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Friday, July 30, 1999

History Hangs Over Aging Quebec Track

Villeneuves Got Start at Mount Tremblant

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
MONT TREMBLANT, Quebec - At about the same time Jacques Villeneuve was coming to halt in the Austrian Alps, fans and drivers in Canada were gathering for a day of racing on the circuit where Villeneuve learned his craft.

Villeneuve is driving this season for British American Racing, the team with the third-largest budget in Formula One. As the teams go into the German Grand Prix in Hockenheim on Sunday, BAR is one of only two teams with no points. The team has become synonymous with extravagant failure.

But although the former world champion has yet to finish a race this season, Villeneuve remains a hero in his native Canada.

At Circuit Mont Tremblant, where Villeneuve, his father and uncle all began their careers, Vince Loughren, the general manager of the track, recalled days gone by.

Loughren started working at the Jim Russell school at the track as an assistant instructor in 1973, the year that Gilles Villeneuve, Jacques's father, enrolled. Loughren was an instructor when Gilles's brother Jacques came a couple years later, and the school's manager when the younger Jacques came in 1986.

''Jacques, the uncle, called up,'' said Loughren. ''He wanted it nice and quiet. The Villeneuve family in Quebec is well known, and he didn't want any public bother around it.''

Loughren said that Villeneuve, like his father, came not to show off but to learn.

Loughren said students ask how their lap times compare with the those of the Villeneuves. One graduate, Aaron Povoledo, raced Sunday in a Formula 2000 series in a car bearing the number 27. That was the number Gilles Villeneuve carried on his Ferrari until his death in an accident at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982. Povoledo, 23, is in his second year in the elite Player's development program. The program provides money and instruction to young Canadian drivers.

The program was created around the younger Jacques by Player's cigarettes in the early 1990s. After Villeneuve's success in Indy racing, the program was expanded to other young Canadian drivers. Player's is owned by British-American Tobacco Co., which is one of the owners of BAR, Villeneuve's current team. Povoledo said that although he is benefiting from a program inspired by Jacques, his driving style was inspired by Gilles.

''I haven't had many heroes in racing,'' Povoledo said, ''but Gilles Villeneuve was definitely my hero. His driving style his passion, his pure ability and car control was inspirational for me as a child. In the early stages I modeled myself after that. I put a lot of emphasis on learning how to slide a car and drive sideways.''

Such are the skills necessary for driving the roller-coaster Mont Tremblant track. The twisty 14 corners of the 4.27-kilometer (2.65-mile) track have 85 feet (25.7 meters) of elevation changes.

Located in the Laurentian Mountains, 140 kilometers north of Montreal, the track's construction in 1965 was supervised by Bruce McLaren, founder of the Formula One team of the same name. The track was host to Formula One races until 1978 when they were moved permanently to the track named after Gilles Villeneuve on an island off Montreal.

In contrast with modern Formula One tracks, which are as smooth as billiard tables, Mont Tremblant has never been resurfaced and is bumpy and cracked. There are no trackside seats, and the grandstands were demolished to stop from them falling down. The track is used mostly for amateur racing and by the school.

''If you can be quick on this track, you can be fast anywhere in the world,'' Povoledo said. ''You need a beautiful mixture of bravery and skill and technical knowledge.''

Povoledo is conscious of the history of the place.

''Walking into the rooms where Jimmy Clark and all these other drivers had been,'' he said, ''it's like their ghosts still haunt the place. There's this energy or this vibe that you get seeing the old control tower. And of course the legacy of Villeneuve is here as well. All Canadian drivers look to Jacques Villeneuve and say, 'Hey, if he can, we can.'''

Local fans such as Eric Lizotte get up at 7:00 A.M. to watch the Formula One races live on television.

''Throughout the first five laps or so all I do is watch Jacques's position,'' Lizotte said, shortly before letting out a frustrated sigh at yet another abandoned race by the local hero.

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