Hinchcliffe to race against his idol Villeneuve at the Indy 500

Jacques Villeneuve in 1995

The first race that Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe remembers from start to finish, and every detail in between, was the Indianapolis 500 that Jacques Villeneuve won almost 20 years ago.

The Oakville, Ont., native recalls being a wide-eyed seven year old watching one of his racing heroes come from behind to win in 1995 and hoping one day to stand in the Winner's Circle like Villeneuve and drink the traditional milk.

Now, the 27-year-old IndyCar driver will do something he never thought possible: Complete alongside one of his childhood idols in the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

"Selfishly, this is the greatest news — as a racing fan and a Canadian, I am so looking forward to the chance to get to be on the track at the same time with him, race against him, and maybe even get to know him a little bit because he was one of those guys for me growing up," Hinchcliffe said.

"I've been a fan of him forever. I followed him through IndyCar, through Formula One the good days, Formula One the bad days, and even into his NASCAR forays. I was a member of the Jacques Villeneuve fan club and I used to get letter every month from Switzerland."

Villeneuve, 42, announced last Wednesday that he will return for his third Indianapolis 500 in May, driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Two decades ago, racer Villeneuve became the only Canadian to score a victory in the Indianapolis 500.

Getting his name on the famed Borg Warner trophy in 1995 along with the Championship Auto Racing Teams title that same year paved Villeneuve's way for a move to Formula One. A Formula One championship followed in 1997, putting Villeneuve in the Canadian record books again as the only driver from this country to claim the top prize in racing.

The Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., native is as close to racing royalty that Canada has ever had, the offspring of the driver who many feel is not only the greatest this country has ever produced but also one of the best to ever sit in an F1 car, Gilles Villeneuve. Gilles raced in F1 from 1977 to 1982 taking six wins. He died in a qualifying accident for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix when Jacques was 11.

Royalty or not, there's no doubt that 19 years is essentially a lifetime in racing. Cars don't just change over two decades, they transform into completely different machines.

With one chassis, one tire and only two engines available, the performance gap between individual cars is much smaller today than back in Villeneuve's days, which makes the quarters much closer. The fundamental nature of the Dallara DW12 chassis used by IndyCar, especially at the Speedway, makes the racing better because of the size of the draft it creates.

"I can't speak for how it was back then, but I think it is quite different," Hinchcliffe said.

"In terms of general feel of getting the car around the track kind of by yourself, it might actually be quite similar — you are dealing with a car that has more downforce and less horsepower — but I think the big difference for him is going to be when we get into proper racing situations."

"He'll probably be very unimpressed when he first peels out of the pitbox, but then I think his eyes will open up pretty wide when he's heading into Turn 1 for the first time."

May's race at the famed 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be Villeneuve's third kick at the can, with his first try at the Brickyard in 1994 delivering that year's rookie award for a second-place finish.

The big question now: Can Villeneuve win it again?

"It's a tough call," Hinchcliffe said.

"He hasn't been in an open wheel car since sort of the mid-2000s and even then he was racing in F1 and not IndyCar and oval racing is quite a bit different. He is immensely talented — we all know that— but this style of racing is just very different and having been out of it for as while it might take time to get back up to speed. I have no doubt that he could do it, but whether or not he can do it in a week-and-a-half of practice that we get at Indy, I don't know yet." Jeff Pappone/Globe and Mail

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