Rivals go wheel to wheel

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:19 AM ET

Back in the day, Jacques Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher had one of the fiercest and most dangerous rivalries in all of sports.

Villeneuve was the brash young Canadian who was handed one of Formula One’s most coveted seats — with the Williams team in 1996 — after winning the Indianapolis 500, and Schumacher had already begun his assault on the record book with two championship seasons — 1994-95 — at Benetton.

In 1997, Schumacher was in his second season with a Ferrari team that appeared on the cusp of bringing glory back to the Tifosi after nearly two decades without a championship.

The only thing in Schumacher’s way was Villeneuve, who as irony would have it, was the son of Gilles Villeneuve, the last great Ferrari hero, who was killed during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder.

The two would clash often on and off the track with the most spectacular moment coming in the deciding race for the world championship in 1997 at Jerez, Spain, when Schumacher, in a deliberate attempt to knock Villeneuve out of the race, rammed his Ferrari into the side of the Williams’ chassis.

The outrageous plan failed and Schumacher was disqualified, handing the driver’s title to Villeneuve.

Now 15 years later, Schumacher is back in F-1 after a brief (three season) retirement hoping to re-ignite the passion that brought him a record eight championships.

He hopes that his first post-retirement victory will come on Sunday at — again that irony thing rears its head — Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in the Canadian Grand Prix.

Villenueve — who was forced out of F-1 during the 2006 season — would also like to make a comeback but so far the only taker is a NASCAR Nationwide Series team for whom he will race at the track named for his father later this summer.

So it was with some gasps and more than a few guffaws that greeted an announcement that Villeneuve and Schumacher would be pairing up Thursday in Montreal to demonstrate some new safe driving technologies being promoted by the FIA and the Canadian Automobile Association.

Apparently to the delight of invited guests only, the former rivals will test vehicles equipped with different electronic safety systems, accompanied by the experts of CAA-Quebec’s road safety team.

Let’s hope those experts have their seat belts firmly fastened because after all the intervening years, these two divers might still have a score or two to settle, even if all they are driving is a pair of meek sedans.

Villeneuve couldn’t resist taking a shot at Schumacher recently by not even mentioning the 41-year-old German when commenting on who in the current F-1 grid had the best chance to take the checkered flag in Montreal.

“I really love this track and I think the cars equipped with the F-duct should have a good performance,” Villeneuve said in a column at rds.ca.

“It is a circuit requiring low downforce and with low speed corners, which I think will suit McLaren.”

Schumacher, who has won the Canadian GP seven times, including three-times in a row between 2002 and 2004, hasn’t lost any of his legendary confidence if a statement released by the Mercedes team on Tuesday is to be believed.

“I am convinced we will be able to get the best out of our package (at Montreal),” he said.

Two aging lions. Too bad only Schumacher will be on the grid come Sunday.

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca


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