintained, but who knows how the set-up is and everything?”
Although his father's 1979 Ferrari was the top of the line at the time, the cars Jacques Villeneuve drove during his time in F1 were light years ahead. It would be akin to replacing a PlayStation with a decades-old Atari computer and its flagship game, Pong.
When asked about the vast difference, Villeneuve simply said: “I like those old games, so that's not a problem.”
“The thing is, we know better now and back then they didn't. When they sat in those cars it was the most amazing thing ever built – they didn't think the cars were dangerous because that's all they knew, and it was the safest one they had ever been in anyway.”
One thing Villeneuve won't have to worry about is his fitness level. He continues to follow a strict workout regime, staying in race shape to be ready if anyone needs his services.
Like the cars they race, modern F1 drivers are also highly-tuned machines, something that wasn't usually the case in the days of their predecessors.
So, Villeneuve isn't expecting the 1979 Ferrari to offer a strenuous workout.
“I am ready to race, so fitness won't be an issue,” said Villeneuve, who promised he would be in the field for Montreal's NASCAR Nationwide race in August.
“What's amazing is when you talk to a driver from those days, they rave about how fast their cars were compared to modern cars, but modern F1 cars are so much faster. It was just the perception they had back then; they thought the cars were hard and physical to drive, but that's because they never did one day of fitness or preparation.”
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