I am a spotty, squeaky voiced 14-year old pupil at Lord Wandsworth College boarding school in Hampshire, England. As we count down the days to the under 18s disco at Harpers nightclub in Guildford and our best and pretty much only chance to awkwardly kiss a girl, our days are filled with new, seemingly life changing music. Oasis’ “What’s The Story Morning Glory”, Pulp’s ”Different Class” and Radiohead’s seminal “The Bends” are on constant rotation. I have a poster of Drew Barrymore on my wall. Windows ’95 has just been released and the Encarta CD ROM has blown our minds. A whole encyclopedia… on a disc. Forrest Gump wins the Oscar for Best Picture. Bill Clinton is in his first term as US President. OJ Simpson goes on trial for murder.
The 49ers win the Super Bowl. Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras win Wimbledon.
And Jacques Villeneuve wins the Indy 500.
1995 was 19 years ago. That’s a hell of a long time. An awful lot has changed. And so, when it was announced earlier this week that JV would be contesting the 2014 Indianapolis 500 after an almost two decade break, it was rightfully seen as a pretty big deal.
He will be racing a third entry from Schmidt Peterson, and made all the right noises in the PR blurb.
“To have the opportunity to return to IndyCar racing and the Indianapolis 500 is something I never thought possible,” Villeneuve said. “The memories I have there will stay with me for the rest of my life, and I’m excited to create new memories in 2014.”
Villeneuve, never one to shy away from a decent soundbite, hasn’t exactly been Indycar’s biggest fan over recent years. But he admitted that the new direction the championship had taken was pivotal to his desire to return.
“I guess it started when they started going back to road racing, going back to a mix of tracks, going back to the IndyCar that I knew, basically. Then came this new car, which was quite a surprise with the spoilers and everything.
“I was dubious until the first time I saw it racing, then I realised how amazing it was, how close the racing was for open-wheel racing. It’s never heard of anymore in modern days. That’s how racing used to be.
“When I started seeing that last year, I started getting excited again, just because the racing was amazing, the cars looked fast and aggressive, it looked hard on the drivers, and the battles were fierce, which is all what I love about racing.”
For Indycar, this is hugely positive PR. A champion who had become disillusioned with the series sees a bright new path being forged by the sport and wants to be part of it. The fact that this comes in the year when another mighty champion in Juan Pablo Montoya returns, should only add weight to the Indycar PR machine.
I do question, however, whether at 42 and with a lack of running in the DW12, Jacques will be ready. Sure, people will point to the fact that Al Unser won Indy 500s 17 years apart. They’ll remind us all that Emmo came back in his 40s and that this is the wonder of the 500. I get that, really I do. I love the history and the unique nature of the event and that, in the right car and with luck, anything can happen.
Jacques himself might argue that the last time he raced the Indy 500 the cars were faster and thus his task in 2014 is not so grand. Pole was set at 231.604 mph in 1995. Last season, Ed Carpenter’s pole speed was 228.762 mph. That’s only a 2.9 mph deficit. Not a huge difference. Factor in also the immensely physical nature of the DW12 and that lack of testing and it becomes clear that JV will have a huge challenge in May and will have to make the most of the practice week before Pole Day. If it rains like it did in 2013, his challenge will be greater still.
Juan Pablo Montoya is training his guts out to be ready for 2014. He cannot afford for his season to be a failure. And ultimately, that is the risk for both drivers here. Villeneuve talks of the desire to write a new chapter, to make new memories. But what if those memories are miserable?
Kimi Raikkonen returned to Formula 1 and made a huge success of it, rejuvenating a career on the skids. Michael Schumacher made an F1 comeback and failed to win, scraped a solitary podium and for the first time in his F1 career, couldn’t beat his team-mate. Three years running. So which will the JV and JPM comebacks prove to be? Will it add to the legend, or take the shine off something that glistened so perfectly?
