Jacques Joseph Charles Villeneuve is a Canadian automobile racing driver, and winner of Formula One and Champ Car championships and the Indianapolis 500, one of only two drivers to accomplish all three feats (the other being Emerson Fittipaldi). He is currently employed in Formula 1 by BMW Sauber as a race driver.
Born in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Canada, Villeneuve's father was the highly respected Gilles Villeneuve, a Formula One driver killed during qualifying at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix when Jacques was only eleven years old. His uncle, also named Jacques , was a moderately successful driver in American and Canadian road racing, winning one IndyCar race. Young Jacques, following his family's racing footsteps, first competed in the Italian Formula 3 series from 1989 through 1991.
In 1992, he raced in the Japanese Formula 3 series, winning three races and placing second in the championship. In 1993, Jacques moved to the North American Toyota Atlantic racing series, where he won five races. He moved to Champ Car in 1994, and was the series Rookie of the Year after a string of strong results, including his first victory at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. In 1995, he won the Indianapolis 500 (running 505 miles due to a 2-lap penalty) on his way to winning the championship. Villeneuve is the last Indycar champion to win the title before the 1996 CART/IRL split created two rival series. As such his achievements perhaps carry greater weight.
As a result of his success racing in the United States, Villeneuve attracted the attentions of Frank Williams who tested him in 1995 with a view to signing him. The Canadian impressed and, in 1996, he moved to Formula One with the Williams team. His debut was nothing less than spectacular, as he became only the second Formula One driver in history to achieve both a pole and a podium position in his maiden grand prix. He led the race until an oil leak, and team orders, forced him to slow and allow teammate Damon Hill to pass. He held on to finish second. He won four races that year, reached the podium 11 times, and finished with 78 points — all rookie records which still stand today. The debut victory came at the Nürburgring where he held off reigning world champion Michael Schumacher. He finished the season runner-up in the drivers championship to Hill, having taken the title battle down the wire at Suzuka. That final race saw a crash end his hopes in spectacular fashion, although he was running behind Hill at the time and would not likely have won even had he not crashed. His impressive debut helped Williams win the constructors championship by over 100 points in 1996.
With the 1997 departure of Hill to Arrows, Villeneuve became the number one at Williams, comfortably outpacing new team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen. In just his second season in Formula One he became world champion by claiming 7 wins, 10 poles, 8 podiums, and 81 points. He clinched the title in dramatic fashion by beating Ferrari star Michael Schumacher in the final race of the year at Jerez. Schumacher, under pressure from his rival, who gradually closed in over several laps, replicated his 1994 Australian Grand Prix tactics and turned in on Villeneuve as Villeneuve darted up the inside at the corner at the end of a long straight. The cars made contact and Schumacher ended up in the gravel ("That's not going to work, Michael!" exclaimed ITV commentator Martin Brundle) but Villeneuve was able to continue, finishing in third place and claiming the title. Schumacher was stripped of second place in that year's standings. 1997 also saw Williams crowned constructors champions once more, but with the engine-suppplier Renault pulling out of the sport, the future was not to be so successful for the team.
Villeneuve's career went into sharp decline following his drivers championship. Remaining with Williams in 1998, he struggled with an underpowered Mecachrome engine, and failed to win a single race. His fifth in the standings was disappointing for a title defence. Two third places (at Hockenheim and the Hungaroring) and a front-row grid slot at Monza were the only highlights.
