When Jacques Villeneuve joins the stock-car ranks, some of the NASCAR regulars consider his arrival more of an international incident than Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl ring magically appearing on the hand of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Before Villeneuve posted his first Sonoma Raceway on Friday, his racing prowess in stock cars was called out by defending Toyota/Save Mart 350 winner Clint Bowyer.
Bowyer described the former Formula One champion as a “train wreck, extremely fast train, but usually ends up derailed somehow.”
“There has to be a level of respect, and it doesn’t matter if you’re racing for points throughout the season, or just show up and race against the peers of one of the premier levels of all of motorsports,” Bowyer said. “If that respect is not there, you’re not going to come in and beat and bang on this bunch for long, and you’re probably going to be frustrated by the end of the day.
“That’s not a threat or anything else. We’ve all seen what will happen in those Nationwide races, and it was too bad, because there seemed to be one common denominator in a lot of the cautions that came out."
Villeneuve, a Canadian, finds the criticism curious. Despite titles in both F1 and CART and an Indianapolis 500 win, lately Villeneuve has felt the need to defend himself whenever he shows up at a NASCAR event.
"I learned from what was done to me,” Villeneuve said of how he assimilated to stock cars. “I think the image is being blown out of proportion and I’m not sure why. Well, I have an idea why. But I’ve been taken out a lot more than I’ve taken out people — like at Montreal from the lead."
Last August, Villeneuve led 43 laps at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve — the Montreal road course named for his father — when Justin Allgaier moved him on the last lap. He finished third.
“I think they’re more scared than they should be,” he said. "There’s no reason for it. Throughout my career, I’ve always been a clean driver. There’s been a few bad moments. Two years ago I made a mistake and ran into two people. But it wasn’t to ‘take them out,’ it was driver error. That happens to everyone. There’s a difference between taking people out and making an error. I don’t really take people out on purpose. No.”
Certainly, Villeneuve has attracted more attention in NASCAR for his run-ins with fellow drivers — including Danica Patrick last June at Elkart Lake — than he has for his stock-car success. When Patrick stumbled on Villeneuve in the Sprint Cup rookie meeting on Friday, her only response to the fellow competitor was “Oh … hey … that was about it.”
"After the things that have happened, it’s hard to have a lot of respect for somebody like that," Patrick said. “I respect what he’s done in his career, but the way he treats other drivers on the track, I just can’t.”
Villeneuve acknowledges that “a lot was made” of the incident with Patrick. But that was not the first time the two tangled.
“I was a passenger there,” Villeneuve said. “So I’m not sure why the reaction was … I think it was just left over from the previous year when I actually made a stupid move. I got pushed in the grass on the straight line and then you have to hit the brakes and there’s nothing you can do.
“I got cut out on that one — was just a passenger — and somehow the reaction was extremely, extremely negative, overshadowing the fact that I had been spun out a few times and on purpose, and the same thing in Montreal. But that doesn’t matter. The only image now is that I’m an aggressive driver that drives through people, which is not necessarily the case.”
Juan Pablo Montoya understands the challenges of making the transition from F1 — considered the most competitive form of motorsports — to NASCAR, where there is greater parity.
“Where we come from, there is no give and take,” Montoya said of his F1 experience. “You take. You don’t run side by side. People here think oval racing, you get beside them, they just have to give you room and they’ll run on the outside. In open wheel, you get inside of them and they run them up into the grass. That’s normal.”
Montoya, who was parked next door to Villeneuve in the garage at Sonoma, told his former competitor a little about what to expect this weekend. That behavior is a complete departure from the six years the racers competed against each other in F1, where the concept of sharing information was never a consideration, particularly from a driver who was “doing whatever it took to get it done.”
“He’s a little bit behind, but by the time the race comes, he’ll be OK,” Montoya said. “There are people that like him and don’t like him. I hated him when we raced in open wheel. I did. We never got on that well — it was part him and part me as well. He stopped racing full time and I learned coming to NASCAR that you have to give and take.”
"I don’t think it will be an issue. Obviously, they react to what they heard and what they read, and that is the image I have right now. But they can take it a little bit easier than they’re expecting."
Villeneuve is looking for a bit of redemption this weekend. His first attempts in the Sprint Cup Series in 2007 with the now-defunct Bill Davis Racing and three years later with Todd Braun, produced one top 10 qualifying effort in his debut and a career-high 21st-place finish.
But when the opportunity was presented to drive for Phoenix Racing in a car that Kurt Busch raced to third last year, J.V. jumped at the chance, even though he has never driven the Generation 6 car or any stock car at Sonoma.
“It came out of the blue,” Villeneuve said. “I had kind of moved on from NASCAR. Nothing was working or happening, so I moved back to Europe and I’ve been commentating F1 for French and Italian TV, then two weeks ago I got a call and [he] said, ‘Yes, definitely. Please!’
“It’s super exciting. It’s a car that was quick last year with Kurt (Busch). It led a few laps. I thought it would be a lot of fun.”
And if the racing stops being “fun,” Villeneuve can return to his current day job — as a TV analyst.
“I know a lot about F1, and it’s all live stuff for six hours in two languages,” Villeneuve said. “So it’s fun. It’s exciting. There’s no directive. It’s an open mic. We say what we want with no censoring, and that’s what makes it fun.
“We don’t need to protect Ferrari from the Italians. We don’t have to protect the French from the French TV. I didn’t think I would like it, but actually, I’m enjoying it.”