Two drivers named Jacques Villeneuve competed in the Indianapolis 500, both related to legendary Formula 1 racer Gilles Villeneuve.
Gilles’ brother Jacques made one start in the ‘500,’ qualifying 15th and finishing 20th in 1986. Gilles’ son, also named Jacques, was much more successful in his two starts; he started fourth and finished second, claiming Rookie of the Year honors in 1994, and a year later, he won the race. The younger Villeneuve then switched from Indy cars to Formula 1 and went on to win the 1997 F1 World Championship.
Although he won only six F1 races, Gilles Villeneuve is one of the most famous and captivating figures in the history of F1. Much was expected of his son Jacques when he came of age, and sure enough, the younger Villeneuve pursued a racing career at an early age. His earliest success came driving Formula 3 cars in Italy and Japan, but his exploits did not go unnoticed in his home country of Canada. In fact, Player’s Ltd., the Canadian branch of British American Tobacco, formed the Player’s Racing Team in 1993 around Villeneuve in an effort to foster Canadian driving talent. The program would eventually groom several successful Canadian Indy car drivers, including Greg Moore, Patrick Carpentier and Alex Tagliani.
Player’s contracted Forsythe/Green Racing to campaign cars for Villeneuve and fellow Quebecois Claude Bourbonnais in the 1993 Formula Atlantic championship. The top Player’s driver would then advance to the CART-sanctioned IndyCar World Series in 1994. Although Bourbonnais won seven races to Villeneuve’s five, both drivers were beaten to the championship by David Empringham. Still, Villeneuve was the man chosen to move up to Indy cars.
Villeneuve’s Indy car career got off to a scary start when he was involved in a huge accident at Phoenix International Raceway in only his second start. However, he had settled down considerably by the time he arrived in Indianapolis for the month of May and Jacques calmly qualified the Forsythe/Green Racing entry fourth for his first Indy start.
With a special Indy-only engine produced by Mercedes-Benz, Penske Racing dominated the Indianapolis 500 with drivers Emerson Fittipaldi and ultimate race winner Al Unser Jr. But rookie Villeneuve was clearly the best of the rest, to the satisfaction of team co-owner Barry Green.
“We figure we’re first in Class B,” Green said. “The Penskes were running to different [engine specification] rules than we are, so we’re pretty happy.”
For a driver with a reputation as a wild man, Villeneuve’s polished performance at Indianapolis was a revelation.
“Indianapolis is the one place where you have to stay concentrated for a long period of time,” Villeneuve added. “Not only is it the longest race, it’s a whole month from the start of practice to the end of the race. It’s easy to lose your focus, or to get mad if things aren’t going well.
“We spent the whole month without losing focus. We have a good chemistry on the team and the result was great for us.”
Villeneuve went on to score his first Indy car race win at Road America in August 1994. At the end of the season, Jerry Forsythe and Barry Green decided to split and field individual entries for 1995 and onward. Villeneuve stayed with Team Green, while Forsythe hired 1983 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Teo Fabi as his driver.
Villeneuve started the 1995 season on a winning note, claiming the CART opener on a downtown Miami street course. He ranked second in the championship standings when he arrived in Indianapolis at the start of the Month of May, and once again, Jacques was a frontrunner all month long.
He overcame a heavy crash the day before Pole Day to land a qualifying berth in the middle of Row 2. Villeneuve then ran a fuel conservation strategy early in the race that put him into the lead on Lap 36 as drivers ahead of him pitted. Just then, however, the yellow flag flew, creating a great deal of confusion, and in that confusion, Villeneuve passed the Pace Car not once, but twice. He was assessed a two lap penalty and dropped to 24th place.
“When we got that penalty, it knocked us on our backs,” related Green. “I mean, no one even wanted to talk on the radio. It was just quiet, so I rounded up the troops and said, ‘Come on guys, we’re not out of it yet!’”
The lead of the 1995 race was passed around like a hot potato. Michael Andretti, Mauricio Gugelmin, Scott Pruett and Jimmy Vasser all led significant portions of the race, but attrition was high. Villeneuve continued to play the fuel mileage card, and when Vasser and Pruett crashed out in separate incidents, Jacques found himself back on the lead lap, in second place behind Scott Goodyear.
Then one of the most controversial moments in Indianapolis 500 history unfolded. Following the cleanup for Pruett’s accident, the race was set to resume on Lap 191. Almost unbelievably, leader Goodyear shot past the Chevrolet Corvette Pace Car before the Pace Car entered the pits.
The Pace Car appeared to be going slower than the customary 120 mph when it reached the pit entrance, but it was still the lead driver’s responsibility to remain behind it on the track until the green flag waved. In this case, clear evidence existed that Goodyear passed the Pace Car, an offense subject to penalty.
The black flag was displayed to Goodyear on laps 193-195, but he chose to ignore it. USAC stopped scoring Goodyear after 195 laps, leaving Villeneuve to cruise home as the winner of the race over Christian Fittipaldi. Goodyear actually crossed the finish line about 8 seconds before Villeneuve, but he was classified 14th.
“Obviously in hindsight, I should have just hung back there before the restart,” Goodyear said. “If I had passed three or four guys before the green light, then I’d understand the need for a stop and go. But in this situation, as the leader, I think the penalty was a bit excessive.
“I guess I've never understood how the Pace Car could affect the outcome of a race,” he added. “Weird circumstances, but if I was re-doing it again today, I’d have my foot in it. I wasn’t going to take my foot off the gas and have all those guys collect me from behind.”
Villeneuve used the momentum of his Indianapolis win to claim the CART series championship in only his second year of racing Indy cars. By then, he had attracted serious interest from Formula 1 teams, and he duly signed for Williams-Renault. Jacques finished second to his teammate Damon Hill in the 1996 F1 championship before claiming the crown after a dominant 1997 season.
Once again, British American Tobacco made a heavy investment in Villeneuve’s career, luring him to a start-up BAT F1 team in 1999 with technical support from Indy car chassis constructor Reynard Racing Cars. The BAT team was never very competitive, and Villeneuve’s Formula 1 career would end in 2006 after a series of desultory campaigns.
Even though his last Indianapolis 500 start occurred in 1995, Villeneuve competed at Indy on the road course in F1 from 2000-06 with a best finish of fourth place in 2000. He also made one start in the NASCAR Brickyard 400 (in 2010), making him the only driver who has competed in all three of the major car races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But Villeneuve’s Indy legacy is cemented in that remarkable, come-from-behind-after-a-penalty victory in the 1995 Indianapolis 500.
“I knew the team was ready to win the race and I knew I was ready,” Villeneuve said in his post-race interview. “When we were behind Goodyear, I thought he was going to be the first Canadian to win the race, but it turned out to be us.
“This is the best feeling I’ve had in motor racing so far,” he added. “Indy is the race to win. Winning this race is as big as winning a championship, and it’s a great feeling.”