In Villeneuve’s case, I fear it may be an ego-driven folly destined to lead only to disappointment. I say this purely from the standpoint that his focus is on Rallycross, as it should be. And that, after 20 years, if he’s not coming back to win the Indy 500, why even bother?
Then there’s the other question… should Indycar be promoting its past glories over its potential future stars?
While it is easy to claim Villeneuve is denying others an opportunity to race, the simple fact is that Jacques Villeneuve is not taking anyone’s seat. This third entry for Schmidt Peterson has been lined up specifically for him, although it was interesting to note the omission of mention of any solid funding for the drive at the announcement.
Villeneuve Vs Montoya Vs the Indycar gang we’ve come to know and love over the past few years is a huge selling point. The only way you could improve on that is to bring Little Al, Paul Tracy, Gil de Ferran, Bobby Rahal and Mario or Michael Andretti back into the fold. But then you’re bordering on the old GP Masters concept and Indycar already has enough detractors claiming it is a retirement series.
There remains, however, a question over who will fill the empty slots to make up the 33 car field for Indy as at present the grid sits way under quota. And this is by far the larger issue here.
While my first impression of Villeneuve’s return to the Indy 500 was negative in that I didn’t see the point in him risking his reputation for a vanity project, he’s a grown man and can take responsibility for his own choices, no matter how stupid we may think they are. On reflection I have come to see that the positive aspect is that in 2014, alongside Montoya, we will have the only two drivers in history who have competed at the Indianapolis 500, Brickyard 400 and United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis lining up to go head to head for the Borg Warner.
As such there has perhaps never been a greater opportunity for driver managers and the money men to get funding for their driver for the 500. And, who knows, if these folks do their jobs properly, perhaps we’ll even see 35 cars or more and a Bump Day that actually means something. Because the 2014 Indy 500 is going to be a huge draw.
Hand on heart, I’d rather be at Indy than Monaco for the Grand Prix this year.
Who fills those seats is the big question now, and I hope that the return of Villeneuve and Montoya starts to help Indycar promote itself better, something in which it has been woefully ineffective in recent years. With Dario Franchitti hanging up his helmet for 2014, there are some real stars waiting to shine. But one questions whether Indycar is marketed well enough to allow them to do so.
Half the grid are ageing to a point that they will not, or should not, be in a position to carry on for much longer. But there is, as yet, a lack of an influx of hungry and talented youngsters to make the older guard fear for their positions or feel challenged on track. Sure we’ve seen some great new talent enter the fold over the past few seasons, but not enough. So where is the future of the sport?
I put this question to Randy Bernard a few years ago before he got the chop. There is no denying that the man got some things wrong during his tenure at Indycar, but in his vision for the future I believe he was spot on.
He wanted Indycar to become a driver’s first choice, not second or third on the list of where they wanted to be. His focus, he told me, was on GP2. His reasoning was simple. In GP2 you had some of the world’s greatest young racing talent, but their chances of getting to F1 relied solely on bringing enough money to the table and if you didn’t have $10 million you weren’t going to get a chance. Indycar budgets, by comparison, were and are comparable to GP2 budgets at closer to $2 million. Bring in the talent, watch the racing shine, draw in the sponsors and all of a sudden you have more funded drives and a full field of quality racers… those very same racing talents that F1 should have been nurturing instead of financially screwing.
I agreed with him completely. I still do. But even if you get these talented youngsters over to the US, Indycar has a problem. It can’t market itself. Because it doesn’t know what it is or what it wants to be.
If I have learned one thing since starting in American television, it is that the US fanbase is fiercely loyal to what it loves. We see that with the F1 broadcast and how many fans tune in at insane hours of the day. But if there is one thing that US sports fans are loyal towards, it is their country. It’s no surprise that the biggest sports are all national sports. The great rivalries are town against town, State against State, University against University. The most successful championships are those that play their seasons exclusively within the USA. Fans will watch because they want to, not because you tell them to.
