It's hard to imagine Jacques Villeneuve changing his mind about anything. The oft outspoken French-Canadian certainly has strong-rooted opinions, especially when it comes to objects with engines and wheels. That's what makes his Indy 500 return so puzzling.
Nineteen years ago, while most of America was mesmerized by the O.J. Simpson trial, those who kept their focus on motorsports witnessed a different kind of thrashing, this one on the track. At just 24 years of age, Jacques Villeneuve blitzed the field from two laps down to win the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing". Soon after, O.J. was acquitted and J.V. was IndyCar champion.
Fast forward a decade. With his open-wheel career in the books, Villeneuve tried his hand at various hard-top series in Australia, Argentina and even Azerbaijan. His forays included Le Mans endurance racing, Andros Trophy ice racing and, of course, a little paint swappin' with the NASCAR boys (and gals). Through it all, he maintained disinterest in an American single-seater return. "Been-there-done-that" was the sentiment he presented. As for the IndyCar field, well, some drivers "shouldn't even be in Formula Three," he claimed.
When IndyCar offered a $5 million winner's prize for their 2011 season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Villeneuve refused to participate. The compact oval posed too much risk. Regrettably, Dan Wheldon took the bait in a Sam Schmidtt Motorsports entry. The result was tragic.
"These ovals are not suited for single-seater racing," Villeneuve remarked, shortly after Wheldon's accident. "Racing on this type of track is pushing our luck."
Now, just three years removed from those comments, what has changed for Jacques Villeneuve? Why is he keen to push his luck on an oval, for Sam Schmidtt no less? What does he have to gain?
The official line from Villeneuve on his comeback reads, "Nothing excites me more than entering the IndyCar Series at its current level of competitiveness." That's a pretty big change of tune, even for someone who has so much trouble carrying one.
Cheap singing jokes aside, Villeneuve should maintain focus on his rallycross ambitions. World RX offers the 1997 World Champion a chance to race in a new discipline. Here, he can showcase his car control and raw racing ability. Most importantly, he has the chance to be at the forefront of an exciting new series - and one that is relatively safe. Running the Indy 500 means he will miss the second WRX round at Lydden Hill, where he recently completed a successful test.
But he has more to lose than a handful of rallycross points. Aside from the obvious physical dangers, Villeneuve hasn't raced an open-wheel car since he stuffed his Sauber into the wall at the 2006 German Grand Prix. He may be two-seconds per lap faster than the NASCAR Nationwide Series bumpkins, but the Indy 500 is a different ball game. A victory is about as likely as O.J. finding the "real killer."
For arguments sake, assume Villeneuve's comeback is successful. Imagine that Takuma Sato runs into Scott Dixon; Tony Kanaan's engine fails; Helio Castroneves has the flu and Juan Pablo Montoya has the trots. All the stars align and Jacques Villeneuve wins the 2014 Indy 500.
What would that prove?
He's already won the race. Another win is less likely to highlight Villeneuve's talent as much as it would confirm the meagre state of the IndyCar field. If a 42-year-old wins in a one-off entry eight years removed from his last open-wheel race, then IndyCar has some explaining to do.
Surely, spectators at the Brickyard thought they'd seen the last of Jacques Villeneuve 19 years ago. Now he is back, with nothing to gain. It's unclear whether his new IndyCar overalls will be too baggy, but one thing's certain: the gloves don't fit.