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Jacques Villeneuve on 'the only chance I have had to drive an F1 Ferrari'

Jacques Villeneuve sits in the cockpit of his father's car at the Fiorano track.

Ercole Colombo/AP

Jacques Villeneuve may have never felt the satisfaction of racing a Ferrari in Formula One, but driving one of his father's old cars came pretty close.

The scarlet car and the Villeneuve name were reunited on Tuesday to help Ferrari mark the 30th anniversary of Gilles Villeneuve's death while driving for the Scuderia. Jacques drove the No. 12 car that Gilles piloted during the 1979 grand prix season.

"I accepted the offer to drive his car because I wanted to feel the same emotions as him, and understand what it was like to drive those cars," said Villeneuve after lapping in the Ferrari 312 T4 at the manufacturer's Fiorano test track near its Maranello headquarters.

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"I was allowed to drive it like a F1 driver, and not just tour around. It was also the only chance I have had to drive an F1 Ferrari, wearing scarlet overalls."

The first Canadian to find success in F1, Gilles drove the 1979 Ferrari to three victories and second overall in the world championship in what turned out to be his best year in grand prix racing. It was also the car Villeneuve drove in the astonishing battle for second he waged against the faster Renault of René Arnoux in the final laps of the French Grand Prix at Dijon.

The pair banged wheels several times over the final two laps as they jealously fought over every inch of tarmac in what many describe as the greatest one-on-one fight in F1 history. In the end, Villeneuve crossed the line 0.24 seconds ahead of his rival.

As Villeneuve took the 312 T4 for a spin, his mother Joann and sister Melanie looked on. They were joined by Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo, both the team's F1 2012 drivers, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, and some of Gilles' former mechanics and engineers.

Renowned for his incredible car control and never-say-die attitude, Gilles quickly became a hero to Ferrari fans, known as tifosi, after joining the team in 1977. He died on May 8, 1982, in a violent crash during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder.

With their names inexorably intertwined, many felt that it was only a matter of time before the son would team up with Ferrari after he broke into F1 in 1996 with the Williams team. It never happened, mostly due to the presence of a guy named Michael Schumacher, who joined Ferrari the same year Villeneuve entered F1.

"I never had contact with Ferrari in my career," Villeneuve said. "The right moment to go to Maranello was after my world title in 1997, but Schumacher was there so there was no room for me."

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The then two-time world champion Schumacher went on to win five consecutive titles with Ferrari, beginning in 2000, breaking a drought that went back 21 seasons to Jody Scheckter's title in 1979.

Villeneuve believes the famine for Ferrari would have been much shorter had his father not perished in Zolder, saying Gilles would have been champion in 1982 and would have likely added more titles in subsequent seasons.

On the morning of his drive, Villeneuve visited Ferrari headquarters in Maranello to get an insider's view of the factory where the team puts together the legendary scarlet cars. During the tour, he was asked to sign the mangled right front wheel from the Ferrari Schumacher drove in the 1997 European Grand Prix at Jerez, Spain.

The wheel was damaged when the German deliberately turned into Villeneuve's Williams late in the race as the Canadian attempted to overtake the Ferrari for the lead. Although the Ferrari's wheel hit Villeneuve's sidepod, he was able to complete the remaining 22 laps and cross the line third. Schumacher's car was irreparably damaged and retired, giving Villeneuve the title with 81 points to the German's 78.

Had both cars gone out, Schumacher would have been champion by one point. Following the season, the sport's governing Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile disqualified Schumacher from the world championship for his actions.

Despite the history, Villeneuve happily signed the wheel, saying: "I have no problem with him; that was a very happy day for me."

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Alesi confirmed for Indianapolis 500

After confirming his entry into this year's Indy 500, retired Formula One driver Jean Alesi hits the track at the famed brickyard on Thursday with seven other drivers to begin his rookie orientation program ahead of the May 27 race.

The French driver's last start in F1 happened almost 11 years ago when he raced in the 2001 Japanese Grand Prix. In his 13 seasons in F1, Alesi, 47, scored a single victory in the 1995 Canadian Grand Prix, along with two pole positions and 32 podium finishes in 201 races.

With a second F1 veteran in the field, Rubens Barrichello, 39, who is also considered a rookie, Thursday's orientation session will set a record that will likely never be broken. With Barrichello having 322 races under his belt, the pair of "rookies" has an astonishing 523 F1 starts between them.

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

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Motorsports columnist

There's an old saying about timing being everything in racing and Jeff Pappone's career as a motorsport correspondent shows that it also applies to journalists covering the sport too. More

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