INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Much has changed in the motor racing world since Jacques Villeneuve pulled his car into Victory Lane 19 years ago and chugged on the traditional quart of milk that goes to the Indianapolis 500 winner.
Back at the Brickyard to run the 500 for the first time in nearly two decades, and where the youngest driver in Sunday’s race was two months old when the Canadian won here in 1995, Villeneuve has had to familiarize himself with a new car, new rules and new faces.
Even Villeneuve appears different, evolved from the intense, humorless competitor that captured the Formula One drivers crown in 1997.
By his own admission, the Quebecer has mellowed, now more patient on and off the race track. But listen to Villeneuve for a moment and it is as if time has stood still.
While his delivery may be different, the 43-year-old remains as opinionated and outspoken as ever, still as fearless at speaking his mind as he is behind the wheel.
Since leaving Formula One in 2006, Villeneuve has been a racing nomad, getting his speed fix wherever he could find it; NASCAR and Nationwide stockcar and truck series, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, V8 Supercars in Australia and World Rally Cross.
It was that need for speed that finally lured Villeneuve back to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
”It’s great to be back at those speeds because there is nothing that compares to it,“ said a smiling Villeneuve. ”It was almost too fast. The first 20 laps were a shock to the system.
“But you start driving around, you settle in and it feels as if 19 years ago was yesterday.”
While a return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway brought old feelings rushing back, the performance has not been as quick to follow.
Villeneuve ran in just two Indy 500s, finishing second in his 1994 debut and first in 1995 before leaving for Formula One.
On Sunday he will start 27th, near the back of the 33-car field but remains confident that he can recapture some of that old Brickyard magic.
”The key is mind your own business and then see where you are at the end,“ said Villeneuve. ”You need a little bit of luck.
”It is a three-hour race and there is always that moment, ‘what did I do,’ that will happen in this race and I just hope I won’t get caught out.
“It is always a race that is won with your head and the older I get the more patient I get.”
For a driver who has accomplished so much, Villeneuve’s decision to take on the 500 again has raised eyebrows.
He knows better than most the ever-present dangers that lurk around the 2.5 mile oval, leaving some to wonder why risk it all to reach the top of a mountain he has already climbed.
”I can’t imagine,“ said Graham Rahal, who will start in the middle of Row Seven on Sunday. ”I don’t think I would ever do it especially when you’re already a 500 winner, what’s the perk?
”Clearly Jacques is one of the most talented drivers that’s been around in the last 30-40 years, you look at what he has accomplished both here, in Formula One.
“He is a force to be reckoned with for sure. It’s great to have him back but I can only imagine for him following in traffic these days has got to feel like a bit of a blur after 20 years.”
Since leaving F1, Villeneuve said he had been approached several times about the possibility of returning to IndyCar but was left unimpressed by the direction the series was headed and the cars and drivers, claiming many of the younger ones lacking respect for the dangers of the sport.
But a new car which brought a new competitiveness to the sport and the record number of lead changes in last year’s race helped catch the Canadian’s attention and he was hooked.
”It’s rebuilding. Just look at the state of IndyCar compared to a few years ago, it’s been going in a very positive way,“ said Villeneuve. ”The image, the level of drivers and that made it exciting to come back.
”A few years ago I didn’t want to drive those cars ... now it has become super exciting again so I am here.
“I started looking at it last year, just a little bit, because the races I was watching were fun to watch. There was part of me wishing I was part of it and that opened the door a little bit.”
Editing by Frank Pingue