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Back to the brickyard

John Oreovicz | ESPN.com
May 6, 2014
Jacques Villeneuve hopes his return helps IndyCar's rebuilding process © Sutton Images
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Jacques Villeneuve's return to the Indianapolis 500 on May 25 after a 19-year absence is a compelling story.

Villeneuve whipped through Indy car racing like a whirlwind 20 years ago. He won the CART-sanctioned race at Road America in 1994 then claimed the CART IndyCar Series championship in 1995. He was particularly impressive at Indianapolis, finishing second to Al Unser Jr as a rookie in 1994 before coming from two laps down to win one of the most memorable 500s in history in 1995 on the way to that CART title.

Villeneuve's success in Indy cars - along with his status as the son of the legendary Gilles Villeneuve - helped him land a ride with Williams-Renault, then the top team in Formula One. He won four races and finished second to team-mate Damon Hill in the 1996 championship, then edged Michael Schumacher in thrilling fashion for the 1997 F1 title.

A move to the start-up BAR team in 1999 was financially rewarding, but it put an end to Villeneuve's days as an F1 front-runner. He remained in F1 through 2006. Since then, he has raced a variety of sports cars and stock cars on a part-time basis, but his decision to return to the Indianapolis oval for the first time in 19 years came as a shock to many.

Villeneuve's victory in the 1995 Indy 500 is memorable for several reasons. Through a mix-up in communication, he accidentally passed the pace car early in the race and fell two laps behind after a penalty. A fast car and smart strategy brought him back into contention, and crashes by favourites such as Michael Andretti, Scott Pruett and Jimmy Vasser certainly helped.

It was Scott Goodyear's race to win, but he famously passed the pace car on a restart with 10 laps to go. That handed the victory to a surprised Villeneuve. He was 24 years old at the time and admits that the impact of winning the great race wasn't as great on him then as it is now.

"It's not just age, it's because I didn't grow up with it," Villeneuve said. "I grew up in Europe and my father wasn't even talking about the Indy 500. He was all F1. I knew about the race only a little before I came to North America.

"But when I stopped F1, you have time to reflect. You take the key points, the key moments in your career, and this is the one that stood out. This race gave me the opportunity to go to Formula One."

Of course, the 1995 Indianapolis 500 is also notable for being the last run prior to the formation of the Indy Racing League and the 12-year Indy car split. Villeneuve may not have been aware of the history of the Indianapolis 500 and the sport before he raced there, but he is certainly aware of the events that have transpired since.

During a break between runs at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Tuesday, Villeneuve smiled when a local sports radio personality asked if he knew some people still talk about 1995 as the last "real" Indy 500.

"That's a great thing to say!" he laughed. "I don't know. The IRL days were not really the best, I would say. But they have been doing a good job of rebuilding it so it's picking up again - just the level of drivers and professionalism. But a lot of damage was done and it's tough to recover from that."

Jacques Villeneuve went to Victory Lane last time he raced in the Indy 500 © Getty Images

Asked if his return might be considered part of that rebuilding process, he replied, "I hope so. If it can have a positive effect, that's great. It's been extremely important and it's a shame to see how IndyCar has gone down from 15 or 20 years ago. To see it being rebuilt is amazing, and I hope it keeps carrying on in this positive direction."

Driving a Dallara-Honda sponsored by Dollar General for Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports, Villeneuve passed a "refresher test" with a top speed of 217.2 mph. With 20-30 mph winds making things difficult in the afternoon, there was no point in chasing additional speed.

"It's not an easy race that you wake up one day and you do," he said. "There's a lot of preparation. The speeds are extreme. To get those last few mph ... just to get comfortable takes a while. And if you get caught out, it's too late. You're in the wall. You go from hero to zero in a second.

"It's a great team, so the car should be good. That's already a big positive. Now it's up to me to get enough laps to get used to it and to not get complacent. That's the other risk. You can get too comfortable, and you think, 'Okay, that's nothing.' That's when you get caught out."

Villeneuve believes his impressive record in the Indianapolis 500 is not a coincidence.

"When we got to Michigan [International Speedway], I always had a hard time at Michigan," he said. "So there is something here. The way the corners are made is really not like all the other ovals with long-banked corners where you can kind of change your line. Here the line is quite fixed. It's more like a super high-speed road course in a way.

"I always loved high-speed corners, all through my career. I hope that's still the case! But it's also how you work with the team. This is the type of track where you can get a little [advantage] with the set-up, like making one tiny change to the springs. You might not see it on the clock, but it's something you can feel that will allow you to drive on the limit lap after lap instead of only for a few laps. That's something I've always enjoyed with the different engineers I've worked with, and this place in particular was good for that."

The cheerful and upbeat Villeneuve who happily chatted with reporters in his IMS garage Tuesday was a far cry from the aloof character who stormed through Indy car racing in 1994 and '95.

He's at peace with his post-F1 career, mixing his part-time racing career with other interests, such as food and music. This year he will serve as a television commentator for selected F1 races, and he is also running in 11 of 12 rounds of the FIA World Rallycross Championship, missing the British round to compete at Indianapolis.

"It's fun," he said. "I was worried when I stopped F1 that I wouldn't be able to drive any other type of cars. It was a handful at first, but then you just get used to jumping into something, being out of your depth, and figuring out a way to survive and become proficient in it in the space of 20 laps.

"That's been fun and it's been very helpful, but this [Indianapolis] is a different beast. It's a speed I'm not used to anymore. It takes a few laps for it to become normal, that's all."

Originally published on ESPN.com