1997 F1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve is set to return to a high-profile racing cockpit later this month, with the French-Canadian testing with Team Hezeberg with the aim of a formal entry into the Daytona 500.
25 years on from his F1 title win after a year fighting with Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher, Villeneuve has dabbled with various categories of NASCAR in recent years, and has also had a previous failed attempt to qualify for the Daytona race in 2008.
This week, Villeneuve is testing at Daytona and, in a nice tie-in with his own and F1’s history, is running the No. 27 made famous by his late father Gilles during his stint at Ferrari in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Looking back at his stint in F1, his former race engineer Jock Clear, now a performance engineer with Ferrari, has reflected on Villeneuve’s meteoric rise into F1 and why he and the rebellious upstart got along so well.
“I liked the fact that he was a bit of a rebel!” Clear told the Beyond the Grid podcast.
“You’ve got to look at this in the context of driving for Williams. Williams was, and still is, a fantastic team, a fantastic team, a team in the real sense of the word team, everything about working at Williams was just about Frank [Williams] and Patrick [Head] , and a really healthy dynamic with all of the people in the team, with the drivers.
“A lot of people talk about ‘Williams never treated their drivers well’.
“I don’t think you’ll find a driver that would ever have many complaints about how they enjoyed their time at Williams, they’ll find occasions where they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, Frank said this’, or ‘Patrick used to do this’, or ‘he had no respect for me’.
“But actually, if you said to them ‘Did you enjoy your time at Williams’? Absolutely. They thoroughly enjoyed the time. So this was a really great team dynamic. But it was all about Frank and Patrick.
“To the extent that the drivers were really quite oppressed at times. I wasn’t there when [Alain] Prost was there, and maybe it was very different with a driver of his calibre but certainly I was there with Damon [Hill], and he struggled to get his voice heard at times.
“So Jacques arriving as this young kid with no real track record, apart from having won Indy, which is quite a track record but, in Europe, it counts for nothing.
“Patrick had very little respect for the fact that he’d won Indy 500 and the IndyCar Championship. So the fact that Jacques was willing, straight away, to defend his corner and put up a fight if he didn’t agree with what was going on. I don’t mean in areas that he shouldn’t be involved, just in what he needed when he was driving the car. ‘This is how it is’, ‘I need this’ or ‘I could do with that’.
“He wouldn’t be told otherwise.”
“What on earth is this idiot doing?!”
Clear went on to explain that, along with Villeneuve’s idiosyncratic personal style and personality, his own unique demands of his Williams were also viewed as ‘idiotic’ by Williams’ fiery chief engineer Patrick Head.
“Everything was quirky. Any other driver gets in his car, they’re not going to be able to drive it. It had a stupidly short throttle pedal throw,” Clear explained.
“Most drivers nowadays have about 50 millimetres to 70 millimetres of throttle travel.
“So that’s at the ball of your foot, you’re travelling 50 millimetres to 70 millimetres to have the modulation. The shortest I’ve known anybody else is about 45 [millimetres].
“Jacques had 22! Now 22 millimetres is nothing. But, anything longer than that, he was like, ‘No, this throttle pedal is far too long. I can’t drive that!’
“Patrick would be like, ‘What on earth is this idiot doing? Does he have any understanding about how a bloody racing car works?’
“But he wouldn’t be told, ‘I don’t care what Patrick says’.”
But despite the arguments and clashing of personalities, Clear believed that Head secretly loved having the fiery French-Canadian as a driver.
“Don’t get me wrong, Patrick loved having Jacques there,” he said.
“He’ll tell you now that Jacques was not a very good racing driver and actually bloody nearly threw away a championship with a very good car, but he doesn’t really mean that.
“He enjoyed that dynamic, for sure. Because he likes shouting at people. And Jacques gave him lots to shout about!”