He has stuck with me through good times and bad, and I have a lot to thank him for.
I think that’s incredibly charitable. If Villeneuve hadn’t followed Pollock’s half-baked idea nine years ago, to set up their own team with British American Tobacco cash, he might have more race victories and titles to his name.
The writing was on the wall in 1998 that Williams, after Villeneuve’s title-winning season with them in 1997, were a spent force. Star designer Adrian Newey had left, and prized engine supplier Renault had gone off on one of their periodic absences from the sport.
Villeneuve could have commanded a race-winning seat at a host of teams, but plumped for the brave-yet-foolish option of following Craig Pollock to the newly-formed British American Racing team.
With a Reynard-designed chassis the team claimed it would keep up the car builder’s string of debut victories. Of course, it won nothing in 1999 – not even a single point, Villeneuve finishing just four races of 16 with a best of eighth.
The team took seven years to win a race, by which time Villeneuve was long gone and Honda had bought out BAT.
His reputation took a battering in five long years with BAR, finally storming out before the end of the 2003 season. He returned with Renault, then Sauber, who in turn became BMW – and again Villeneuve left before the end of the season.
He never recaptured the dazzling high of his 1996 debut season, where he so very nearly won his first race, and famously angered Michael Schumacher by passing him around the outside of Parabolica at Estoril.
I’m sure those skills will serve him well in his début NASCAR season this year. But I’ll always hope to see him back in a proper single seater – say, when the operators of the IRL and Champ Car finally put their differences aside and create a unified American open wheel racing series.
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