He may now be the wrong side of 35 and a much mellower character than in his world championship-challenging days, but it seems the allure of Formula 1 is still flickering away for Jacques Villeneuve – as he eyes a potential comeback in the revolutionary 'low-cost' era in 2010, possibly with all-new outfit US GPE.
Villeneuve left the top flight midway through the 2006 campaign after prematurely parting company with employers BMW-Sauber, having registered no better than a sixth-place finish over the opening 13 races of the season and having notched up just seven points to team-mate Nick Heidfeld's 19.
Prior to that, however, the son of Ferrari legend Gilles Villeneuve had raced to eleven grand prix victories, 22 further rostrum finishes and 1997 drivers' title glory with Williams-Renault – in what was still only his second season in the sport following his move across the Pond from CART (subsequently Champ Cars and now IndyCars).
Since disappearing from the grand prix paddock, the French-Canadian has competed in NASCAR circles and tried his hand at the iconic Le Mans 24 Hours round-the-clock endurance classic with Peugeot in 2007 and 2008, finishing overall runner-up in the diesel-powered #7 machine to the all-conquering Audi on the latter occasion.
F1's new technical regulations, though – including the return of slick tyres and a reduction in aerodynamic dependency, placing the emphasis more on skill behind the wheel once again following several years of prohibitive electronic aids – are clearly to his liking, and playing to the favour of experienced drivers like current world championship leader Jenson Button, Brawn GP team-mate Rubens Barrichello and Toyota star Jarno Trulli.
“Honestly, it's not even something I thought about during the last few seasons,” Villeneuve told Canadian news site RueFrontenac.com
, “[but] it's true that the cars seem fun to drive. We can see that [driver] errors have returned. It's not true that the drivers were too good to commit errors; it was simply that the electronics corrected constantly.
“[Former Williams and BAR-Honda race engineer Jock Clear, now working alongside Barrichello] keeps telling me how much I would love driving these cars. Right from the first tests with the new Brawn he spoke to me about it and hasn't stopped since.”
Though he insists that he is 'not presently in talks with anyone at all regarding a return to F1' and that NASCAR remains his immediate priority, the out-of-work 38-year-old did concede that the new, North Carolina-based and Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson-led US GPE project is an intriguing one – and he suggested that the 'All American' operation would benefit greatly from a driver of his calibre and experience as it takes its first tentative steps at the very pinnacle of international motorsport.
With in-season testing now banned, young up-and-coming drivers are finding it more difficult than ever to get a break and make their name – and those accustomed to the US style of racing would be even more hard-pressed to adapt, he contends. And, lest we forget, a comeback from a former world champion several years on from his last appearance in Formula 1 is not an entirely unprecedented scenario. Nigel Mansell, anyone? Or Alan Jones...
“I am simply saying that I would be open to the idea of racing in F1, and if an opportunity arises quicker than NASCAR, all the better,” he summarised. “There are plenty of Americans like Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal and Danica Patrick being considered, but not one [of them] has F1 experience.
“Now we see it; the older drivers – those with greater experience and judgement – are taking their place because they can better adapt to these sensitive cars. Experience takes value again, and God knows I have some! I'm not American, but I'm closer to being an American than any other driver with as much F1 experience...”