Column: Fasten your Jacques-strap
By Alex Chiang
In a time of extreme political sensitivity, Formula One driver Jacques Villeneuve announces himself as Canadian first, above all else. He is a perfect diplomat calm, intelligent and well-spoken, igniting national pride with every record-breaking lap.
Villeneuve stormed onto the North American racing scene by taking rookie of the year honours in the Formula Atlantic series in 1993 and in the PPG Indy Car series the following year. Yet it was in the 1995 season that Villeneuve truly showed his driving prowess, becoming the youngest driver ever to win the Indy 500. He went on to win the points championship in only his second year on the tour.
Signing a two-year contract with the Williams-Renault team, Villeneuve exceeded all expectations for his rookie season, finishing a close second in the drivers' points standings behind teammate Damon Hill. Even up to the final race in Suzuka, Japan, Villeneuve still had a shot at beating Hill out for the championship.
In his first year on the Formula One scene, the Canadian shook the racing world winning the European, British, Hungarian and Portuguese Grand Prix and qualifying for the pole position three times. Of the 16 races on the schedule, remarkably, he finished on the podium 11 times.
Yet of all the stops on the tour, none could have been more sentimental than his second-place Canadian Grand Prix finish on the track named after his father. The race drew record attendance figures for Canadian racing, as tens of thousands flocked to witness the rookie sensation.
What made his performance last season even more remarkable was that he wasn't allowed to tune the car to his own specifications until the 12th race. In addition, he hadn't driven on half of the tracks before and had only tested a Williams on six of them. Now that he is more familiar with them, he should be a definite force on every stage of the tour.
Not only has Villeneuve brought a renewed sense of interest in Formula One to Canada, but his love for speed and daring on-track passes have sparked appeal around the world. For once in some time, no driver ran away in the points standings and with the improvement of the Ferrari team entry, this season should witness exhilarating wheel-to-wheel duels.
The defection of Hill to the Arrows-Yamaha team means that Villeneuve will now get the luxury of being the team's top driver. With his biggest threat gone to a lesser team, it should be a familiar sight to see Jacques popping champagne on the victory podium.
This young driving phenom has put Canada back on the map in the world auto racing scene. His achievements made him the runner-up to Donovan Bailey for the Canadian Press' male athlete of the year. In any other year he would have won, though it's safe to say he's a sure bet to take the honour in 1997.
Canada couldn't have asked for a better symbol of national unity than this 25-year-old Quebec native.