This is one of the reasons why Formula 1 has struggled to get a foothold. It thinks it is the big player, the most important championship in the world, and so from the outset that causes resentment. No band ever broke America by saying they were the best. The Beatles didn’t turn up and tell everyone they were better than anyone else. They played the Ed Sullivan show, were announced as a popular beat combo from Liverpool, and showed everyone they were the best. They changed the world.
In Formula 1’s case, a bit of humility would go a long way. It would never do such a thing, but I’ve always thought F1 would do itself no harm in acting as a support event at a NASCAR race to draw in new fans, by providing a different show to what the main players were selling.
But by far Formula 1’s biggest issue in America is that it dips its toe into the US market just once a year. Formula 1 will never have the same bedrock of support as NASCAR because NASCAR races so often and so widely across America that it is possible for most of the populous to see a race with their own eyes. NASCAR promotes American heroes to American fans from one coast to the other. Formula 1, as a World Championship, will never be able to do that.
But Indycar could. And yet it doesn’t.
When Ryan Hunter-Reay won the Indycar Series in 2013, the championship’s marketing department should have PR’d the hell out of him. A good looking, wholesome, American family man had just taken on the world and won in an American–based racing championship. But what did they do? Next to nothing.
And it’s sad. I love Indycar. It is proper racing, hard racing, populated by a paddock full of talented people and incredible racing drivers who don’t get the international credit they deserve. It isn’t a B championship to F1. It stands on its own and should be promoted as such. It can cross the boundaries of being a racing series which races almost exclusively stateside and yet boasts an international cast of some of the finest racing drivers from around the world.
In order to do that, however, it needs to figure out that this is precisely its USP to American fans and advertisers. And then it needs to promote itself as such.
When we look at this year’s Indy 500, we are presented with an example of how this championship can get itself back on the offensive. If, by some monumental failure by the sport, the 33 spots at Indy fail to be filled, I would propose that Indycar does the following: field the cars itself. Slap Indycar logos all over them, dedicate the liveries to charities, do whatever they want to with the cars. But field the cars themselves. Take the financial hit. And open it up. Run a three-day shootout in which you invite the best talent from around the world to come to Indianapolis and compete.
Bring over the Conor Dalys, Sam Birds and James Calados, Fabio Leimers and Stefano Colettis, Antonio Felix da Costas and Luca Filippis. Get Robin Frijns and Geido Van de Garde, and ask Simona to jump in one last time. Ask Bruno Senna to give it a go, draw Nelson Piquet Jr in from NASCAR. Don’t limit it. Bring the talent and the names and the next generation, run them against each other in a controlled practice environment and pick the best five or six to run in Indycar funded seats.
If one of them wins or even comes close to winning, it’s a huge story.
Just look at what Carlos Munoz did last year. He very nearly Montoya’d it and won on his debut. It can be done.
Take the financial hit, promote the hell out of it, and give new talent in Indycar a shot. Show them that America really is the land of opportunity and that Indycar really is a championship that can stand on its own feet. Give the established order a kick up the backside, reinvigorate the fanbase, and give people something to talk about.
Most importantly, give the sport a vision of its future.
While I love the idea of JPM and Jacques going wheel to the wheel for the win at Indy, it’s not the future, is it?
In the past 19 years, a lot has changed. Some things, though, have not. I still love Oasis and have a thing for Drew Barrymore. And the Indy 500 is still one of the biggest races in the world.
Nineteen years ago a young guy turned up, took the race by the throat and from two laps down, won it. This year he returns no longer a kid but a champion, a man, and, to some degrees, the embodiment of the establishment he took on and beat two decades ago. If his return is to mean anything, then it must be because the flame of hope is being passed from one generation to the next. If that new generation isn’t there to do to Jacques, Juan Pablo and all the others, what they once did as kids themselves, and more importantly if nobody feels the desire to watch, then their presence means nothing, they are proving nothing, and the series has no hope left at all.