Villeneuve, Prost on Williams Racing, ‘Lap of Legends’ and F1

Michelob Ultra and Williams Racing
Formula One icons Jacques Villeneuve and Alain Prost spoke with The Sporting Tribune's Will Despart in an exclusive interview ahead of the world premiere of the documentary, "Lap of Legends."

LAS VEGAS — “Lap of Legends”, a never-before-seen one-hour TV special premiering May 14 on AMC, BBC America and Roku TV, will present to fans what two giants of their respective industries are calling the “first ever real vs. virtual race.”

Current Williams driver Logan Sargeant, the only American driver on the F1 circuit, will be competing against the virtual avatars of six F1 legends created by Michelob Ultra and Williams Racing using artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and mountains of data.

Villeneuve and Prost are of course two of the headlining participants, joining former champions Mario Andretti, Damon Hill, Nigel Mansell, and Jenson Button in the event.

Villeneuve won the 1997 Formula One World Drivers’ Championship with Williams Racing, the last championship for the legendary racing outfit to date. Prost won the last of his four World Drivers’ Championships with Williams in 1993 and held the sport’s all-time wins record with 51 until Michael Schumacher surpassed him in 2001.

The legendary drivers discussed their participation in the “Lap of Legends” event, their perspectives on the current state of Formula 1, and more.

What made you want to be a part of the “Lap of Legends” event? What was your initial reaction when approached to participate?

Jacques Villeneuve: “My first reaction was curiosity. Very curious. The championship I had was with Williams, and it’s their last championship as well.

“I’ve raced against all those guys except Logan until that day. Even Mario (Andretti), I raced against, and I saw him race against my dad. So I’ve been through the whole scope of racing, from the 70s to this modern era. I’ve seen all the different eras, and now we’re into these AI times. Which is something we, maybe from the past, had a harder time to understand, comprehend, or never imagined it would get there. There was a lot of curiosity in that technology, excitement, and ultimately it was the easiest race I’ve ever done. I didn’t break a sweat.

“Yeah, the excitement, seeing how it would pan out, mainly.”

Alain Prost: “So, very honestly, my first reaction, I did not understand very well what they wanted to do. Which is good, because at least, if you don’t know exactly, you start to understand or you ask questions.

“Obviously, you’re young and I’m getting older, and my generation, I mean, in racing period, we’re not talking too much about data or artificial intelligence or whatever.

“So I started to understand. I realized that, I mean, obviously, you have the history of Williams, and my story with Williams and with all the drivers, and the fact that Michelob Ultra and the others are doing a great job with them. They really wanted to bring the history of the team and connect it with the new generation. So I thought it was very good, also the fact that you can meet old people from Williams and the old guys. We had fun, but honestly, it was very interesting for me.

“Very, very interesting, because very often I think that you can have a disconnection of our generation to the new generation, with technology and technology of the cars. I thought it was very good to bring that all together and see what it does. Because the fans today are not the fans that we had in the 80s. In the 80s, we had the fans that, I mean, we all had the passion, the passion of racing drivers, they were passionate, and the mechanics, engineers, even the media, they were passionate about what they were doing. Today is a little bit different. Some of them could be a business, or for ‘Drive to Survive,’ you bring a new generation, but are they going to stay fans for a long period or not?

“With this program, what interests me is to see if we can bring the people also to interest themselves with the old generation, old cars, and be part of the history of the tradition of Formula 1.”

As a Williams Racing legend, what does it mean to you to be part of this event alongside the past and present of Williams Racing? 

Jacques Villeneuve: “First of all, I’m happy that I’m still the last Williams champion, so that’s good. It was nice, it was a fun day (to be) together chatting and bragging one against the other. In our own time, we all had our own bragging rights of moments and this and that. And memories. 

“All of us were super curious, like, which data has been put in to start with? Because you cannot put 100% of everything. You can put the team, the driver, maybe the teammate, but you cannot put everything. So it still has to pan out in a logical way, and I think it did.”

Alain Prost: “I think you had the part of nostalgia, you had the part of talking to old drivers and my teammates. You know, Nigel (Mansell), for example, even if we were not at Williams together. But also, for example, Logan, I mean, I was at the racing track, but I never talked to him. That was the opportunity to talk to him. That’s awesome. For example, what he was doing during the winter, the training program, and things like this, with all the pressure he had last year, for example, and how he’s going to bring that to this season. It was quite interesting.

“Also, I tried to understand what they were doing with the virtual race, you know, because I was amazed to learn that they have taken, you know, 1,200 hours of footage and some data like this. It’s new to me because our generation, you know, but I’m very interested, you know. So it was a little bit, as I said before, a little bit of a mix of it.”

How does it feel to see the legacy of Williams Racing and Formula 1 celebrated in such a unique way?

