Is CART next for Villeneuve?

 by Mark Cipolloni
December 7, 2003

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Jacques Villeneuve in 2003
Photo courtesy of Honda

At 32-years of age, Jacques Villeneuve (JV) is far from being washed-up.  He has gone on record as saying he won't buy a ride in F1, hence his F1 career is over because there simply are no rides left that give him any chance of winning, nor of getting paid a salary. 

He has made statements about NASCAR, and while there is certainly money to be made in NASCAR, I just don't see JV driving anything but an open wheel car.  And besides, after being in F1 all those years, it's hard to imagine him fitting in the NASCAR paddock, or putting up with NASCAR's grinding 36-race schedule.  I could be wrong, but I don't think so. 

He rules out the IRL series as too dangerous. "The IRL is not for me," he says. "Because the only way I can do a job like this is by pushing to the limit and taking risks, and you can't do that in the IRL. Look at how many people get hurt. I know that I will get hurt, so there's no point. 

He has mentioned a go at LeMans, and while that's still possible, that's only one race per year. 

A much younger Jacques Villeneuve as a CART driver in 1995.  He won the championship then left for F1
Photo courtesy of Ford

 That leaves two serious options from where I sit,

 1) He will sit at home and relax, plant some flowers and vegetables, spread some fertilizer, water them once a day and watch the crops grow, or

 2) He will be pleasantly surprised when Open Wheel Racing Series LLC (OWRS) reveals their plans for CART, decide that's better than gardening, and ultimately decide to return to the series that launched his career. 

 You should note that CART is NOT racing the weekend of LeMans in 2004, hence JV can still do that if he so chooses. 

 I believe OWRS will be keen to sign someone like JV to bring more credibility to their new series, and it certainly will be a major shot in the arm for CART's already successful Canadian venues - Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.  CART has suffered a loss of many of its big name drivers in the past two seasons.  Paul Gentilozzi, Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerald Forsythe are smart enough to realize that if they are going to grow their new business they have to get additional big name drivers into the series, pronto.  JV fits that bill, bringing instant global name recognition.

Jacques Villeneuve in the Player's Reynard/Ford at Long Beach in 1995
Photo courtesy of Ford

Bringing JV in will create an instant rivalry with fellow Canadian, and defending CART Champion, Paul Tracy, who himself is a bit controversial.  CART certainly could use a few good rivalries.  It's become too mundane as of late.

I think JV is still very bitter about how he was treated in F1, although some of that was brought upon himself by his sometimes controversial verbal outbursts and the reputation he made for himself.  When he is in a better frame of mind, and weighs all his options, I feel he will ultimately view CART as the sensible alternative. 

In a CART return, he will be greeted as a hero, especially in Canada, and he will certainly have a fighting chance to win races once again. 

However, in order for OWRS to lure JV back, they will have to find him a team where he has a real chance of fighting for wins each week.  Here I see two options:

Jacques Villeneuve in the Player's Reynard/Ford at Phoenix in 1995
Photo courtesy of Ford

 1) He can drive for Kevin Kalkhoven and manager and friend, Craig Pollock, alongside Mika Salo at PK Racing.  The team was showing some real improvement late in the season, and they are ready to challenge for podiums on a regular basis, but are they ready to win races on a regular basis?  Or,

 2) He could return to his old team and drive alongside Paul Tracy for the Player's Forsythe team, though Player's is gone due to Canadian tobacco laws.  It would reunite him with some of his old friends and would create a dynamite team for Gerald Forsythe.  Player's, though gone from the sidepods, would gain some residual benefit.  A deal like that could see Patrick Carpentier then move over to PK Racing alongside Mika Salo.

Can Forsythe's team afford JV?  Perhaps our speculation that Kool would replace Player's as sponsor of the Forsythe team is true.  Our sources tell us the head guy for Imperial Tobacco's racing program has been reassigned to Brown & Williamson in the USA to head up their Kool program.  Both Imperial and Brown & Williamson (B&W) are owned by British American Tobacco who sponsored JV at BAR under their Lucky Strike brand for many years, so they have a previous relationship with JV.  JV does have some friends at BAT, though in the end they were not able to save his ride at BAR.  Honda wanted Sato.

BAT still owns B&W for now, but.....R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc. agreed recently to acquire British American Tobacco PLC's U.S. cigarette business and a second unit for about $3 billion, creating a stronger No. 2 competitor to market leader Philip Morris.  The new entity, to be called Reynolds American Inc., will boast annual revenues of about $10 billion and more than 30 percent of the cigarette sales in the United States, the companies said.  The cash and stock deal unites RJR's R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., maker of Winston (former NASCAR sponsor), Camel (former F1 sponsor), Salem and Doral cigarettes, with BAT's Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., the home of such brands as Kool (former CART sponsor), Pall Mall and Carlton.

Could we once again see Tracy in a Kool car?  BAT owns Kool and Player's
by Bill Kistler/AR1

Gerald Forsythe was instrumental in ensuring that Andretti Green Racing did not take the Kool brand to the IRL.  I suspect a deal was struck at that time to have Kool replace Player's in 2004. There are no laws in the USA that prevent Kool from sponsoring the team.  We shall see......but it would put CART Champion Paul Tracy back in a Kool car once again and give Kool some great exposure.  And Kool could certainly afford to foot the bill for JV as well.  Is all this making too much sense?

Let's hope JV gets back in a car soon. Auto racing needs its champions. It also needs its characters, and JV certainly fits that bill.  JV is worth more than his current tarnished reputation portrays.  The same can be said for CART as a series.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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