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Villeneuve’s Indy 500 return finally official

February 26, 2014

While the news of French-Canadian CART and Formula 1 champion Jacques Villeneuve’s return to the Indianapolis 500 has been floating about over the past week, it wasn’t until Wednesday, Feb 26 that the news became official. The 1995 Indy 500 winner joins Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as a third entry for the 98th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. He joins season regulars Simon Pagenaud and Mikhail Aleshin on the Indy-based team.

While not on hand for the announcement as he prepares to race in the upcoming FIA World Rallycross Championship, Villeneuve participated in a teleconference through the magic of video. Villeneuve has only two starts on the Brickyard’s iconic 2.5-mile oval: he finished second as a rookie (winning rookie of the year honors along the way) and won the race in his second try, coming from two laps back to drink his milk, after Scott Goodyear passed the pace vehicle and declined to pit, rendering his entry disqualified.

Citing “memories I have there will stay with me for the rest of my life,” Villeneuve declared he’s “excited to create new memories in 2014.” It’s been 20 years since Villeneuve drove an Indy car on an oval and 21 since his first time at the track. In the ‘90s Villeneuve drove a Ford-powered car on Goodyear tires; he’s about to step into one of Honda’s twin-turbocharged V-6 Indy cars shod on Firestone Firehawk rubber when it’s time for his refresher course.

HIs FIA World Rallycross Championship team, Albatec Racing released Villeneuve to work the race even as it clashes with the Lydden Hill round of the campaign on the same day as Indianapolis. Albatec Racing will allow Villeneuve to come to the US after he competes in his World Rallycross debut at Montalegre the weekend of May 3-4, which means, should he want, Villeneuve could actually do the Indy double, competing on the road course the following weekend. (He professed not to know anything about that race during the teleconference)

With his entry, Villeneuve adds his name with former Indy 500 champs on the current entry list, joining Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Kanaan and, presumably Buddy Lazier in the Memorial Day classic.

“I’ve been trying to get back to those memories, to the speed of driving on that track on the edge,” Villeneuve said. “There is no other form of racing that has that level of excitement” that Indianapolis produces. “It is the biggest race event in the world.”

The agreement between Villeneuve and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has been very quick in coming together – in just a few weeks, Villeneuve said – and for him, “It happened at the right time. I’ve been watching IndyCar last year and certainly it’s very exciting with the new cars. I was jealous I wasn’t racing,” although he’s been active since leaving CART after his 1995 championship season, racing in Formula 1, NASCAR, off-road and now rallycross. “I wasn’t considering going back to something I’d already done but it seems that IndyCar is going back to its glory days with exciting racing, a great field of drivers that are more impressive every year.

What Villeneuve always enjoyed about his open-wheel experience hasn’t been part of F1 – or even IndyCar – until recently. “The cars look fast, they’re aggressive and difficult to drive – what I love about racing.” As this agreement came together quite quickly, neither the SSM team nor its newest driver have figured out what their testing schedule might be for the 500-mile race.

Villeneuve thinks his bigger adjustments will be getting used to the downforce and the stiffness of the open wheel Indy car after driving cars over the past few years that don’t offer the same type of experience. The power level? “I’ll get used to it,” he said. He also said the track time afforded all drivers at Indianapolis will help him get acclimated. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been on the racetrack but it feels like yesterday.”

The addition of a third car is a big step for owner Sam Schmidt, who first entered the IndyCar Series in 2011 and had a fifth place series result in 2012. Last year with Pagenaud (and rookie Tristan Vautier), the team earned third in the championship as well as winning two contests with Pagenaud at the wheel. For Canadian co-owner Ric Peterson, having Villeneuve on the team is a dream. “The Villeneuve name is synonymous with winning and this is very special. I watched Jacques from Formula Atlantic through Formula 1 and, with a few other Canadians employees on the team, we’re especially excited.”

By Anne Proffit

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