Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

Jacques of all trades - In conversation with rallycross rookie Villeneuve

Published by Stuart Gillespie

Villeneuve, now trying his hand at rallycross

Jacques Villeneuve had a tough decision to make when it came to where he'd be spending his Bank Holiday weekend at the end of May. He could go to the south east of England, perhaps enjoying a sightseeing trip to the white cliffs of Dover, or he could head for The Brickyard.

He chose the latter and so this weekend he'll end a 17 year exile from the Indy 500.

Villeneuve is someone who splits opinion but personally I find this quite exciting. I spent Sunday nights as a kid trying to see as much IndyCar as I could before I was sent to bed by my parents. The French-Canadian was one of a string of drivers who starred in that era along with Nigel Mansell, Al Unser Jr, Paul Tracey followed by Juan Pablo Montoya, the late Greg Moore and my hero and fellow Scot Dario Franchitti.

Heroes returning to the sight of their triumphs seems to be in vogue this year. The British Touring Car Championship is crammed with former title winners, Montoya is back in IndyCar and, for one race only, Villeneuve will join him. But what about that other bank holiday option, the one that involved a trip to the south east corner of England?

Not for the faint of heart

Earlier this year Villeneuve signed up for the first ever FIA World Rallycross Championship. He joined Albatec Racing – a team based on the outskirts of Dumfries in south west Scotland. I work at a newspaper office in the town and found his unveiling rather surreal. My job has occasionally allowed me the chance to indulge my love of motorsport, whether it be by interviewing Le Mans winner Allan McNish or getting a ride in a rally car, but never have I been asked to go to a shed to meet a former F1 world champion and winner of the Indy 500.

Of course, it wasn't quite as basic as that. It wasn't just me, there were various other journalists and film crew as well, including Louise Goodman who was overseeing proceedings. The “shed” was Albatec's workshop, complete with lorry and the impressive Peugeot 208 that Villeneuve and team principal Andy Scott will be competing in. According to one of the mechanics, it's faster off the line than an F1 car. Hard to believe but I had to take his word for it.

Albatec in the World RX opening race

At the time it wasn't known that Villeneuve wouldn't be racing in the British round of the series at Lydden Hill because he was heading to Indy – although that's not the only round he'll be missing – but the announcement that he would be trying his hand at rallycross created a huge buzz.

Sky Sports were there to find out his opinions on the latest goings on in F1 and Martin Anayi, managing director of rallycross at IMG, said Petter Solberg had been “pulling money from wherever he can” so he could compete against him – a good move as the former WRC champ won the opening round in Portugal earlier this month.

That someone of Villeneuve's calibre should sign for the team just up the road from my office came as a surprise. That he was trying rallycross shouldn't have been. Since his last grand prix nearly eight years ago he's competed in a variety of disciplines, finished second at Le Mans in 2008 for Peugeot, bounced around various levels of NASCAR and even dabbled in ice racing. But what was it that attracted him to rallycross?

“The challenge for starters,” he told me. “The fact it's become an FIA world championship brings the level of professionalism quite high. It's only the beginning, it's always good to be at the start of something. The fact there's a race in Canada is quite cool and the cars are amazing. 600 horsepower, tough battles and drivers leaning on each other. It's not for the faint of heart. It's non-stop action. It's quite exciting.

"It's exciting, it's fun, it's building a new championship and I'm here from the start so it's perfect."

“The gears are short and you've got four wheel drive so it will get off the line very fast. It's a thrill – it's fun for a few times then you get used to it. Sadly the speed and power you get used to. After a day or two it gets dull and you need more and more and you never get enough.

“You go where the opportunities are and you decide which ones are good and which ones are not so good. This one is an amazing one. It's exciting, it's fun, it's building a new championship and I'm here from the start so it's perfect.

“The sad thing is I cannot do all the races because I'm involved in TV coverage. That was in place so I'll have to miss a few races and miss a few races of F1 as well. This being the first year I see it as a learning year – sometimes you just have to make compromises and go with it. It gives time to see how the championship evolves and how we can build it to make it stronger so the following year I can just focus on it.”

Learning from everyone

Villeneuve has a history of being a bit difficult with the media but there's none of that when my colleagues and I meet him – he even jokes “I'll try to understand what you're saying” when we tell him we're from the local paper. However, this was likely to be of the few times he's in Dumfries as he feels there's “not much point” in being at the factory – an interesting view considering we hear so often that F1 drivers spend hours working at their team's base.

What Jacques is tackling is different to pretty much anything he's done before. Bouncing a Peugeot around a rallycross track is almost impossible to compare to driving one round Le Mans, flying a DW12 around Indy or negotiating Monaco in an F1 car. But he believes the fact he's raced so many cars in so many series could help him out.

He explained: “The last six or seven years I've been jumping in different kinds of cars all the time and getting used to adapting fast to different cars so that will be a good thing. I raced on ice in France, it's a little bit similar.”

And which other drivers does he see as his main competition?: “All of them because I'm the one whose learning, they all have the experience. Although I have a lot of experience in racing this is starting from scratch. I'll be learning from everyone – these guys are special so I'll be trying to learn from them, then using what I've learned from them and my other series.”

Villeneuve puts the Peugeot 208 through its paces

Villeneuve claims he's not just in this for a year and is looking long term. The championship is out of the question in 2014 due to his limited schedule, and he failed to make the final at the first round, partly because of car problems. How long it takes for him to get up to a truly competitive level remains to be seen.

But he better learn quickly if he's to live up to the demands placed on him by one of the drivers who beat him at Le Mans in 2008 – a driver who grew up just down the road from Albatec's factory. Team principal Andy Scott revealed: “Allan McNish sent a very special message over - 'Tell Jacques he's in a town of winners and second place isn't good enough.'”

For now his focus is on Indy. Does he have much of a chance of taking a second Indy 500 victory, this time with Schmidt Peterson Motorsport? Probably not – a lot has changed in IndyCar since he was last there and it's nearly a decade since he last raced in F1, before being unceremoniously dumped by Sauber half way through 2006. However, anything can happen at Indianapolis. Get into the race, get a good car beneath you, keep out of trouble and who knows where that will take you.

He'll certainly give it his all and I'll certainly be watching him giving it a go – and at least this time I don't need to worry about being sent to bed before the chequered flag.