May 24, 2001 | 2:30 P.M. EST
He was in the league of a regular Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen or Damon Hill. Even a modern-day Juan Pablo Montoya, only better.
Villeneuve had four wins, including the Indianapolis 500, and six poles on his way to the CART Series championship in 1995, a year after winning rookie of the year. He moved to the Williams Formula One team, where he won four races as a rookie in 1996 and followed with seven more in his 1997 World Championship campaign.
But after that... what happened? In 1998, the Williams team did not have a competitive engine and Villeneuve managed just two third-place finishes. Then in 1999, he decided to join the new Lucky Strike British American (BAR) team started by his longtime friend Craig Pollock.
In its first season, BAR found out just how difficult F-1 can be and failed to score a single top-six points-paying finish. Last year, with Honda engines, the situation improved for BAR. Villeneuve finished seventh in the drivers championship, and BAR placed fifth in the constructors championship.
"I don't think the job we had to do was underestimated," Villeneuve said. "It was more that it didn't work as planned. The 1999 car was quite fast, but it kept breaking, so we couldn't bring the points that our speed could give us. That really hurt the spirit of the whole team, and that made our work more difficult for 2000 and this year, as well."
Although it came close on several occasions in 2000, the team failed to earn an elusive top-three podium finish.
That all changed in the Spanish Grand Prix this year. Villeneuve was running fourth but got promoted to third on the last lap when leader Mika Hakkinen suddenly stopped with a broken clutch. Villeneuve and BAR-Honda finally got to celebrate on the podium.
"It was a lucky podium," Villeneuve said. "It's very rare to have the leader break down on the last lap. We were lucky, but at least we were there to grab it when it happened. It was a great effort from the whole team. It was very important because last year many times we were close to it and somehow it didn't work, and we finished fourth.
"This result has lifted the weight from our shoulders, and it will be easier to work in a positive way from now on. Within the team, everybody is much happier, and the atmosphere is generally lighter."
Before the start of the season, Villeneuve said that third place in the constructors championship was the minimal expectation and goal for BAR. Although the team is only sixth in the points after six of 17 races heading into this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix, Villeneuve insists its goals have not changed.
"The team has to be in the top three of the constructors," he said. "These are the minimal expectations, and the minimum results acceptable. But if the team works well, we should be able to reach it. Only McLaren and Ferrari are uncatchable this year. If we do a good job, we should be able to get them."
As for his future with the BAR-Honda team, Villeneuve is fairly certain he will stay with the team next year.
"I won't give you a precise answer," he said. "Right now I'm concentrating on this project, and I don't have leaving on my mind. It's not what will make me stay, but more could something make me leave. There is no doubt right now, and I am not planning to leave."
After all that hard work, Villeneuve said, he wants to be around to collect the rewards... and the wins.
"I think the last three years were good training for fighting at the front," he said.