Villeneuve is first F1 champ to race in Formula E
"I've never retired, I've always raced," he says
Drives for Leonardo di Caprio's Venturi team
Says F1 is "a lot less appealing to the public"
There is a maxim in motorsport that when drivers retire they will do just about anything to rediscover its thrills, from speedboat racing to, well, organic farming.
One of Formula One’s most flamboyant title winners, Jacques Villeneuve, is no different.
At the age of 44, the charismatic Canadian is breaking barriers as the first F1 champion to drive in Formula E.
“I’m happy, I’m excited,” Villeneuve tells CNN gleefully from his home in Switzerland.
But he says not everyone approves of an F1 world champion – an F1 world champion! – racing in the Formula E championship, where the cars are slower and the circuits and races are shorter.
“Some fans think it’s great,” Villeneuve reveals. “Others don’t want to hear about electric and see me as a traitor.
“Formula E is not here to replace F1. That’s not the goal and it shouldn’t be. Formula E and Formula One are two separate worlds.”
Villeneuve’s arrival with actor Leonardo di Caprio’s Venturi team has undoubtedly upped Formula E’s kudos, but it has inevitably also sharpened focus on comparisons between the two motorsport series.
F1 fanatics might be forgiven for wondering, to paraphrase the late racing enthusiast and actor Paul Newman, why Villeneuve is going out to have a burger when he has steak at home?
“If I was jumping out of Formula One and straight into Formula E then maybe I’d be disappointed, I don’t know,” says Villeneuve, who won the F1 title with Williams in 1997.
“You can’t compare Formula E with (my last experience in F1) because 2006 was one of those times when F1 cars were at their quickest. Cornering speeds were impressive, the horse power wasn’t too bad.
“You should never compare an electrical car with a push-to-the-limit fuel engine car, that’s not the point.”
It is a decade since Villeneuve climbed out of an F1 cockpit for good, sensationally leaving BMW Sauber with five races still to run in the 2006 season.
The son of Ferrari favorite Gilles Villeneuve – who was killed in a crash before he won the F1 title many believe he was destined to claim – he has always operated with an appealing single-mindedness.
In 1995, at the age of 24, he blazed a trail on U.S. circuits as the first Canadian to win the Indy 500 and the youngest to claim the IndyCar championship.
Next, he dazzled F1 by wrestling the title from Michael Schumacher in only his second season, winning fans with his feisty style – both on track and in the fashion stakes – and glamorous girlfriends, including Australian pop star Dannii Minogue.
After his dramatic F1 exit, Villeneuve turned to NASCAR where he gained a reputation for being fast and loose, and now in 2016 he brings the Villeneuve je ne sais quoi to Formula E.
“I’ve never retired. I’ve always raced. I’ve always been a competitor at heart,” Villeneuve explains with a purposeful edge to his voice.
“I still play ice hockey, so I need that kind of sport, I need to be competing.”
Villeneuve the thrill seeker was turned on to Formula E by the inaugural championship, won last June by another son of an F1 star, Nelson Piquet Jr.
“I was watching the races and feeling a bit annoyed about not being part of it,” Villeneuve recalls. “I was on the edge of my seat saying, ‘That would be fun, I wish I was there,’ and that was how it started.
“There was a quick communication with Venturi and I got the call saying they wanted me to do a test at the Paul Ricard circuit in France.
“I jumped in the car and did a 30-lap test in (teammate) Stephane Sarrazin’s car, which was the first time I used someone else’s race seat.
“I borrowed a race suit from Patrick Lemarie, our test driver at (former F1 team) BAR. It was moldy and smelly and very snug, but that made the whole test fun and it went well. Two days later the contract was signed.”
The start of his electric racing career has not been quite so smooth and, in the opening three rounds, Villeneuve has yet to score a point.
In the opening race in China he was involved in a collision, there were pit-stop problems in Malaysia and a crash in qualifying put him out of the Uruguay ePrix.
He told reporters, in typical Villeneuve fashion, at the Punta del Este circuit: “On paper it looks crap.”
If the racing isn’t quite electrifying yet, then at least the challenges of Formula E suit Villeneuve’s cerebral predilection.
“Part of being in a new series means there’s so much to learn,” he says.
“It’s not just about going fast through a corner – that’s one thing. It’s also pushing the limit and finding the solutions to go faster whatever the championship, whatever the car. Finding a tenth, the next tenth and so on is something I’ve always found exciting.
“I really love racing downtown, in between the walls where there’s no margin for error, which is the opposite of what has happened in F1. Formula E is a new challenge and it’s complex.”
As well as exploring new challenges for his own pleasure, Villeneuve is also super-keen to set an example to his four sons.
He was just 11 when his father was involved in a fatal accident in qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder.
“Since I’ve had four children, working has become more important to me,” reflects Villeneuve, who told CNN that his own father was absent for much of his childhood.
“I like to be busy, and it feels good to be working and to show them that in life you work.” He laughs before adding: “But when I’m at home I’m a full-on Dad.”
Now he is into his forties, Villeneuve may see himself as something of a father figure in F1 as well.
Despite quitting the sport in 2006, he is still a regular feature in the paddock working as a television commentator and he is as vocal as ever about the direction the sport is taking.
“F1 tries to be everything, and that’s wrong,” the 1997 world champion argues. “It tries to be an endurance car, it’s some form of hybrid … and hybrid technology weighs around 100 kilos and that’s four seconds a lap of weight. It’s not F1, it’s not extreme, it doesn’t make sense.
“F1 has to be out there, extreme, unattainable, stupid, crazy – that’s what it’s always been. It’s a laboratory where the sky’s the limit.
“There are a lot of things that are making F1 a lot less appealing to the public. A bunch of things like (overtaking aid) DRS. We don’t have those things in Formula E.”
Villeneuve concludes that F1 has to “go back to its roots” – and while the top tier of motorsport conjures with that conundrum, one of its most famous champions is looking to the future.
“People are getting excited about Formula E,” he says. “And the only way is up.”