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Why is Jacques Villeneuve doing Rallycross?
As you’ve already read, Top Gear recently went to see what’s what in the inaugural season of the FIA-stamped World Rallycross Championship.
But while the snapback-wearing, highly caffeinated young drivers were dragging their trendy skater shoes around the paddock at the Franciacorta circuit, there was one man who stood out: former Formula One World champ Jacques Villeneuve, a man more accustomed to helicoptering between yachts at the Monaco GP rather than sitting in the back of a motorhome at a half-built, dusty Italian circuit in the middle of nowhere.
So why has someone with the highest honor in motorsport, as well as an Indy car championship and an Indy 500 win, decided to rallycross with a bunch of Garys?
“At the end of my F1 career I was told, ‘Just shut up and drive’. That’s what I hated,” the French-Canadian tells Top Gear. “This [Rallycross] is back to the roots of racing. It’s raw, fast and exciting. And where every other form of motorsport is taking horsepower away - why would you do that? - here they’re trying to boost more in. It’s the racing world flipped upside down, and that’s how it should be. Crazy.”
Crazy it is. The ‘Supercar’ class in which Jacques will compete in is a wide-bodied pack of 600bhp, 600ft lb, four-wheel-drive monsters. Though they silhouette everyday superminis, these carbon fibre brutes can out-accelerate an F1 car.
With up to seven equally insane cars on track tussling to be champ over just six laps, it’s a world away from the 90 minutes of fuel saving tactics now seen in F1.
“Rallycross is in its growth and a lot of other motorsports are in decline,” says Villeneuve. “The short, fast races create non-stop excitement, which is great for the fans as people don’t want to watch a three-hour race anymore.”
Good point: the fast, action-packed nature of Rallycross appeals to the modern, smartphone-addled mindset. But ironically the Rallycross format predates our digital-age goldfish attention spans. It was first conceived for televisual entertainment in 1967, waaaay before the internet was born. So what happened? Well, Rallycross never died, just lost exposure. It’s only now that it’s been officially recognised by the FIA as a World Championship.
“Being a World Championship makes the series a lot bigger and professional,” Jacques says. “The outside perception of Rallycross until now was a bunch of guys who hammer their cars together in garages.”
Just as Jeremy, James and Richard did. But where they were racing dirt-cheap bangers, Jacques’ 600bhp Albatec Racing Peugeot 208 T16, with its trick anti-lag and diffs, slick sequential gearbox and crazy power, is a very different beast.
Having stretched his right foot in an eclectic mix of race cars - F1, Le Mans, Indy Car, V8 Supercars, NASCAR and most recently, Andros Trophy ice racers - Jacques is one of the most versatile drivers on the planet, but how does a top-flight Rallycross car stack up against an F1, NASCAR or Le Mans race car?
“There’s a similar sensation to F1, as you’re driving on the edge and the car’s amazingly nimble, powerful and fast,” says Villeneuve. “But I’m used to doing 370kph [230mph] at Indy, so in pure speed, it’s not that fast. But it’s the speed at which things happen on track that’s amazing.”
With only an hour and a half testing under his belt, Villenueve has plenty of fine-tuning to do with his car. But that’s how he likes it.
“The cars are reactive to set-up and you work on it the old way,” he says. “You have to feel what’s right by using the seat of your pants and what’s between your ears. That’s what I loved when I got into racing, but disappeared during my years in F1.”
Having four-wheel-drive, trick diffs and lots of horsepower, Jacques also admits that his driving style has required some tweaking. “I’ve had to calm down and remember to force myself to drive like I’d do on a normal track. It’s easy with four-wheel-drive to just throw it in and slide - which is a lot of fun - but then you’re sweating like a pig and you look at the clock and realise you’re slow.”
Villeneuve’s teammate for the season is Andy Scott, a Scottish scallop fisherman (no, really) and battle-hardened veteran of the mixed-surface motorsport world. Together their average age is 52, which is pretty much unheard of in racing.
But with F1 presenting duties on for Italian TV, plus an Indy 500 drive lined up this year, Jacques can’t compete in all 12 rounds of the Rallycross season.
That hasn’t stopped other big names throwing their helmets in the ring, though. Rumors are floating round the paddock that David Coulthard, Valentino Rossi, Gigi Galli and Seb Loeb all want to have a crack at World Rallycross this year. So why would these top flight drivers hop their their multi-million-pound champagne-spraying race series to pop to Lydden Hill for a greasy plate of chips and a Rallycross race?
“A lot of racers miss the passionate, raw aspect of racing that Rallycross gives,” Jacques says. “People who never really paid attention are now curious about this form of motorsport where we don’t try and make the cars slower, but faster.”
Villeneuve will be up against a diverse and experienced field of Rallycross competitors containing champions from X-Games, WRC, DTM, GRC, BTCC and Formula Drift.
“I have no idea how I’ll do,” he says with a shrug. “I have a lot to learn, I know that. But driving a race car is something I can do, and the extra bits that come with Rallycross - the pack racing, the loop, the strategy, when to use the tyres, the starts - is what I’ll have to adjust to. Driving the car is the easy bit.”
Rallycross is hot property on the motorsport Monopoly board right now - Ford, VW and Peugeot, plus ex-WRC champion Petter Solber and two-time DTM champion Mattias Ekstrom have all set up teams - but Jacques is wary of the influx of cash and interest.
“The FIA comes with negatives, because as soon as you bring in the money, constructors and money you bring in the politics,” the 1997 F1 champ says. “It’s the politics I dislike. Look at F1. All the drivers make out like they love each other, which isn’t true. It’s all politically correct to be inline with the big sponsors and is like a pre-written speech every time. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen here because ultimately it’s very destructive.”
Even so, Jacques has clearly been bitten hard by the Rallycross bug, claiming he plans to race in the series for another 20 years.
“This is great,” Villeneuve says as he surveys the unadulterated, hospitality-free paddock of the small Franciacorta circuit just outside Milan. “It reminds me of my Formula Three days. The people here haven’t come because they see racing as jet set, but because they love the smell of gasoline and burnt rubber…”