Jacques Villeneuve’s surname put him on the Formula 1 radar from the moment he started racing but winning ‘the biggest race in the world’ at The Brickyard in 1995 provided the breakthrough.
Looking back, the son of the late, great and much-loved Ferrari driver Gilles puts that Indianapolis 500 victory up there with winning the 1997 Formula One world championship for Williams.
“It was the 500 that got me the (F1) test with Frank (Williams),” he told Reuters ahead of this weekend’s 100th Indy. “The fact that I had my name kind of made sure they were looking at what was going on, and I think Frank liked the way I won that race.
“Coming back from the back psychologically showed the strength that was necessary in Formula One. I think that’s what made the difference.
“It gave me my F1 career. So the value of it is incredible,” added the 45-year-old.
As Indianapolis celebrates a historic U.S. Memorial Day holiday weekend on the 2.5-mile oval, Formula One will be fixated on its showcase Monaco Grand Prix.
Villeneuve never won Monaco, unlike his father, but Indianapolis is something else.
“It’s on the same level as Jerez in 1997 (where he won the title after a collision with Michael Schumacher) because the stakes were high and because of the way in which it was won,” said the Canadian.
“Coming back from two laps down, and having to fight to get back through the field which normally you don’t do at Indianapolis, that’s what made it special.”
Villeneuve started the 1995 race in the middle of the second row before being handed a two-lap penalty for twice passing the pace car under a yellow while leading. That dropped him to 27th.
The Canadian came back and 10 laps from the finish, with the field again under caution, was second and behind compatriot Scott Goodyear, who then blew it by passing the pace car at the re-start.
“The only reason I won that race, apart from coming back through the field, is putting pressure on Scott Goodyear,” recalled Villeneuve.
“I just made him make a mistake on the re-start because I knew I couldn’t beat him on the track, his car was too fast. I was happy to be second, the second time in a row, and it was big points for the championship.
“I was settled for second and I thought ‘Let’s put pressure, you never know — he might make a mistake’ and he did. He got going too early. I kept accelerating, braking, getting next to him and just showing him I was there and he lost it.
“It’s a long race, drivers are tired and there’s this thing of ‘I’m going to win the Indy 500,'” he said. “So you know the pressure is high. I just played with him and it worked.”
Villeneuve went on to win the CART series and by the end of the year was a Williams driver ready for a sensational Formula One debut.
He said Indy remained a test of bravery and stamina, even if the modern cars were under-powered and all the same, that Formula One drivers dismissed out of ignorance.
In 1993, Britain’s Nigel Mansell had raced in the Indy 500 as the reigning Formula One champion and it still enjoyed a high-profile internationally when Villeneuve competed.
Time, and the 1996 split in U.S. open-wheel racing, has taken its toll and the Canadian said attitudes had changed in Formula One.
“Formula One doesn’t actually care about anything that’s not Formula One. It’s very simple,” he said.
“I remember talking with a (Formula One) driver after I did it … and he didn’t understand why would you bother just running around in circles? Just didn’t understand the concept of why it was a good race to do, why would he bother, must be so boring.
“I tried to explain that it’s the biggest race in the world. And the concept didn’t enter.”