Villeneuve back at Indy with eye on future
INDIANAPOLIS – Jacques Villeneuve was supposed to be in Europe this week working on a potential deal to return to Formula One next season.
Then he suddenly got the chance to try to qualify for Sunday’s Sprint Cup series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so Villeneuve put those talks on hold to go racing.
“This came about only a week ago,” Villeneuve said. “This is really last minute.”
The 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner and 1997 Formula One champion hasn’t had a steady ride in a top series since 2006. While the 39-year-old Canadian is working on an F1 deal, he remains interested in finding a full-time ride in NASCAR.
“There’s a lot going on, and until you have something finalized, you have to look at every opportunity that’s out there,” Villeneuve said. “I really, really enjoy driving the NASCARs. That’s why I moved back on this side of the ocean in 2006, was to concentrate on NASCAR. And it’s taken a while to get going.”
Big picture aside, Villeneuve’s immediate concern is trying to put Braun Racing’s No. 32 Toyota in the field during Saturday’s qualifying.
It’s a newly built car for a team that only races part time in the Cup series; Villeneuve has raced road course races in the Nationwide series for Braun – most recently at Road America, where he ran strong all day and made a few breathtaking passes, only to have an electrical problem derail a potential top-five finish.
Villeneuve is seen mostly as a road-course specialist in NASCAR, but wants to prove himself on ovals.
Despite his experience at the track – in addition to the Indy 500, he also has raced on the track’s road course configuration as an F1 driver – Indianapolis isn’t the easiest place for a part-time driver to try to get up to speed in a stock car.
“It’s tough for a guy that doesn’t do it every week for sure,” said Tony Stewart, who successfully made the jump from open-wheel racing to stock cars. “There’s a lot of emphasis put on this race obviously. He’s been a champion here, so he knows how to get around this place. It’s just, can he figure it out in a stock car?”
Relatively flat turns make the track tough to drive, and it’s a tough place for teams to find the right setup to make their cars go fast.
“It’s very challenging, because we can’t prepare like we would want to,” Villeneuve said. “If you put me on the road course, it’s no problem. But this is a difficult oval. The team doesn’t have a backlog of experience here, either. So we’ll have to see. The first laps will be a little tough.”
Villeneuve figures his crew would lean on other teams for a little help setting up their car.
“They all know each other, so you can get a little base, I guess,” Villeneuve said. “Then it’s just a question of getting up to speed.”
That was a struggle early on, as Villeneuve was 45th on the speed charts in the first practice Friday.
If Villeneuve does rally to make the race, his experience tells him not to be too aggressive early on.
“It’s a long race and a lot happens on this track,” Villeneuve said. “There’s no point in going crazy early on.”
Regardless of what happens this weekend, Villeneuve will need to figure out his racing future. He has been talking to Italy-based Durango, which might try to race F1 next season.
“The opportunity was there, so there’s no way I was going to say, ‘No, don’t bother,”‘ Villeneuve said. “I don’t have a full-time ride here anyway, I can’t just (ignore) something and stay home. But I haven’t spent as much time as I should have or would have wanted to on it because I’ve been here.”
Villeneuve nearly returned to F1 with a startup team this season, but the deal fell apart when the team wasn’t approved to race. Despite all the talk about F1, he still has a strong interest in NASCAR.
“Obviously, there’s been a lot of talks about Formula 1, and as long as this is an option, I have to keep it open,” Villeneuve said. “It’s really hard to tell you what the preference would be because you have to wait until the real opportunity is there on the table. Until there’s something full time that we can get going, I can’t really focus on one.”
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