Alain Prost: “Yeah, yeah. That is why when I first talked to the people, I said, how do you want to make that, you know? But I obviously understood what they wanted to reach, and it’s very amazing.

“It also brings you to the future, you know, what’s going to happen after. And there’s no end to what you can have with the technology. For example, I was talking to some people at Williams and said maybe we can use this intelligence when you compare Logan to Alex (Albon), the way they drive the car, the way they take corners. It’s quite interesting, but we are not only talking about technology in this case. We’re talking about entertainment.  We are talking about fun, and we are talking about history and the tradition of Formula 1.

“The young generation, they need to know also what was before ‘Drive to Survive.’ Because it’s good for our sport, you know. The culture and the tradition is so important that it’s also a way to see that and to bring the older generation all together, and that is very, very interesting.”

Jacques Villeneuve: “It’s the first time this has been done. It’s a great way for the team from Michelob to get in touch with maybe the new generation of fans that will never get close to sitting in an F1 car.

“We all seem now to be much more into what’s happening online and all what you see with video games, simulators. It’s so close to reality. So to bring those two things together, the real car against avatars, is intricate. It’s amazing that it’s even possible.”

How do you think events like the “Lap of Legends” contribute to engaging fans and promoting the sport of Formula 1?

Alain Prost: “I don’t know. That is going to be the key. I would like to see the final version. I would be very interested myself to see how the fans, especially the young generation, are going to watch it. I would like to have some feedback myself because I’m very interested by that.

“Social media, for example, we never had social media before in our generation. Can you imagine if we had this social media when we had the fight with Ayrton? But today, with this program for example, you have the young generation and then maybe they are going to go back, and especially with the social media, with YouTube, with whatever they find images on, they are going to find the history of the Williams team. They are going to (learn about) some different drivers. It could be quite interesting for them to go back to the past. 

“If you have all these fans from ‘Drive to Survive,’ for example, as I was saying before, then all they can be a fan for one or two years, and then, you know, zap, they go away. Or they can try to learn about what racing was before, what racing could be after, because it’s always a combination of the two. You need to be interested about the regulation, the technology, what’s going to happen in 2026 (with the new regulations), but also the past with history, the drivers, the teams. And that would be a big success in this case because you have entertainment, but you also bring that to the tradition of our sport.”

Jacques Villeneuve: “It’s fun. It’s a fun moment that touches something that is real, that exists, and it’s been turned into something even bigger and more fun. It’s the first one to be done. That part is important. If every team does that, it won’t be that fun or exciting anymore.

“Also, I think it’s great because it’s obvious that nobody got upset. It would have been easy for any of us, other than Prost, to be upset. I think that’s a good show for the fans as well, to see that.”

What is your impression of the 2024 F1 season so far?

Jacques Villeneuve: “It will be full of surprises. After the first two races, we thought this will be even more written than last year, that Red Bull and Max (Verstappen) will win. But when you look at last race, they seem to not have it that easy. They can miss it. Also, all the internal issues they’re having, that must be tiring.

“For the first two races you don’t see it, but as the season goes on, if this carries on, it just saps your energy. You don’t develop the car, you don’t work properly, and you just end up going from first to second to third, and then it just gets worse and worse. You start second-guessing. 

“What’s helping is also the other internal battles, like we have at Ferrari. The announcement of Lewis signing with Ferrari, and also this huge contract for Leclerc, who hasn’t really proven to be a champion yet. It put (Carlos) Sainz in a bad position, when he’s the Ferrari driver who last won a race for them.

“It’s making him work harder, now do the battle in front. That’s good, because all this kind of battling helps the midfield, in which Williams is now. Going up through the ladder, and very close now. If you look at Williams two or three years ago, it was embarrassing until this new group took over. There’s fresh blood in the team now, and it’s going in the right direction, finally, after years.”

What do you believe are the biggest challenges facing Formula 1 today, and how do you think they should be addressed?

Jacques Villeneuve: “The biggest challenge, I would guess, is to not lose the plot, to not forget its roots, and why it exists. It’s the biggest sport in the world now. It did a master job during COVID, building up and getting the American fans.

“That’s something that all throughout my racing career, I never thought I would see.  Everyone’s been trying to get America, and it’s never worked, but now we are there. It’s amazing what we’re seeing. Maybe four or three years ago, all the new fans had no idea what Formula One was about. They thought it existed only for two years. Other than Lewis and Verstappen, they didn’t know any other world champion existed.

“But now, these same fans, you can see that they’ve made their researches. They’re starting to understand what it’s all about. That’s the biggest hurdle now, to not forget what made it a sport, and to not go beyond that fine line. It’s a show. It is a show. It’s a game, like every sport. A sport is a show, but you can’t go too far. We’re just on that edge right now.”

