Why Villeneuve failed to repeat his father’s Monaco success

Adam Cooper

There's no doubt that his famous 1981 victory in the 1981 Monaco GP plays a big part in the Gilles Villeneuve legend.

The Canadian managed to qualify on the front row and then win the most prestigious race of the year in a cumbersome Ferrari equipped with a brutal turbo engine that was still in the early stages of its development. It was hardly the ideal tool with which to thread the needle around the streets of the principality, and yet he did it.

When Villeneuve's son Jacques arrived for his first Monaco GP in 1996 there was much anticipation. Could be add another chapter to the story?

The youngster had grown up in the town and was thus on home ground. He already knew the circuit from previous F3 outings, and he'd done a lot of street fighting in his three seasons in Formula Atlantic and CART – winning the downtown Miami IndyCar race early in 1995.

He had also got his rookie F1 season with Williams off to flying start, taking pole first time out in Melbourne and winning his fourth race at the Nurburgring. He was giving his more experienced teammate Damon Hill an unexpectedly hard time. It thus seemed logical to expect a stellar performance from him.

Instead Villeneuve's first Monaco GP was to prove a disaster, and his second start in 1997 was to be just as catastrophic, and the biggest disappointment of his title-winning season. Both years his teammate started from pole, indicating that the win was there for the taking.

Jacques Villeneuve, Williams FW19 Renault, followed by Jean Alesi, Benetton and Mika Hakkinen, McLaren and Eddie Irvine, Ferrari

Jacques Villeneuve, Williams FW19 Renault, followed by Jean Alesi, Benetton and Mika Hakkinen, McLaren and Eddie Irvine, Ferrari Motorsport Images

Motorsport Images

After that, the moment was gone – never again would he go to Monaco with a car capable of winning the race. On his third and final outing with Williams in 1998 he finished a lapped fifth, and in 2001 he was a respectable fourth with BAR. Those were to be the only times he ever made the points.

So what went wrong when in those two years when had a quick car? A couple of weeks before the 1997 race I asked him to recall his first outing.

"It's the most difficult and the easiest race to win," he explained. "It's a little bit like Indy. It's difficult to win it because it's easy to make a mistake, so it's not always the quickest that wins it.

"A street course, in a way, is more like rallying. You're always imagining what a corner is going to be like. You never get that ultimate line, that ultimate whatever, because the track from year to year changes slightly, the grip levels changes.

"You're not at the ultimate of knowing the track like you are on a road course. So it's a weird race, a difficult weekend, then it's a great party on Sunday.

"I remember Monaco when I wasn't driving, and I was just on holiday during the race weekend, and it was amazing. It's a great weekend for the people that don't work, but for the teams and drivers, it's probably the worst weekend.

"I think set-up wise we were completely out to lunch last year. Monaco takes longer than other tracks to learn or to get up to pace on. I knew it from F3, but the cars are much narrower. A narrower car on a road course doesn't make a difference, but when you're in between walls, that 20cms more makes a huge difference.

"The track felt different. Damon was quick right away, and set-up wise we were forced to go in a very, very far direction from what I thought. With Jock [Clear], my engineer, we have very different ideas for this year's set-up [1997]. I'm not sure it's going to work, but it should."

He also pointed put that the grid was much more competitive in Monaco: "The thing is I was within a second of Damon, which happened on other tracks. Only on the other tracks Damon was more than a second quicker than the other guys. So I ended up starting second anyway. But in Monaco, that put me 10th.

Jacques Villeneuve, Williams FW19

Jacques Villeneuve, Williams FW19 Sutton Images

Sutton Images

"Just the whole weekend was heavy going. I was tired like I've never been in F1. The way you walk around, you have no room to work. But this year now that I know how it is, it won't be a problem…"

From 10th place on the grid it was always going to be a struggle, but rain on Sunday opened a window of opportunity. It was the sort of day when just the right combination of patience and opportunism might pay dividends.

However little went right for Villeneuve. He kept the car out of the barriers in the early laps – many others didn't, including Michael Schumacher – and as such he jumped up the order. However his eventual change to dry tyres wasn't as effective as it could have been.

"There was nothing I could do. In the race the other problem was that we pitted a few laps too late. I wanted to pit earlier, but it was one of the first times where I got a wet/dry situation, and they didn't put enough fuel in the car.

"Somehow the data wasn't functioning, so the team didn't know how much I was using, and all I could hear was 'save on fuel, save on fuel.' I was driving as fast as I could, but at the same time I was lifting 50 metres before the braking area, and Mika Salo was just behind me. He was racing me, but I couldn't really race."

He was now in a group with Johnny Herbert's Sauber ahead, and the Tyrrell of his pal Salo behind. When Mika Hakkinen squeezed past Salo, Villeneuve was under pressure in what had by now become the battle for fifth place.

Jacques Villeneuve, Williams FW19

Jacques Villeneuve, Williams FW19 Sutton Images

Sutton Images

His race finally unravelled when the group came up to lap the tardy Forti of backmarker Luca Badoer as they headed up to Casino, and down to the right-hander at Mirabeau.

"I was frustrated. First of all it was difficult to overtake, but I'm sure you can; maybe into the chicane, into the Loews, if the other guy makes a mistake. In fact everywhere, if the other guy makes a mistake.

"Once in a while I would get closer to Johnny, and I thought OK these two laps I will try, but then I had to save fuel. Johnny went ahead of Badoer and I had to go as well, because the next corner was the Loews, and the thing is I couldn't overtake anyone there, because I didn't have enough lock on the steering.

