Former F1 World Champion at the wheel of a Ferrari 488 GT3 in the Italian GT Championship
His driving suit is increasingly baggier than a driver normally wears. However, his helmet is the same and has the same design featured on the one he used for his debut because as he has said since he won the Formula 1 world title, "The helmet embodies the spirit of the driver wearing it so it should remain the same throughout his career”.
He has the same platinum blond hair that caused quite a stir in the paddock in 1997 and 1998 because it made him look more like a rock star than a king of speed. Perhaps that's because Jacques Villeneuve really is a rock star. He not only dares to go against the tide, but he has also had a successful musical career in Canada, even dedicating the song 'Father' to Gilles Villeneuve, the man who thrilled millions of fans around the world, turning the white number 27 on the red chassis into a legend.
Jacques Villeneuve will compete in the Italian GT Championship in a red car with this same number flanked by a prancing horse imprinted on the bonnet. For Prancing Horse fans, Villeneuve, Ferrari and the number 27 represent a lasting bond. Even though Jacques never raced in Formula 1 with the Scuderia, he is much loved by all those associated with Ferrari, who constantly stop him and ask for a photo or a simple autograph, recounting anecdotes about his father and impressing on him that he is to all effects "one of the family".
One story they tell is when Gilles won the chequered flag at Monza just ahead of his partner Jody Scheckter. The duo gave Ferrari a historic one-two, which led to the South African clinching the 1979 world title. This image is still engraved in the hearts of Ferrari fans.
You are back, this time in a Ferrari no. 27 after just one previous experience at Le Mans in 2013 when you competed in two French GT championship races at the wheel of the 458 Italia GT3 with the Sport Garage Team along with Eric Cayrolle. What's it like for you?
“I'm glad to be back behind the wheel of a Ferrari, especially because I didn't get to drive as much as I’d have liked back then! Compared to the 458 Italia GT3, getting behind the wheel of the 488 GT3 is like taking a leap into the future. The 488 is very fast and fun to drive, plus it has amazing handling. Driving it at Monza means a lot because besides F1 races, I competed on this track back in my Formula 3 days and I like its long straights and its sharp braking. I'm glad I'll be racing here once again.”
You have already had the chance to test the 488 GT3 at Vallelunga. How did you approach the test and what lessons did you learn from your driving sessions?
“I was able to establish reference points during the first test and get a feeling for the speed and braking, given it had been a while since I had driven. The test day was also useful to prepare the seat and familiarise myself with the many buttons on the steering wheel and the controls for the car settings. There are now lots of electronics and really advanced technology and if you don’t prepare properly, you may end up not using them to their full potential in the pursuit of performance.”
What struck you most about the 488 GT3?
“The speeds that this car and, more generally, today's GT3 cars can reach. We mustn’t forget that the cars we drive are very closely related to production models.”
You will be with the Baldini team for the championship, a successful outfit that competes in some of the major GT championships. What convinced you to participate in this project and what was your first impression of the team?
“The very professional approach they have demonstrated ever since our first encounter. They didn't offer me a one-off race, but a big project that requires preparation and work over the race weekend, which is something I have missed. The idea of taking part in an entire championship, even though I already know I can't start the last race, is something that takes me back to my racing days. The level of this project's professionalism is also seen in the participation of Giancarlo Fisichella, who has already raced with this team.”
How have you prepared physically for these races, which are so different to Formula 1?
“In general, I try to keep myself in shape because you always need to be ready for a call, like the one to race with Scuderia Baldini. Some muscles are harder to work on, such as the neck ones, although having trained them in the past they quite quickly get back into shape. It's clear that my Formula 1 TV commentary commitments leave me little time for project-specific preparation, but I'm happy with how I feel.”
You will race with Stefano Gai and Giancarlo Fisichella. The Roman driver was one of your rivals in Formula 1. What do you remember about those days?
“We raced together in Formula 1 for many years and in general we always got along. There was an episode during a qualifying session (European GP 2006, Ed.) where we had words, but these things happen quite often and in that specific case, we were caught on camera. Anyway, it was all quickly sorted out, as it should be. Giancarlo has always been a calm person and a very fast driver.”
Compared to Formula 1, your team-mate is not a rival but the main person with whom you discuss choices and decisions. Is it easy to agree on the set-up?
“Absolutely. Giancarlo is well acquainted with this car so it is important that I talk with him a lot to understand and learn. As far as the set-up is concerned, I follow the direction he takes. Which, by the way, also really suits my driving style.”
Among your many titles, the only one you don't have is the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Do you think you'll try again one day, maybe at the wheel of a Ferrari?
“Even after all these years, I still regret finishing second in a race that we could have won (the 2007 edition, Ed.). It must be said that to win at Le Mans, you really need to compete for a manufacturer and if there were an interesting project of the sort, I would consider making a return. Some years the grid is highly competitive, other years it is less so, but what matters is to see your name on the roll of honour.”
What do you remember about Ferrari when you were a child? Did you ever go to Maranello or meet Enzo Ferrari?
“They're childhood memories, so they are a bit vague. I had the chance to meet Enzo Ferrari during a test that my father did at the Fiorano track. But the memory is fleeting, it lasted only a few seconds. Still, I was struck by the greatness of the man.”