In 1999, Villeneuve joined the newly-founded British American Racing (BAR) team, co-founded and partly owned by Villeneuve's personal manager, Craig Pollock. The hype surrounding the new squad was massive and despite the high expectations BAR had a truly dreadful season, not scoring a single championship point all year long. At times the car showed promising pace, Villeneuve running in third place at Barcelona, but all too often technical problems ruined his chances. Team-mate Ricardo Zonta's lack of experience may also have hindered development. Autosport magazine speculated on Villeneuve switching back to Williams for 2000, but he went on to race for BAR until late 2003, never placing higher than seventh in the drivers championship. The majority of his tenure at BAR is marked by repeated mechanical failures; when he did manage to finish a race, it usually was not on the lead lap. 2000 can be considered his best season at the team. With works Honda engines, BAR's speed improved, whilst reliability was also better. Villeneuve was unable to score a podium, but did come close at Indianapolis where he narrowly lost a duel with former team-mate Frentzen. 2001 saw French veteran Olivier Panis stepping into the second seat. Panis was often able to match Villeneuve, but the 1997 champion had the better results, two third places at Barcelona and Hockenheim being the team's first rostrums. The season had started terribly however; Villeneuve was involved in a tragic accident in Melbourne which led to the death of a marshal. At the end of 2001 a major managerial reshuffle took place. Villeneuve's friend and manager Pollock was sacked, Prodrive boss David Richards taking over. From this point on, Villeneuve felt less comfortable at the team. 2002 was a poor year, with the team slipping backwards in terms of pace. Points were scarce and it was not until the middle of the year that Villeneuve scored any, a fourth at Silverstone his best result in 2002. With one year left to run on his contract Villeneuve turned down a lucrative offer to spend a season racing in CART before returning to BAR for 2004 and 2005. Instead he decided that he would see out his present deal in the hope of landing a role at another grand prix team the following year. Bitter public rows between himself and Richards over salary soured the relationship further. 2003 saw Villeneuve come under harsh media criticism for being regularly outpaced by his younger (and less experienced) teammate, Jenson Button. Many critics also questioned Villeneuve's reported $19 million annual salary, given that he scored a meager six championship points that year. With his stock falling he had few options for 2004 and when BAR announced Takuma Sato as his replacement for the next season, he quit one race early. Sato filled in at Suzuka. After Villeneuve's departure, BAR would rise from fifth place to second in the constructor championship. From 1996 to 2003, Villeneuve competed in 131 Grands Prix, with a grand total of 11 wins and 13 pole positions.
With no contract for 2004, Villeneuve was forced to take a sabbatical, but maintained that he wanted to return to the sport. He continued training and made a special appearance at the Goodwood Festival driving his late father's Ferrari. In September, Villeneuve returned to Formula One, driving the final three Grands Prix of the season for French-based Renault. Jarno Trulli had fallen out of favour and team boss Flavio Briatore felt Villeneuve would be worth a gamble. Although vowing to help Renault achieve second place in the constructors championship (ahead of his former team BAR), Villeneuve failed to score a single point, unable to finish any of his races on the lead lap; Renault settled for third in the final standings. Jacques admitted that the enforced lay-off had cost him vital seat time. With the cars so much faster than in 2003 he found it difficult to adapt and with Fernando Alonso as team-mate his task was made all the more difficult. The young Spaniard was naturally much faster. Just before his 3-race Renault comeback, Villeneuve signed a two-year contract to drive for Sauber, starting in 2005.
His Sauber debut at the Australian Grand Prix was remarkable only for his (weather assisted) P4 starting position. For the opening three races he was the slowest driver on Michelin tyres and rumours began to spread that he would soon be replaced. The rumours proved unfounded and at Imola he managed to score his first points for the team. The pressure was soon back on him when he forced team-mate Felipe Massa off the track when attempting an over-ambitious overtaking move in Monaco, ruining both their races. Towards the end of the season, his pace improved however, and he scored more points at Belgium, moving ahead of Massa in the championship tables, although Massa repassed him after finishing 6th in the season finale in China. In terms of speed, the two team-mates were fairly evenly matched by the end of the year, but it is Massa who dons the red overalls of Ferrari in 2006, not Villeneuve.
After much uncertainty, in late 2005 BMW confirmed that Villeneuve would race for BMW Sauber in 2006. GP2 frontrunner Heikki Kovalainen and Indycar champion Dan Wheldon had both been linked with the seat, but BMW opted to honour Villeneuve's contract; the cost of ditching him perhaps being too high.
Nick Heidfeld is the other BMW driver for 2006 and it remains to be seen which driver will prove to have the best pace this season. Villeneuve started the 2006 season by blowing an engine in the opening race but finishing a promising seventh in the second race, scoring BMW's first points of the season. He scored further points in Australia with a sixth-place finish after starting 19th (due to an engine change). Heidfeld was fourth.
Villeneuve will need to perform well to have a future in F1 beyond 2006, as Alex Wurz is already being touted as a replacement for 2007