Grapevine: Villeneuve Comes Home to Uncertain Future

Jacques Villeneuve was always going to be in the spotlight for his home Grand Prix this weekend.

Grapevine: Villeneuve Comes Home to Uncertain Future

Jacques Villeneuve was always going to be in the spotlight for his home Grand Prix this weekend.

But Ferrari's announcement on Monday that Michael Schumacher had extended his contract with them to the end of 2006 has focused attention even more on Formula One's other World Champion. With the season reaching the halfway stage, speculation about the drivers market is heating up and much of it concerns the 1997 champion.

It's easy to forget just how much of a stir Villeneuve caused when he breezed into the paddock in 1996 as a young and iconoclastic rebel with his fresh attitude, dyed hair and 'grunge' clothing. It all seemed so effortless - son of one of the most-adored Ferrari drivers of all time, Jacques had won the Indy 500 and CART title by the age of 24.

He seized pole position for his first Grand Prix in Australia, at an unfamiliar track, and was a winner for Williams by race four. He was champion after 33 starts.

The hair remains blond, though thinning, and his gaze still burns fiercely behind the contact lenses. But the shining achievements have been submerged by 4-1/2 years of toil and mediocrity at BAR. His contract is up for renewal and while Villeneuve may well stay, it is no foregone conclusion.

It remains to be seen whether he will be back.

Sore Point

While Briton Jenson Button has a long term contract with BAR and is the face of their future, his teammate's considerable salary is a sore point.

Takuma Sato, a Honda protege who is hugely popular in Japan, is waiting in reserve and itching to get back into a full race drive after a debut year with Jordan in 2002. Should Villeneuve fail to reach a deal, it is hard to see who might step in to prevent his talent going to waste.

There is nothing at Ferrari now, with Brazilian Rubens Barrichello under contract for another year and compatriot and test driver Felipe Massa seemingly being groomed to fill his shoes sooner or later. Williams have Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, winner in Monaco, and Ralf Schumacher under contract to the end of 2004.

McLaren are seriously smitten by Finland's championship leader Kimi Raikkonen and are unlikely to ditch Briton David Coulthard either.

Renault, with Italian Jarno Trulli disappointing in comparison to Spaniard Fernando Alonso, and Toyota have been mentioned as two teams with both the cash and the clout to take on the Canadian.

But Toyota have their drivers under contract for next season, although France's Olivier Panis is now the oldest man on the grid at 36. There are also drivers such as Italian Giancarlo Fisichella being touted around.

With just 10 teams remaining, there are more candidates than vacancies with some - such as Britain's Justin Wilson - willing to drive for free were the right opportunity to materialise.

Jaguar and Sauber, with Brazilian Antonio Pizzonia and German Heinz-Harald Frentzen looking vulnerable, may have openings for the right candidates while financial considerations rule at Jordan and Minardi.

"I think next year will be quite interesting in the driver lineup for Formula One," said former racer Jonathan Palmer, manager of Minardi's Wilson.

"You've got a number of drivers who are probably getting close to the end of their careers and people like Alonso and (Mark) Webber coming through and looking very competitive, being very hungry, easy to work with and also cheap.

"It's probably quite a compelling mix for a number of teams, when they compare that with the drivers they do have and how much they pay them and how well they go."

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