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The Globe and Mail

Jacques Villeneuve returns to driver’s seat

Former F1 driver Jacques Villeneuve arrives at 'Le Grand Soir', in Montreal, Thursday, June 7, 2012.


Veteran driver Jacques Villeneuve long held a been-there-done-that attitude toward IndyCar, and had little interest in returning to the open-wheel racing series.

But the 1997 Formula One world champion's view changed after the admittedly skeptical Canadian got hooked on IndyCar again, mostly due to the new car and engine formula it introduced in 2012.

"It looked really exciting with the new cars, to the point that I was getting angry and jealous because I was not racing, so that got me going again," said the 42-year-old, who last drove in IndyCar 19 years ago, when he took the 1995 Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) title and then promptly left for F1.

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"It reminded me of when I was a kid and I was watching racing – how exciting it was – and that's what made me becoming a race car driver and I was getting that feeling again watching it."

So, when Schmidt Peterson Motorsports came calling a few weeks ago, the only Canadian to drink the traditional milk in the winner's circle at the famed Brickyard couldn't help but accept an offer to race in his third Indianapolis 500 in May.

(The Indy 500 won't be his only track action this year, after Villeneuve announced earlier this month he will drive for Albatec Racing in the new FIA World Rallycross Championship.)

The Schmidt team has entered a total of 10 cars in the Indianapolis 500 since its first appearance in 2009, with a best finish of eighth by French driver Simon Pagenaud last year. Alex Tagliani of Lachenaie, Que., raced for Sam Schmidt in 2011, and became the first Canadian to take an Indy 500 pole. He finished 28th that year because of an accident.

Villeneuve raced twice previously at the famed Brickyard, becoming the first Canadian to take rookie of the year in 1994, before finding glory in the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" a year later.

In all, the native of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., grabbed five wins in 33 CART starts, and took 13 poles and 11 wins in 163 F1 races over 11 seasons. Along with U.S. racing legend Mario Andretti and Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi, the Canadian, who now lives in Andorra, is one of only three drivers to win a CART championship, an F1 crown and the Indy 500.

The Indianapolis 500 victory was arguably one of Villeneuve's best performances, after he erased an early two-lap deficit and moved back into contention late in the race. Essentially, he won the Indianapolis 505.

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After joining F1 in 1996, with Williams and winning the championship as a sophomore, Villeneuve went on to race for BAR, Renault and finally Sauber. He left F1 for good two-thirds through the 2006 season.

Since leaving the Grand Prix circuit, he competed in the European Le Mans Series, as well as short stints in stock cars of different types, most notably racing at Montreal's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, where he finished third twice.

Unfortunately, fans hoping to see more of Villeneuve in IndyCar this year will be disappointed. His busy racing schedule and work as an F1 television commentator in Italy leave little time to squeeze in other races, such as the Honda Indy Toronto.

"Doing just a race like Toronto is really stacking it against you," he said. "It's a very hard racetrack and you don't get the mileage like you do at Indy. It's not really something you just jump into.

"As a one-off, the Indy 500 is the one that stands out it – is the biggest race in the world."

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