Sports

The native son returns

ELIZABETH WARWICK June 17 1996
Sports

The native son returns

ELIZABETH WARWICK June 17 1996

The native son returns

Sports

Jacques Villeneuve revs up Montreal race fans

Clad in a blue-and-white racing uniform, one arm curled snugly around his helmet, a cardboard Jacques Villeneuve peers solemnly

out the window of a Montreal convenience store. The life-size cutout, part of an advertising campaign for the upcoming Canadian Grand Prix, shows a winsome yet serious young man in small, round eyeglasses, betraying only a trace of a smile. The ersatz Villeneuve is strictly two-dimensional, yet the presence of the rookie from St-Jean-surRichelieu, Que., in the June 16 race has revved up tremendous excitement in the city. And by the time the real Villeneuve reaches Montreal next week, he will be at the centre of almost frenzied anticipation. Some 200,000 people are expected to attend the two practice days and the race itself, a more than 25-per-cent increase over last year. Tickets are nearly sold out, hotels are fully booked and more than 500 reporters and photographers are waiting to capture Villeneuve’s first Formula One race on home soil. The only one frying to play down the hype is the driver himself. “Of course I would like to win in Montreal,” he says, “but then, I would like to win every race.”

For a city that has weathered a winter of bitter political debates along with the usual sub-zero temperatures, the race could not come at a better time. Villeneuve, a Quebec native who has steadfastly refused to take sides in the province’s sovereignty battle, is beloved in his home province and beyond. As well, he will be racing on a track named after his father, Gilles, a Formula One leg-

end who died during practice at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix. As a result, young Villeneuve is helping to make the Grand Prix the biggest sporting event in Quebec this year. “Gilles Villeneuve has always been very popular here,” says Canadian Grand Prix director Normand Legault, “and people are praying that Jacques will

do what his Dad did in 1978 and win on this race track.”

Still, Villeneuve offers fans more than just his birthright. In eight years of professional racing, the 25-year-old has built a remarkable résumé. In his second season on the IndyCar circuit, he won the 1995 Indianapolis 500 as well as the PPG IndyCar World Series title. And last fall, he was signed to a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract by Williams Renault, the top team in Formula One. While many IndyCar drivers have struggled to adapt to the lighter, more manoeuvrable cars of Formula One, Villeneuve has been a quick study. He finished second in his first-ever FI race in Australia in March, recorded his first victory in Germany in April and

last week was tied with world-champion Michael Schumacher for second in the drivers’ standings.

That track record helps explain why Montrealers Virginia Elliott, 44, and Victor Murciano, 45, are glued to their television set whenever Villeneuve races. The couple often rise at 7 a.m. on weekend mornings to catch broadcasts of Formula One events—mainly to see their countryman in action. “He’s a bit of a golden boy for Canadians,” says Murciano, an electrical engineer. In fact, when the French-language daily La Presse asked readers this spring if they would prefer watching a race featuring Villeneuve or a Stanley Cup match boasting the fabled Montreal Canadiens, about 60 per cent of respondents voted for the race, reports sports editor Michel Blanchard. “Since Villeneuve entered Formula One, there has been a much greater interest in it,” says Blanchard, who has assigned six journalists to cover the race. Despite spending most of his life in Europe, Villeneuve is still regarded as a local hero. He easily slips into a Québécois accent and is dating a young Quebecer, Sandrine Gros d’Aillon, who attends Montreal’s Concordia University.

To accommodate the throngs of race-day spectators, the Grand Prix has doubled the number of seats available at the track to

60,000. And fans will have more to watch than just the cars. Both the race organizers and Williams Renault’s sponsor, Rothmans Ltd., are staging concerts and promotional activities—including race simulators on Montreal streets that allow enthusiasts to sit in Formula One cars and get the feel of the real thing via video. “We’re taking

the Grand Prix to the streets,” Legault says, “and making it more than just a sports event”

The stakes are high. Last year, the Grand Prix pumped about $50 million into the Montreal economy, according to figures provided by the Greater Montreal Convention and Tourism Bureau. And this year’s expected record attendance should bring even greater economic dividends. A healthy part of the city’s good fortune is due to what many are calling “the Jacques factor.” Villeneuve has already won the hearts and wallets of Quebecers; now he wants to see the checkered flag on race day.

ELIZABETH WARWICK