The son of mercurial driver Gilles Villeneuve (who died at the wheel of his Ferrari when Jacques was only eleven), Jacques wanted desperately to follow in his father’s footsteps. Persuading his mother to allow him to drive a 100cc kart at Imola, and impressing the circuit’s owners. His uncle (Jacques Snr) enrolled him into the Jim Russell Drivers School in Mont Tremblant when he was fifteen. The following year he did another racing school course. By 1988 Villeneuve was keen to race, but at 17 years old he was too young to then hold a racing license in either Canada or Italy. With the help of the Canadian Automotive Federation he obtained a license from Andorra. With this license Villeneuve was able to enter the Alfa Cup (a three race series where he raced against some former F1 drivers).
With this very limited experience Villeneuve then started racing in Formula 3, competing in the Italian championship from 1989 to 1991. During this time he failed to qualify at Monaco in 1989 and failed to finish when he next entered the Monaco F3 race in 1991.
In 1992 he moved to racing F3 in Japan, finally winning three races on the way to second in the championship. This also saw his first race in Formula Atlantic finishing third. This result impressed Craig Pollock so much, he arranged for Villeneuve to continue Formula Atlantic into 1993, finishing third with five wins.
For 1994 Villeneuve moved up to Champ Cars, winning one race and the ‘Rookie of the year’ on the way to sixth in the championship. The following year he won four times including the Indy 500 and took the championship. As a result of this Williams signed him for Formula 1.
By 1996 Williams was once again the best car in Formula 1. Villenueve although new to the series was hardly a novice racer having won the previous season’s Champ Car title. He had also had extensive testing of the Williams car before the first race of the year in Australia. Nevertheless to qualify on pole for the first race and lead until an engine problem forced him to settle for second was impressive. Similarly, staying in contention until the final round of the season is an achievement very few drivers have managed in their debut F1 season. For 1997, with 1996 champion Damon Hill forced out of the team, Villeneuve scored nearly double the points of his team mate (Heinz-Harald Frentzen). He took the title after a last race collision with Michael Schumacher saw the German excluded from the championship.
1998 was considerably less successful for both Villeneuve and Williams. Renault had withdrawn from F1 as an engine supplier, and both Williams and Benetton used customer engines based on the old Renault units, but these were lacking in performance. Villeneuve managed a couple of third places as his best result on the way to a disappointing fifth place in the drivers’ standings.
In 1999 Villeneuve joined British American Racing, the team was new taking the entry of the Tyrell team. It was co-founded by Villeneuve’s personal manager Craig Pollock and Adrian Reynard. Pre-season publicity issued by the team spoke of Reynard’s success in every other Formula it had entered, and even hinted at the possibility of wining first time out. The team retired from the first eleven races of the season and didn’t score a single point. Jacques Villeneuve’s decision to join the team has to rank alongside Emerson Fittipaldi’s decision to join his brother’s team as the worst team choice made by an F1 champion.
In 2000 things did improve, not only did Villeneuve finish more regularly, he also scored 17 points (although no podiums) on his way to seventh in the championship. The finishing position was repeated in 2001 although the points total dropped to just 12. By 2002 he had dropped to 12th in the driver’s standings with only four points, and Pollock was sacked from the team. In his final year with the team in 2003 Villeneuve was joined by ‘playboy’ Jenson Button, although the Canadian was out paced and outscored by the Briton and he fell to 16th position in the championship (although with points now down to eighth position he managed to score six points).
Following his steady decline at BAR, Villeneuve was out of a drive for 2004, but he managed to get a drive at Renault for the last three races following Jarno Trulli’s departure from the team. Villeneuve failed to score a point, but did manage to secure a drive at Sauber for the following season.
2005 was hardly a stunning return with only three points scoring races 14th position in the championship and nine points. By Hungary in 2006 Villeneuve had been replaced by the team’s test driver (Robert Kubica) and that was the last time he raced in F1.