How a morning coffee triggered F1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve’s Le Mans bid

Thomas Maher
Jacques Villeneuve pictured at the Monaco Grand Prix. 2022

Jacques Villeneuve pictured at the Monaco Grand Prix. 2022

1997 Formula 1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve will make his return to top-level motorsport in 2023, including another attempt at Le Mans.

17 years on from his final race in Formula 1 with BMW-Sauber, the French-Canadian has put pen to paper to commit to a full-time racing calendar once again – Villeneuve will race for the Vanwall entry, previously known as the ByKolles team, in the World Endurance Championship (WEC).

This is no casual project either – far from it. With WEC changing their regulations for 2023, Vanwall are entering a car into the very top level of the championship – the all-new HyperCar class replaces the LMP1 category and will boast entries from Toyota, Ferrari, Cadillac, Peugeot, and Porsche, amongst others.

With almost two decades passing since Villeneuve raced in F1, with a sporadic racing schedule over the intervening years, one might be forgiven for thinking that the now-51-year-old has taken his foot off the gas when it comes to tearing up the race track.

But, speaking to me from his home in Milan, a jovial Villeneuve quickly corrects my error when I incorrectly refer to his reduced racing schedule as a ‘semi-retirement’.

“I’ve never been retired!” he told PlanetF1.com in an exclusive interview.

“So it’s not even semi-retirement. I know a lot of people think that I haven’t been racing. After F1, I moved to North America to focus on that.

“Ever since, I’ve been doing just piecemeal races – never full championships. Ice racing in France, V8 Supercars in Australia, NASCAR, I did some Formula E, EuroNASCAR, the Indy 500… so I actually never retired, it was just very complicated to get full-time race seats, mostly because I was busy building up a family.”

Having settled down in Italy with agent and partner Giulia Marra, with whom Villeneuve will soon become a father for a sixth time, he said his focus on his family over the past 17 years also added to the difficulties of adding to his racing schedule. But, Villeneuve made it clear that his tightly-knit family and the full support of his partner has enabled him to be able to increase his commitments for 2023.

“[It’s been a] changing life, you know, marriages, divorces, bringing up kids,” he explained.

“That takes a big toll on your time and how you can organise in the middle of all that. But, right now, with WEC coming, Giulia and I have been working together for three years. That’s been a big help in getting the momentum going again because then we can all focus.

“She’s been very helpful in making sure I can focus on training as well and getting the whole ball rolling because we have a very complicated family with five children and a sixth on the way. You just can’t do it on your own. You also need family support.

“The two eldest are 16 and 15, so they’re quite independent, which is very good. The nine and 10-year-olds, they more jump from house to house, which can be a bit more complicated. But they’re all aware of the racing and the origins.

“For a while, they only saw me as a TV commentator, they didn’t really know about the other racing bits. They all have their own different activities – I’ve got two kids playing ice hockey, that’s a 45-minute drive from home.

“School is 45 minutes away from home as well. One plays basketball, the other one ping-pong, one wants to race cars. Basically, it’s a very busy week. It requires full organisation. It’s something you just can’t do on your own.

“Giulia works with me in the racing industry, so there’s no time lost, basically, which is very good. Because, if not, you either have to be on your own, without family, without kids, which is not why I had kids. So you need a whole complex life around you to be able to do all that properly.”

What has tempted Jacques Villeneuve to race with Vanwall in the WEC?

Having raced in EuroNASCAR over the past three years, Villeneuve also raced at last year’s Daytona 500 with Team Hezeberg, finishing in 22nd. During that weekend, he revealed that his hunger for racing has never faded and that his infamous bravery behind the wheel is yet to diminish – making him a huge asset for the Vanwall entry this season.

Teaming up with Esteban Guerrieri and Tom Dillmann, the trio make for an experienced line-up as they gear up for the series’ biggest challenge: the Le Mans 24 Hours. Villeneuve is the only one of the trio to have completed the race, having finished second with Marc Gene and Nicolas Minassian for Peugeot’s LMP1 entry in 2008.

“I’ve always wanted to do WEC, and Le Mans – it’s one race I need to win,” he explained.

“We’ve only managed to finish second, in 2008, which was a big disappointment. But it was always hard to get in with the constructors because, normally, they have their drivers – they bring up their own drivers from when they were junior drivers, and it was really hard to get in there.

“So, with the new rules, and the influx of teams, that’s opened up the door a little bit.”

But a tilt at the 2023 Le Mans wasn’t on Villeneuve’s agenda for 2023, until a chance encounter with a friend near his home kicked off the process of contact with the Vanwall team.

“I ended up going testing with ByKolles, with Vanwall… it’s always a question of timing, isn’t it?” Villeneuve said.

 “I was having a coffee with a friend in Milan discussing what I really wanted to do with my racing career: there are two big programmes interesting for me – NASCAR in the States or the WEC and Le Mans.

