Canada’s F1 Legacy: The Villeneuves

Ask any fan of motorsport what the greatest racing dynasty is, and chances are, most people will respond with the Brabhams or Andrettis. Few people would include the Villeneuves in that list – but it is perhaps fair to say that Formula One would not have the same following in Canada if it wasn’t for them.

Everyone knows of Gilles and Jacques, but few people know that even there is a third Villeneuve who also reached Formula One.

Jacques Villeneuve Sr was the younger brother of Gilles, and uncle of 1997 F1 World Champion Jacques Jr. He started racing in 1976, but it wasn’t for several years until his career really took off, becoming rookie of the season in Formula Atlantic in 1979. He was champion for the following two years.

In between taking part in snowmobile competitions, Jacques Sr also attempted to qualify for two Canadian Grands Prix, in 1981 and 1983. However, he failed to qualify with the Arrows and RAM machinery he used for both attempts proving uncompetitive.

As well as Formula One, he competed in Can-Am, CART and the 1983 Le Mans 24 Hours, achieving moderate success.

In comparison, older brother Gilles is regarded as something as a Formula One legend, despite failing to ever win the World Championship.

Gilles Villenueve - Credit: Ferrari
Gilles Villenueve – Credit: Ferrari

Certainly, as many agree, Gilles did not lack the talent, nor did he lack the speed. But as the 1979 World Champion, and former team mate to Gilles, Jody Scheckter once memorably claimed: “The problem with Gilles was that he wanted to win every corner, not every race.”

Gilles started to show his promise in 1976, where he won both the US and Canadian Formula Atlantic championships. From there, a quick progression up the ladder of motorsport followed, and he made his debut in Formula One with McLaren the following year.

He memorably delighted the home crowd at Montreal to win the Canadian Grand Prix in 1978 for Ferrari, a track that is now named in his honour following the tragic events of 1982.

That year, Gilles had a very public spat with Ferrari team mate, Didier Pironi, before he was killed during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder.

He never won the title, but with his six wins and thirteen podiums, he was a true fan favourite all around the world, particularly in native Canada and Italy, where he was adored by the Tifosi. He is arguably one of the most spectacular drivers ever to have stepped in a racing car.

So what of Jacques Jr?

Statistics say that he is by far the most successful of the trio, having won the 1995 Indycar title (including that year’s 500) and the 1997 Formula One World Championship. Yet many people still regard Gilles as the better driver.

Jacques has always been outspoken and never seemed to let the weight of expectation that surrounded his surname drag him down. Indeed, he seemed determined to make the world take notice of his achievements, and not those of his father’s.

Damon Hill beats teammate Villeneuve into Senna Corner at 1996 Canadian Grand Prix – Credit: LAT Photographic

Villeneuve competed against both Damon Hill (incidentally the son of another F1 legend) and Michael Schumacher in 1996, before triumphing in 1997. His title was won in the most controversial of ways at the last round of the season, with Schumacher later being disqualified after his attempt to take Jacques out the race back-fired.

An ill-fated move to BAR (which many saw as money driven) in 1999 left Jacques in the F1 wilderness for several years, until he was ultimately replaced at BMW Sauber half way through 2006 by a certain young Pole named Robert Kubica.

Since then, Jacques has raced at Le Mans, finishing second in 2008, as well as racing in several NASCAR and V8 Supercar events.

In summary and whoever you think is best, it is a credit to all three that the Villeneuve name is still held with high regard in the Formula One fraternity ahead of the championship’s return to Le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve this weekend.

Motorsport would be a poorer place without the Villeneuve legacy.