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How Villeneuve was lured to V8 cameo

Supercars
29 Jun
Back in 2012, Townsville was the scene of a surprise cameo by F1 champ Jacques Villeneuve
4 mins by James Pavey
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  • Jacques Villeneuve started three V8 events in 2012

  • Villeneuve's first solo Supercars round came in Townsville

  • F1 champ, Indy 500 winner first debuted at 2010 Gold Coast round

In Townsville’s 15 years on the Supercars calendar, few drivers have garnered as much attention on an entry list than 1997 Formula 1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve.

In 2012, the global star raced a Pepsi Max Commodore for Kelly Racing, subbing in for the injured Greg Murphy.

Murphy had been sidelined by a back injury sustained in that year’s Adelaide season opener, with the Kiwi’s Commodore slammed by Jonathon Webb in a freak qualifying accident.

With Murphy out, the Kelly squad needed a driver — and it ended up being Villeneuve.

So, how did he get here in the first place?

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At the beginning of 2012, Kelly Racing signed former Formula 1 and sportscar engineer Tony Dowe as its performance director. With Murphy out, naming rights sponsors Pepsi Max wanted a big-name replacement.

Dowe, who is now managing Team 18’s production and purchasing arm, thought then NASCAR driver Villeneuve — who made a cameo at the Gold Coast round in 2010 — could add a new flavour.

“There was a general meeting as to who we could get in the car, because Murph was out with his back injury,” Dowe recalled to Supercars.com.

“The sponsors wanted a big name, so I said, ‘Well look, Villeneuve's doing quite well in NASCAR at the moment, which is not dissimilar to what we're running. Why don't we talk to him?’

"I knew him from my Formula 1 days, and Formula Atlantic when he was in the States. So, I got the job of calling in to see if he would be interested, which he was.”

After leaving F1 behind in 2006, Villeneuve competed in various forms of racing, including NASCAR. In 2010, he gave the Aussie V8 series a crack, thanks to the international rules of the Gold Coast 600.

villeneuve 2010

He joined Rod Nash Racing as Paul Dumbrell's international co-driver for the Gold Coast round, and after a dramatic incident in the first race, made waves with a strong fifth in the finale.

“When the internationals came over for the Gold Coast race, you could see some guys were great, and some were hopeless,” Dowe said.

“We saw Jacques did a solid job in the Falcon. He may have been somewhat living off the reputation of the past, but he hung it all out on track.

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"It was interesting to see how various people handled it because of either preconceived ideas or no preconceived ideas."

Villeneuve nearly returned in 2011, but his financial demands proved too great for Ford. Come 2012, and thanks to Dowe, the Kellys got a Villeneuve in form.

51-Villeneuve-EV07-12-1009

The 11-time Grand Prix winner finished sixth and third at the Road America and Montreal road course races in the Nationwide Series, now known as the Xfinity Series.

However, after touching down in Australia, Villeneuve arrived in Townsville with no V8 laps under his belt. It made for a tough initiation, Villeneuve retiring from the first race due to an engine issue, before racing to 24th in the finale.

“If you wanted to get a good result from a guy like Jacques, he needed to be in really good equipment,” Dowe explained.

“The car had some life on it, but he never got to grips with it. I think it was a bit too much of a 'fly in and expect a result’ situation, especially without any testing.

“The series back then, as it is now, there are no slow drivers. From my point of view anyway, he was never going to deliver the dream result that people wanted.”

Townsville was the first of three events Villeneuve contested with the Kellys, that outing followed by the Queensland Raceway and Sydney Motorsport Park races. Across the three races, Villeneuve had a best grid position of 27th and race finish of 24th.

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Murphy returned after Sydney, and Villeneuve had run his final V8 race.

Villeneuve has remained in motorsport in the decade since, making cameos in NASCAR, IndyCar, World Rallycross, Stock Car Brasil, Formula E, Porsche Carrera Cup Scandinavia and the World Endurance Championship. He also recently made headlines as an F1 pundit for Sky Sports.

All told, Aussie V8 fans never got to see the best of Villeneuve. According to Dowe, given how competitive the championship is, and per Todd Kelly’s warning, it was always going to be an uphill battle.

“One memory was actually the first day he arrived. Todd, John Crennan, myself, and Jacques went for lunch. Jacques was disarmingly honest about what his expectations were,” Dowe said.

"Todd was a driver, and knew that these were not easy cars to just jump into and get a result. It was very much a case of, ‘This is what you've got, you better drive it’, and trying to understand what he wanted from the car. It wasn't the best recipe to get a result.”

The 2024 Repco Supercars Championship will resume at the NTI Townsville 500 on July 5-7. International viewers can follow all the action on Superview.

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