“That’s when he said that he was good friends with Kolles and he thought he had a programme. So he called him and he was testing in Barcelona so, the following day, I jumped on a plane and went to test the car! That’s how it got going. So, a coffee one day later, and there wouldn’t be a WEC programme now!”

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While Vanwall, who are assuming the name used by the very first F1 Constructors’ Champions back in 1958, may be a smaller outfit compared to some of the factory entries, Villeneuve is confident the new regulations open the door of opportunity for a competitive season.

“The way the rules are with the BoP (Balance of Performance), it opens the door to everyone and you don’t need to be spending hundreds of millions to be competitive, which is great,” he said.

“Kolles has a lot of experience in the racing world and endurance as well and he’s really keen on getting good results going so a lot of effort is put into the car.

“When we tested the car, the other drivers were there. I’ve known Dillmann a little bit from his Formula 2 days, he has a lot of experience as well. Concerning Guerrieri, I knew a little bit of his racing history but I didn’t know who he was as a person – never met. The car was a handful to drive, so there was still a lot of work to be done, but it felt competitive and the attitude was there not just to be passengers.

“Of course, we don’t know what to expect – it’s new rules for everyone. We have no clue, we could be quick, we could be slow, so it will be a big surprise but I’m quite confident.”

Jacques Villeneuve chasing the Triple Crown with a Le Mans win

By taking part in this year’s Le Mans race, Villeneuve also becomes a contender to emulate Graham Hill in winning the ‘Triple Crown’ of motorsport.

Usually, this is understood to mean a driver who has won F1’s Monaco Grand Prix, IndyCar’s Indy 500, and sportscar’s Le Mans – only the late Graham Hill has managed this achievement. But Hill, as well as Villeneuve, believed that the ‘real’ Triple Crown is Le Mans, the Indy 500, and a Formula 1 World Championship. Again, only Hill has managed this.

Villeneuve, who won the Indy 500 in 1995 as well as the F1 World Championship in 1997, never managed to climb the top step of the podium in Monaco, but presented a compelling argument as to why he may finally be able to emulate Hill’s achievement.

“The Triple Crown is not Monaco,” he said.

“If you read the interviews with Graham Hill from the past – it was the championship, it was never Monaco. So, for the Triple Crown, then it would be plenty. The way you have to look at it is the Indy 500 is bigger than the championship. Le Mans is bigger than the championship, so they are championships unto themselves.

“The championships would not exist without those two races, whereas F1 would exist without Monaco. There have been seasons without Monaco, so what matters is a championship!

“So I go based on Graham Hill is the one who started the Triple Crown. He’s the one who actually wanted to do Le Mans, to be the first one to win everything. So he invented what the Triple Crown was, and what he was saying is it was a championship. So ultimately, that’s what matters!”

Jacques Villeneuve resumes F1-level physical training

At 51 years old, the physical challenge of taking part in 24-hour races isn’t one that Villeneuve is underestimating. The French-Canadian has resumed a training programme that’s every bit as intensive and rigorous as when he raced in Formula 1, and revealed he’s called upon the services of an old friend to help him.

“I’ve always stayed fit – not as fit as in my F1 days, obviously, but I’ve been playing ice hockey as well,” he said.

“So I’ve always been very active. I’m back training with Erwin Gollner, who was my physio and trainer at Williams and all the BAR years. We had built a special training machine, just for driving, and a lot of drivers have been going to this place to train. So that’s what I’ve been doing as well, going off to Austria to get back into full training as if it was F1, the same as it was back in the day – I was actually missing that kind of training!

“We’re not a young crew. Obviously, I’m the oldest from the crew there. But my two team-mates are also not teenagers, they have experience in different forms of racing, and world championships as well. So they’ve raced under pressure before. That’s quite a good positive and we really got along, so I just can’t wait to start working together.

“When I did the test, I only did two runs just to see how the car was, to see if I enjoyed driving it, and also for the team to see if I was keen or if I was just wanting to get a fun holiday. I think they realised that I was in it to give it the best.”

All eyes will be on the Vanwall entry with Villeneuve attempting the seemingly impossible when the WEC heads to Le Mans in June, one of seven races over the course of the season.

With Villeneuve also recommitting to his TV role with French broadcaster Canal+ this season, he’s hopeful of being able to dovetail a little more racing into his calendar over the course of the year as time permits.

“Seven is not a lot, obviously. It’s not a lot,” he said.

“But endurance racing takes a big toll, on the teams as well, and on the drivers so you can’t have as many races as you would have in F1. It’d be nice to have a few more obviously, but the championship is building – it’s the first year it’s been so popular with so many entries and different teams and constructors, so it still needs to be built up I would say.

“I’m still carrying on with the TV commentary with Canal+. So, at some point, there’s a time limit or an amount of weekend limit you can actually do physically!”