Alain Prost: “If I start with the end of the question, that is going to be the most difficult because, I mean, I know what it is. I’ve been there for so many years. I’ve participated in big meetings, regulation meetings, things like this. Very difficult to put everybody all together. Obviously, because you have the technology, you have the constructors, sponsors, a little bit less, but also, what do you want to have? Do you want to have a real sport? Do you want to have entertainment? Do you want to have a show? Do you want to have, let’s say, the pinnacle of the technology? And that is difficult today because Formula One is at the top, you know? It became a little bit more a show and a marketing platform also.

“It’s always a balance of sport, human side. The human side, for me, is the most important. You have to be careful that you don’t lose the human side, especially for the drivers. And for me, it’s a little bit too complex. The cars are too heavy. It’s, you know, you almost have no way to make a big difference only by changing things on the car or setup or tires or whatever that we add in our generation. But it looks like they don’t want to do that.

“So I don’t know. I think at the moment, when you have such a big success like Formula 1 has, they are not very much interested to change things. But again, I’m not that young. My vision would have been different to our sport. But I must say that you have to accept that the value of the teams are very high. What I regret, honestly, is the fact that we lost a little bit of tradition. The tradition of big names of our sport. Regulation is too complicated and you can’t do anything on the track. Then you have a penalty. It’s a mix of everything. You have two teams that I would never pronounce their name today. These kind of things that would have never happened in our generation. But again, you have to be honest.

“It’s a new way, new generation. So maybe people like us, we are not the best people to give ideas because it’s a new way, it’s a new society. It’s so different that maybe what you think is the best, it does not fulfill with the young generation what they want. But the tradition for me, you need to keep it. It’s very important because it’s a link to the old generation, to the people that really love racing and the new generation where they can only love one driver or they can have the love for the event or they can love, for example, the concert at the end of the race.

“I’ve seen this year at least once, twice in the year where the people were buying tickets and they were coming only 10 laps before the end just to participate in the concert. But why not? Why not?”

I’m located in Las Vegas, so I’ve gotten to see all of these motor sports series firsthand.  How do you think Formula One compares to other motorsports series in terms of competitiveness and entertainment value, and what you can bring to a city like Las Vegas?

Alain Prost: “I was not in Las Vegas because I thought for me it was too much. I mean, for me, if I am not involved in a team, I don’t like to go to a race if I don’t have a specific reason to go to work or something. I did not want to go because it was too much and I did not recognize myself, but it’s a good question.

“I mean, obviously, if you compare this discipline, the technology of Formula One, the performance and technology is, I don’t know how I could say, but miles away. It’s a huge difference, but again, what I said before, what do you want? Do you want to have only technology?  Do you want to have a show? Do you want to have entertainment?  Do you want the people in the grandstand happy about the show? It’s always a combination.

“When the people say, Formula One in the 80s, we were not successful in the States. Honestly, that is not correct. I mean, I never liked to hear that. I raced in Long Beach, in Las Vegas, in Detroit. You had a great history here. “And honestly, all the races we had all the time, it was full of people. You know what I liked in this time? All the American people, when they were following Formula One, they were talking to us, because we could talk at the time to the people. They were really not only fans, but they were experts. They were experts, honestly. And that’s why it’s a big difference today.”

Jacques Villeneuve: “It depends what you want in entertainment. Do you want to see crashes? Then it’s probably not F1. Do you want to see pure speed? Then okay, that’s F1. But if you don’t relate to pure speed, because visually it’s hard to understand it, then maybe it’s not a sport for you.

“It depends what you call entertainment. Having the races in places like Vegas and downtown is an amazing step. Since I joined F1, I kept saying, it has to be in Vegas. It’s logical. It’s where anything can happen. It’s international, so it made sense.

“It’s a big party around the whole weekend. You have the race, but you want to have everything around, like you have in Monaco. When it’s like this, then the race doesn’t need to be amazing.”

Having experienced various eras of Formula 1, how do you think the sport has evolved over time, and what aspects do you think have remained constant?

Jacques Villeneuve: “It’s really catering now to the TV, to having a proper big three-day show event, where it used to be you watch the race on a Sunday and that’s it. Now you have every session. You have the other categories being filmed, the party that’s going around.It is a three-day visual event. That’s huge. The technological side has changed a lot.

“It’s very restricted now. The set of rules are very restricted. It used to be a lot more open, but then from first to last, you would have a five-second gap per lap, where now the last guy sometimes is within a second.

“What’s amazing is people complain that it’s too much. In a second, it’s nothing. That aspect has been very good, but somehow, visually, it doesn’t look as fast as it is. These cars are faster than the ones I drove, but somehow they look slower. That’s something that needs to be addressed.”