Few drivers split opinion in the way Jacques Villeneuve does. Some see him as a mercurial genius who livens up the Grand Prix paddock with his bravery and outspoken antics. Others feels he is a waster who talks better than he races.
When he left BAR towards the end of 2003, most people agreed that F1 had lost a character, but few believed that Villeneuve had understayed his welcome after five turgid seasons at BAR. His ignominious departure immediately before the Japanese Grand Prix, coupled with his growing discontent with F1 throughout 2003, suggested his Grand Prix career was over. Consequently his reappearance with Renault at the end of last season and subsequent two-year deal with Sauber was all the more surprising.
By any standards Melbourne was a disaster. When the weather-affected qualifying session left Villeneuve in an unrealistically high grid position he failed to take advantage of it in the same way David Coulthard did. He slipped back through the field managing to block everyone who came across him. Nor was Malaysia any better – Villeneuve struggled to keep pace with team mate Massa, and finally outbraked himself off the circuit.
This coupled with three invisible drives for Renault at the tail end of 2004, it has not been a meteoric return to form. Furthermore it is easy to argue that Villeneuve’s career has been moving inexorably downhill since 1997, with Villeneuve rarely stringing together the consistently strong races that made him a World Champion. Admittedly neither the 1998 Williams nor successive BARs have been race winners, but Jacques has only shown flashes of his 1996-7 form.
It would surely be premature to suggest Villenueve should leave Sauber after just one race but the pressure is definitely on. In today’s excessively expensive, hyper-competitive paddock, moments of weakness and runs of bad form are simply not tolerated. Antonio Pizzonia got a midseason P45 for a series of indifferent drives at Jaguar in 2003 – and that was in his rookie season! Villeneuve can afford few more outings like Melbourne.
Perhaps the greater questions are: Why did Sauber sign Villeneuve? And why did Villeneuve decide to join Sauber? Sauber already have one of F1’s most perplexing drivers in Felipe Massa – someone who has seemingly learnt nothing from his two seasons of Grand Prix racing (Felipe, if you’re reading this, it’s quicker if you stay off the green stuff). Massa is not a technical driver by any measure – he never seems to have driven two consecutive laps in the same way, which surely makes it is hard to set up a car. Sauber’s choice to pair Massa with a similarly un-technical driver, having spent up to $40m on a wind tunnel to exploit their technical feedback, is perplexing.
Sauber have always been the archetypal midfield team. They have been at their best when employing talented young chargers keen to race (Wednlinger, Frentzen, Raikkonen, Heidfeld), but also preferably with some testing mileage behind them. They are not a team that offer the potential to catapult Villeneuve back to the podium on a regular basis.
Villeneuve’s other great talent is his unrivalled ability to lose motivation over the slightest difficulty. Consequently for all except the most dedicated Jacques fan (and apart from Dannii Minogue I’m struggling to think of that many), the Sauber experience was never likely to be a marriage made in heaven. Getting the most out of an underdeveloped, underfinanced team is not a Villenueve speciality. To have got off to such a bad start greatly shortens the odds on Jacques still being a Sauber driver at Shanghai in 2006. Of course Villeneuve is a name driver, and one of just two World Champions on the 2005 grid (and let us not forget the other World Champion didn’t crown himself with glory at Melbourne). As such he does have sponsor pulling potential, and his on and off track abrasiveness will serve to bring much needed visibility to Sauber.
But surely this a short-sighted view, for even if he were at his best Villeneuve does not represent a long-term strategy for Sauber or Grand Prix racing in general. The sport needs to bring in fresh generations of superstars, not embarrass itself with ill-starred comebacks (see Freddie Spencer’s experiences in 500cc bike racing for a prime example). Anthony Davidson has been touted to replace Villeneuve within the following weeks and, BAR contract apart, appears the perfect fit. Motivated in a way that an ageing, balding, Canadian multi-millionaire never will be, Davidson
has the further strength of having tested at every circuit on the calendar and knows how to maximise a car’s potential. In an ideal world Davidson would have got the Sauber seat last winter and Villeneuve’s involvement in Australia would have been limited to punditry.
What happens next will be fascinating. My prediction is as follows: Villeneuve’s drives in Malaysia and Bahrain leave Sauber begging for a return to the form of Albert Park, before showing Jacques the door. Davidson is approached, but BAR intervene stating that as Button has just extended his contract until 2010, they want Davidson as an option for the 2011 season, so cannot release him. Sauber then look to GP2 and find an exceptionally wealthy Italian (everyone else in the series has a BAR test contract until the next millennium and so are unavailable) who is prepared to pay enough to ensure lifetime prosperity for everyone in the Sauber factory and their families. Said driver is rubbish and sacked at the end of the year. Meanwhile, much loved late-nineties veteran driver Gaston Mazzacane announces his comeback and is promptly signed by Renault for the last three races after Alonso is fired for criticising Flavio Briatore’s hairdo. Sauber are overwhelmed by Mazzacane’s stunning defeat of the Minardis en route to 18th at Suzuka and sign him on a five-year deal.
The sad thing is – this could happen.