"And Hakkinen would have tried to pass me there. I didn't have much choice, so I decided to go, but there wasn't enough room once Luca had decided to turn in, so we touched…"

That was the end of a painful afternoon, and a $5000 fine for Badoer – and suspended two-race ban – did little to alleviate the pain. The day was an even bigger nightmare for Hill, who led in some style until suffering an engine failure. Like Villeneuve he was never able to follow his father into the Monaco history books.

Just to run salt in the wound the race was won by Olivier Panis, whose Ligier started four places behind Villeneuve in 14th…

In 1997 Villeneuve had a new teammate in Heinz-Harald Frentzen, and he quickly gained the upper hand with a string of poles and two early wins in Brazil and Argentina, while the German appeared to fulfil the promise that appealed to Williams when he scored his first win at Imola.

Monaco was a crucial encounter, and a chance for both men to stake a claim to a title challenge. It didn't work out for either.

"I would say the black note where we're concerned has mostly been Monaco," Villeneuve admitted when we discussed his season later that year. "We screwed up on the strategy, we took a big gamble, and it didn't pay off…"

Jacques Villeneuve, Williams FW19

Jacques Villeneuve, Williams FW19 Motorsport Images

Motorsport Images

This time around practice and qualifying went much better for him – but there was no hiding from the fact that he was three tenths off Frentzen, who took pole. He had to settle for third, with Schumacher in between.

"Third in qualifying was not bad, but after the way we'd been qualifying all season, it felt terrible," said Villeneuve. "But I was only 0.3sec behind, which was not much on a track where I was useless last year. And I did screw up my qualifying laps.

"So the lap time was in the car, but I made mistakes myself. My strong point on that track was all the swimming pool area to the start/finish, and in qualifying all my laps I made mistakes in that area where I was quick all weekend.

"I don't know why - I just made a mistake myself, that happens, and I accept it. I've seen that I've been criticised for having a poor show in qualifying, but normally third is not too bad anyway..."

As he said, it wasn't too bad a place to start, and history has often shown that starting on the racing line helped to propel the third-place qualifier past the second in the run to Ste Devote.

However, as the race start drew close, it began to rain. It eased for a while, but rain was still in the air, and the track was damp. Schumacher did a very late final reconnaissance lap, and decided to start on Bridgestone wets, having also adjusted his wings for more downforce.

However the Williams team took an unfathomable decision to start both Frentzen and Villeneuve on slicks – in those days teams used their own weather service, and the info received was a little off…

To be fair McLaren, who shared the same forecast, put Hakkinen on slicks – but at least the team hedged its bets by giving David Coulthard intermediates.

Even before the cars left for their final warm-up lap, the rain was coming down properly once more, and the track was soaked. So what about that fateful decision?

"The last one to decide is the driver, he makes the final call," Villeneuve admitted. "But you're sitting in your car, under trees, you can't see the sky, there's an umbrella... It was not really wet at the start/finish line, but it was wet at the Casino. If someone had watched the screen when Michael was doing his final lap, then we would have known.

Jacques Villeneuve, Williams FW19

Jacques Villeneuve, Williams FW19 Sutton Images

Sutton Images

"We were in a 50:50 situation. I was tempted to go with intermediate tyres, but then the rain stopped. So then I thought. 'You've got to brave, take a risk, and it might pay.'

"Just when we left for the formation lap, it started raining again, so then I knew we were screwed. But it was too late..."

As the cars cruised round to the grid, Villeneuve knew he was in trouble.

"I was on the radio with Jock and I could have come in and changed tyres then, but at that point we thought we took a risk, we might as well go the whole way.

"We're going to be starting last anyway, if we go into the pits, we might as well really risk it. Once you take the gamble, you go the full way. I probably would have crashed anyway. The car was very good in the dry, but it wasn't going to work well in the wet."

Both Williams drivers were swamped at the start. Villeneuve plodded around as best he could – and managed to somehow stay on the track when others hit barriers or each other, including McLaren drivers Hakkinen and Coulthard, and Hill in the Arrows. After just a couple of laps, he stopped for intermediates, and tumbled to last place.

"It was dreadful. There was nothing you could do, it was just sliding and sliding. Most of all I knew that it was a big mistake, but you can't turn back time.

"It was, 'Bugger, the whole weekend is thrown away now.' You can still try to salvage a few points, which we tried, but the attrition was much smaller than it had been early on. And we were part of the attrition!"

Having been lapped by race leader Schumacher, Villeneuve retired with damaged sustained in earlier contact with the barrier, with just 17 laps run. Frentzen later crashed out. Despite frequently having the best car Williams had not won in Monaco since Keke Rosberg triumphed in 1983…

Schumacher dominated the race in superb style, putting himself into the lead of the World Championship by 24 points to the 20 of erstwhile leader Villeneuve. The Canadian bounced back however, and he would eventually win that year's world championship after a dramatic showdown with the Ferrari driver in Jerez. Along the way he put Frentzen firmly in his place.

Villeneuve wasn't to know then that he would never again have a car as quick as the FW18 and 19 models that he enjoyed over his first two remarkable seasons, when he logged wins or podiums at 13 different circuits. Monaco would remain his most painful failure over those two years.

Jacques Villeneuve, Williams FW19

Jacques Villeneuve, Williams FW19 Motorsport Images

Motorsport Images