Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Thursday, February 22, 1996

Racer Villeneuve Loves Life 'on the Edge'

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
ESTORIL, Portugal - ''My goal is not to be a race-car driver,'' said Jacques Villeneuve, last year's winner of the world's most prestigious single- car race, the Indianapolis 500. ''The reason I'm racing is because I enjoy being in the car and being on the edge.''

Even before the 1995 IndyCar season ended, before Villeneuve was crowned its youngest champion at 24, he was negotiating his next series to conquer, Formula One. Villeneuve had no desire to stick around the Indy circuits to bathe in glory. He wanted to experience driving his new machine, the Williams-Renault. Villeneuve is in his final week of testing the car here before the opening race of the 1996 season on March 10 in Melbourne, Australia.

In a recent interview, Villeneuve reflected, in perfect English, (French is his first language, and he also speaks Italian) on his obsession with the sensations that racing is all about.

''It's not the speed,'' he said. ''You can be in an airplane and you don't feel anything. It's the rush you get from being on the edge. And that means, knowing that you control that edge. You know you're on a razor blade and that if you make a mistake, you're going to pay for it.''

As a teenager, Villeneuve came close to Olympic-level competition as a slalom skier while attending private school in Switzerland. So, he turns naturally to a comparison of car racing and skiing.

''Skiing is pushing yourself to the limit physically,'' he said, ''and it's demanding mentally at the same time. You have to adjust to what's going on. You have to see turns, to feel it all.''

Villeneuve grew up, of course, hanging around race tracks with his father, Gilles, the legendary Ferrari driver. Gilles was one of the most physically-fit racers of his day, before his life ended tragically in an accident during time trials for the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982, when Jacques was 11.

The son shares his father's passion for keeping in shape, but Villeneuve said that, in racing, conditioning the mind was as important as conditioning the body. He said he attempted to hone his mind by, among other things, programming computers.

''Anything will do,'' he said. ''It could be puzzles, programming, anything that makes your mind work. On the track you need your mind to be working perfectly, not reacting to the stress, and understanding what's going on but at the same time, not thinking about stuff you're doing inside the car, so that it becomes natural.''

He added: ''I think in any sport it's the head that controls everything. If you're screwed up in your head, your body's not going to work.''

The experiences of other drivers have shown that it may be easier to migrate from Formula One to IndyCar, rather than the other way around. Nigel Mansell went from being the reigning Formula One champion to IndyCar in 1993, and then won that championship too. In the same year, Michael Andretti, son of another illustrious father, came to Formula One after having been an IndyCar champion, and fared badly in Formula One, in a McLaren.

''He came into Europe feeling American, and I went to America feeling European,'' said Villeneuve, referring to the younger Andretti.

Despite his lengthy analyses of what makes a good driver, Villeneuve said he still had a handle on his first priority: ''Of course, beating the other guy is very important.''

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