From the dizzying success of his first two seasons, his career never recovered from his disastrously unsuccessful tenure at BAR. And for that, ultimately, he must shoulder most of the responsibility.
Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya share other characteristics: They both began at Williams, ended their careers acrimoniously mid-season, polarised opinion among fans, and gave Michael Schumacher a few surprises without ever really threatening his long-term supremacy.
Villeneuve’s arrival in Formula One came at the behest of Bernie Ecclestone who, following the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994, realised the sport was suffering from a dearth of drivers with star quality.
The Canadian, son of the beloved Gilles, fit the bill perfectly. His swashbuckling style had won him many admirers in Indy Car racing (which at the time was a noted rival to F1), along with victory in the Indy Car championship and the Indianapolis 500, both in 1995.
His arrival was a rude awakening to everyone in the F1 paddock at his first race in 1996 – especially team mate Damon Hill.
Villeneuve won pole position in his first race ahead of Hill and fought frantically to keep him at bay on race day. An oil leak scuppered his chances.
But his potential was clear and he kept himself in the hunt for the championship until the very final round.
If his 1996 season was a victory of doggedness over inexperience, in 1997 he seemed desperate to throw away his best chance of losing the title. He threw points away, particularly in wet weather races, and on days was mysteriously off the pace.
Finally he stared down Michael Schumacher in an epic confrontation at Jerez in Spain and triumphed after Schumacher crudely tried to run him off the road.
At this point in his career Villeneuve had started 33 races, won 11 with 13 pole positions and 9 fastest laps. How many people would have believed that the World Champion would never win another race, nor score another pole or fastest lap in the remaining 132 races of his career?
Villeneuve’s troubles began in 1998. Williams found themselves without the Renault power, which had given them both titles in the past two years, nor celebrated aerodynamicist Adrian Newey. They failed to win a race for three years – Villeneuve quit after just one.
For 1999 he embarked upon a new project with manager Craig Pollock: to bring a new team to F1 with funding from British American Tobacco, chassis by Reynard and engines by Supertec, derived from the old Renault units.
British American Racing entered F1 with bold claims of winning their first race and challenging for the championship. But the scale of their ambitions dwarfed their technical competence, and they failed to score a point all year. Villeneuve alone suffered ten race-ending mechanical failures.
Progress at BAR proved agonisingly slow. Although Honda engines arrived in 2000, and they scored their first points at the first round of the season, they effectively spent the following years treading water, with the odd lucky podium finish falling into their laps.
The indifferent results and haemorrhaging of cash continued throughout 2001 and 2002. Eventually the BAT money men realised F1 would not remain the ideal vehicle for promoting tobacco for much longer, and looked to sell the team.
Although the fruits of his labour began to show in 2003 and the cars finally became competitive, it caused irreconcilable friction with Villeneuve. Unhappy with the ousting of Pollock, suspicious of Richard and furious that he was expected to take a pay cut, Villeneuve flounced out of the team before the Japanese Grand Prix.
It appeared that his promising career had come to an explosive and ignominious end. But Villeneuve reappeared late in 2004, replacing Jarno Trulli at Renault who, ironically, were battling to stay ahead of BAR in the constructors’ championship.
(Renault failed: BAR beat them to second in 2004, but the Anglo-French team would have the last laugh, winning both titles over the next two years.)
These late outings did little for Villeneuve’s reputation, being comprehensively out-driven by Fernando Alonso. But it landed him a contract with Sauber who, like BAR two years earlier, were courting a manufacturer buy-out.
He partnered Felipe Massa in 2005 and, after a shaky start, got on terms with the young Brazilian and scored a valuable fourth in San Marino. A BMW buy-out was confirmed for 2006, but new owner Mario Theissen was keen to eject the Canadian.
Theissen openly coveted Renault tester Heikki Kovalainen but Villeneuve’s two-year contract was water tight. Thus BMW grudgingly kept him on alongside Nick Heidfeld.
The BMW drivers were closely matched in 2006, but with Heidfeld usually narrowly ahead. Meanwhile test driver Robert Kubica proved too mouth-watering a proposition for Theissen. He proposed that all three drivers rotate the two seats for the latter races of the season, to determine who got to race in 2007.
An indignant Villeneuve refused to consider the suggestion, and quit the team in much the same manner that he left BAR. But this time, it seems to be a final departure.
Anyone looking to form an argument that cars, not drivers, win world championships has a compelling case study in Jacques Villeneuve. But even though he â€œmade hard workâ€ of winning his 1997 title, in the words of Patrick Head, he also gave F1 fans some of their most celebrated memories.
He refused to be intimidated by Michael Schumacher – he fought him on the track (most memorably with that gorgeous pass around the outside of the Parabolica at Estoril in Portugal, ’96) and in the media, launching a withering denunciation of the Ferrari driver after leaving BMW.
Villeneuve is not short of detractors. But the loss of him and fellow firebrand Montoya leaves F1 woefully short of charismatic, entertaining drivers.