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Villeneuve Avoids the Rookie Mistakes to Finish Second

May 30, 1994|MIKE KUPPER | TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

INDIANAPOLIS — The rookie finished second.

Jacques Villeneuve, 23, the kid everybody had funny feelings about, the charging young driver who had been responsible for a terrifying accident last month in Phoenix, drove a cool, professional, incident-free race and finished second Sunday in the Indianapolis 500.

He even led seven laps, when the dominant cars of Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. were making pit stops. Not that he realized it.

"At one point they put 1 on my (pit) board and I wasn't sure what they meant," he said. "Does that mean I'm pitting in one lap? And then I looked at the big (scoring) tower and saw my number up on top."

All in all, he said, the whole thing was a magnificent experience. "It feels great," he said. "It feels great because it's the most important race in the world and these are my first points in Indy cars and it's a great place to start the season. Coming here, I was hoping to be in the top 10. It feels fantastic, finishing second. It's something I never dreamed of, being on the podium. I was just hoping not to make mistakes."

As it turned out, he did make one, killing the engine on his first pit stop.

"That got me mad a little bit and I was more careful the rest of the race," he said.

Careful is not a word previously used to describe Villeneuve's driving. He crashed in each of his three previous races and the one at Phoenix prompted questions as to his readiness for Indy cars. Failing to see a yellow light signaling a caution period, he plowed into the disabled cars of Hiro Matsushita and Paul Tracy, breaking Matsushita's car in two. Amazingly, no one was injured.

"What happened at Phoenix could happen to anybody," he said. "I just missed the lights. Being a rookie, I was to be blamed."

Villeneuve is hoping his performance here might modify some attitudes.

"I'll be a rookie the whole season and if anything happens and I'm in the middle of it, eyes will be on me," he said. "That always happens to rookies. But I'm happy if this changes that just a little bit."

The Canadian driver's only real regret was that he, in his Reynard-Ford Cosworth, wasn't able to really race the Mercedes-Benz-powered Penske cars of Fittipaldi and Unser. Fittipaldi dominated until he hit the wall coming out of Turn 4 with 15 laps to go, then Unser took over for the rest of the race.

"It wasn't difficult (racing with them) because I didn't see much of them," he said of the Penske machines. "I couldn't really race with them. I was just happy to be behind them."

After Fittipaldi's accident, there was hope that Villeneuve might be able to challenge Unser on the restart, giving a racing finish to what had pretty much been the greatest spectacle in boredom.

No such luck. Villeneuve apparently thought he was a lap down at the time and got caught in traffic when the green flag flew. And even had he realized the circumstances were different, he said, it wouldn't have mattered.

"Even at the end, if I'd been on the same lap as Al, I knew I really couldn't fight him, so I just laid back and took it easy," he said. "I didn't want to lose second. Third position was 25 seconds behind me and I wanted to keep a little gap to the end."

Team managers are quick to recognize maturity in a driver who respects his car's limitations, especially when a race is unwinnable. And Villeneuve made points with his boss, Barry Green. "Jacques continues to impress every time he gets in the car," Green said. "A great driver, a lot of potential."

Fittipaldi saw it, too.

"I knew Villeneuve was doing a great job," he said. "At one point I tried to lap him and he was hard to pass. He was running strong."

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