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by Tony Sakkis

On Saturday evening of the second weekend in March -- or rather Sunday afternoon Melbourne time -- Indy Car and ex-Indy Car drivers, crewmen and officials around the country were saying "Look, we told you so."

Not because of anything that happened in Indy Car racing, but because of what happened in that other major open-wheeled series, Formula One. On that Saturday an ex-Indy Car driver in his first season of Grand Prix racing took the pole in qualifying in his first race, led all but the last handful of laps, finally succumbing to an engine that was not up to the stress and strain of his throttle foot, and settled for second place.

He could have won it. Moreover, anyone with a brain in their head realizes that he should have won it.

Jacques Villeneuve, winner of last year's Indy 500 and the Champion of the PPG Indy Car World Series here in the US, went to Europe last Fall with a maturity that we here in the States found more than just impressive. Villeneuve won often in Indy Car, but certainly did not dominate the series.

So, as I understand it, people like Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher didn't give the kid a second look except to note that he was now on one of the best teams in F1 when he signed with Williams and Renault.

Beside people like Nigel Roebuck of Autosport Magazine, Britain's most prestigious motorsports journal, most in the foreign press saw Villeneuve as just a footnote, another Michael Andretti, a son of a famous father who once drove for Ferrari a long time ago. (And perhaps he is another Michael Andretti ... but that is another story for another time). But Villeneuve proved to be far from that.

As I have written in this space before even the 1995 season ended, Villeneuve was a young man far more mature than his years; more mature than most men with any tally of years behind them. What you got with Villeneuve was what you saw. There was no fear; there was no ego. He was just a person who found limitations on his won. Life, he thought, was difficult enough; there was no reason to add to its complexity with what others said.

When asked last season what he was going to do in F1, he replied stoically, "I'm going there to fight, not to be impressed by everything and, 'Oh, wow, I'm in F1 and isn't it incredible' and so on. It was the same thing when I got to IndyCar. It actually could have been even more when I came to IndyCar. I'm not going there just to go around the track. I'm going out there to fight like the Indy series this year," he said. "I was raised in the racing world. So its not the reason I'm racing -- to be part of a world I didn't know. It's just because I wanted to race. The world of racing itself is not so great that I'm just happy to be in it. I'm happy to race, but not to be a part of that world."

And so far, he has done what he said he would. He has tested more than any other driver in the series and came to the first race in Australia with his head screwed on right.

Villeneuve is great, for certain. But hopefully what people will see in Europe -- finally -- is that he is not the only star here who, given the right chance, could win right off. There are countless others in Indy Car who could do what Villeneuve did and what he will continue to do throughout the season given the chance (Michael Andretti is a good example .. . but that, as I said, Is another story for another time). It took this youngster to prove it.

But, what the heck, we told you so. Didn't we.