Interview: No Cake for Sauber, Villeneuve

Peter Sauber would have probably liked to celebrate his 200th Grand Prix somewhat differently

Interview: No Cake for Sauber, Villeneuve

The man who made his team's debut in Formula One 12 years ago and managed throughout the years to maintain a low-key and respectable profile in the highly political paddock, is suddenly faced with media coverage the like he's never experienced before.

That's what you get when you sign a World Champion who commands the interest of fans worldwide, yet never seems to find a way out of controversy.

"Jacques Villeneuve is a driver who polarizes," Sauber himself told journalists this week. "We knew that before we signed him. We were only perhaps surprised how much he polarizes. I get the impression whenever a journalist is asking me a question about Jacques, that the answers are written already beforehand."

Blindfolded

The 200th Grand Prix, two weeks ago at Bahrain, was yet another race to forget for the 1997 World Champion, who had been forced to sit out last season before signing a two-year contract with the Swiss based team in the same week he signed a three-race deal with Renault.

In the three races since the start of the season, the Canadian finished 13th in the opening race, and then retired in the second and third rounds. His frustration was visible, his unhappiness with the car's performance audible.

Sauber, whose team seemed to go stronger and stronger toward the end of last year, agrees with Villeneuve: this year's car is just not good enough.

"We lack downforce," he puts it simply. "We were not able to get back as much as the competition did after the rule change."

He also confirms some of Villeneuve's criticism: the problem lies primarily in the team's inability to adapt in time to the new Michelin tyres, having switched from Bridgestone at the end of last year.

"We were blindfolded perhaps at the end of last year, when our laptimes of the old car on Michelin tyres ­ both on dry weather and wets ­ were very promising," Sauber admits. "Both drivers felt at ease. We were sure that we had adapted to the new tyre.

"But when we went testing with the new car, we realized pretty early that things were not so well. We need more time to understand the complex interaction between the set-up of the car and the characteristics of the respective tyres. When we changed to Michelin rubber, the C24 was born already. The C24 was designed for Bridgestone rubber, not for Michelin tyres.

"[But] there is not a lot more to change, since we lack the funding for such a programme. So we will have a proper Michelin car, if you will, only for 2006. It might be right to say that the late change did not help, but still the main problem is the lack of downforce."

Political Decision

It doesn't help that while Villeneuve agonizes over the car's lack of performance and his inability to come to terms with it, his much younger teammate Felipe Massa was able to finish in the top 10 in all three races.

And to make matters worse, the very rare testing session planned for the team two weeks ago at Barcelona was marred with technical hiccups, bad weather and - yes, again - media controversy.

Having suffered a brake failure on his car during his first of two days of testing, Villeneuve was told by the team that his test would be cut short and Massa would do the running instead on the second day. The brake failure, coupled with the growing frustration and now the team's seeming lack of trust in his input, was getting to Villeneuve.

But Sauber defends the decision and says that despite its effect on his star driver, it was the right move to make.

"It is true that from the outside, taking Jacques out of the car looks as a lack of confidence in him," Sauber explains. "But you have to see the whole picture.

"We had some new wings which we wanted to sort out. This is a most extensive work. A driver such as Felipe, who is now in his third year with us is, [would be] on such an occasion a bigger help than a new Sauber driver, such as Jacques.

"Villeneuve works extremely subtle during a test. Which means that in the beginning his laptimes can be slow and irregular. Even more so, we had a brake problem on his car in the morning, which we had to rectify. The result was that he had barely driven.

"I understand that our decision was unpleasant for Villeneuve. But for the team it was the right decision. And what is good for the team is also good for Jacques. I would do the same again today."

Differing Philosophies

It could be said that Villeneuve has not had an easy time in Formula One, since making his debut in 1996. Those who worked with him repeat the same tune: the son of the famous late Gilles Villeneuve has always been intent on doing things his way, maintaining a hard-headed approach that didn't always play in his favour.

Then again, it was that stubbornness and unique individuality that earned him the fans' respect and admiration, which few other drivers enjoy.

He was never going to win races immediately with Sauber, but the midfield team offered Villeneuve - who celebrated his 34th birthday earlier this month - a graceful way of proving his detractors wrong and ending his Formula One career on a high - rather than the low of past years, when he struggled in BAR-Honda, first with the car and then with the team's management.

For the outsiders, it could seem now that Villeneuve is reliving his worst nightmare: struggling with both car and management.

Sauber is fast to correct that impression.

"I would like to clarify something," he says, when asked yet again about his relationship with Villeneuve since the season began. "Our collaboration with Villeneuve is agreeable and constructive. There is no friction between us as humans.

"Villeneuve understands that our philosophy is different than his. He knows that he has to adapt better to the car. We appreciate his effort. We also understand certain wishes he has. But that does not mean that we are in the position to make everything happen."

At the same time, however, Sauber doesn't altogether absolve Villeneuve of blame for his situation, suggesting that others could possibly have made more of the circumstances than the former World Champion.

"I am aware of the fact that he needs more laps," Sauber says. "But then again, there are drivers who do not need that. Look at what [McLaren test driver] Alexander Wurz did in Bahrain: he had never sat in the new McLaren, he did not know the track [before], and yet he was quickest on Friday.

"The philosophy of Jacques and the philosophy of the team differ. But we try within our possibilities, technically as well as financially, to converge as good as we can so both sides eventually will be content."

No Cake

Sauber shrugs aside speculations regarding the future of Villeneuve at the Swiss-based team. Those who know the Canadian tend to believe it would be him, rather than Sauber, that will cut the chord should the current performance - of both car and driver - fail to improve, and fast.

But Sauber will not be drawn into talking about deadlines, nor will he look for a third driver - not as a possible replacement for Villeneuve, nor as, simply, a Friday tester for the team that so badly lack testing mileage.

"We get much support by Michelin, so much in fact that we do not need a third driver to decide which tyre we have to use," he explains. "And when I see how many young drivers are competing as third drivers, I doubt that they are much of a help regarding set-up and would find one which Villeneuve can take over. No, a third car would only bring unrest and raise costs."

In the mean time, he mulls over the small miracle of having made it to his bicentennial Grand Prix.

"I would not have betted on 100 Grands Prix," he says. "When we made our debut, Formula One had something primal. After that the technical side got more and more complex and the costs exploded.

"We are proud to achieve 200 Grands Prix. We have endured a period in which ten teams have had to close down, many of them with big names. We have grown all the time. We had better and more disappointing years. But there was never a break as it was with Jordan or Minardi.

"But," he adds, "the reason we're not celebrating our 200th [GP], not even with a cake, is the fact that we are unhappy with our performance."

Will he last another 200?

"That would be roughly eleven years at the existing pace of races. That is a long time in Formula One.

"But for sure it is my wish that the company is still around in ten years. It is one of my goals to make that happen."

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