Analysis: the Pressure is on Villeneuve

The Villeneuve name carries a special resonance at Imola's Enzo and Dino Ferrari circuit

Analysis: the Pressure is on Villeneuve

The San Marino Grand Prix of 1982 was Ferrari great Gilles Villeneuve's last race before he died in practice for the subsequent Belgian Grand Prix.

A corner of the circuit is dedicated to the Canadian.

His son Jacques goes there next week for the San Marino Grand Prix and it will be an important race for the 1997 World Champion as he struggles to get up to speed in his comeback with Sauber.

Scot David Coulthard, a friend of the 34-year-old driver, said last month that "unless we see a marked improvement by Imola it wouldn't surprise me to see him walk away or be encouraged to do so."

The negative speculation only increased after Peter Sauber said last week that the partnership was "currently at a difficult point".

"It's clear that Sauber will be replacing Villeneuve," declared Zurich's Tages-Anzeiger newspaper. "The only question is when and with whom?"

Martin Brundle, the former racer turned television commentator as well as being Coulthard's manager, agreed: "It does look like a question of will he jump or will he be pushed," he told the ITV website.

"As someone said to me the other day, he's had his career in reverse. Pole at the first race, then he gets the world title almost straight away, and then it's been all downhill from there.

"Now I think he's fallen off a ledge and I don't think he's got any safety ropes to climb back on."

Difficult Test

Villeneuve, who has a two-year contract with Sauber, is not a man to give up lightly and team insiders caution against writing him off.

In his defence, he would have scored a point in Bahrain had Coulthard not collided with him. And the Sauber C24, despite a Ferrari engine and Michelin tyres, is not the quick car he expected.

The pressure increased after he was slowest by almost a second in testing last week and was replaced by Brazilian teammate Felipe Massa.

"I am sure this situation will fire on a new set of rumours," commented the Canadian, who said a brake failure cost the team half a day.

"But we are used to them and it certainly won't affect our work. At this time we are trying our hardest to get the car on the pace, which has been a disappointment to us all. Sadly, Imola will be a continuation of the first three races."

Villeneuve still has a strong following as the sport's 'other champion', the only man still racing who knows what it is like to beat Ferrari's Michael Schumacher to the title, and Peter Sauber was delighted to sign him.

Before the last test, Sauber defended him: "I feel no urge for a driver change," he said. "My priority one is to make the car go faster. Only then can we start to have a look at the performance of the drivers."

Spiky and free-spirited, the Canadian has always been a driver that people loved or hated. But increasingly now there is indifference.

He last won a race in 1997, before taking a hefty chunk of money to join BAR in 1999 for their debut season.

Although he took that team's first podium, a third in Spain in 2001, he took just one other in five seasons before being dropped in 2003. At Renault for the three final races of 2004, Villeneuve scored no points.

Tough Comeback

In Australia, on his Sauber debut, he qualified fourth but was beaten by Massa who started at the back of the grid.

"Jacques was probably one of the slowest cars on the circuit," said Briton Jenson Button, his former teammate.

"At BAR he was a lot more consistent as a driver, his pace wasn't too bad. Maybe it's an uncomfortable environment for him."

The year out did not help.

"He suffered a lot with us I think, because the rate of progress in Formula One had been so rapid that his short time out made a big difference," said Pat Symonds, Renault's head of engineering, last month.

A test last September at Silverstone, where Villeneuve caused a sensation with his first test for Williams in 1995 and where he went on to take two of his 11 Grand Prix wins, highlighted that.

"After a day, he was struggling a little bit against the other driver who was there," said Symonds.

"I think he found that difficult. He found the fitness difficult...I think he was disappointed in his performance but it certainly wasn't through lack of effort."

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