Jacques hits the headlines again

Jacques Villeneuve's comeback was the story of both the Chinese GP and the week that preceded it, but a humble 11th place hasn't helped Renault in the points standings. Will things go better in Suzuka? Adam Cooper looks at the Canadian's return

Jacques hits the headlines again

In the couple of days after the Italian GP, the world of F1 went mad. Seemingly out of nowhere Jacques Villeneuve returned to the headlines as he signed a long-term deal with Sauber and booted Jarno Trulli out of Renault, just a couple of weeks after the Italian had sat on pole position at the Belgian GP. It all just proved that anything can happen in this sport.

Villeneuve had been mentioned in connection with Sauber for a while, but autosport.com can claim to be the first to come out and claim that the deal was done, or about to be signed. We heard a rumour a few days before the Italian GP, and posted the news a full week before any official announcement. The paperwork wasn't completed by then, but we were on the right track.

"It happened quickly," says Jacques. "We didn't talk for a little bit, then we had a meeting, and that was it, it was done. There wasn't weeks of discussion. I thought OK, that's a good idea, then it happened."

The Renault deal came about completely separately, inspired by the intervention of Bernie Ecclestone. Suddenly Jacques was the most popular man in F1, despite not having been to a circuit for the 50 weeks since last year's US GP.

"It's funny isn't it? It's very bizarre. But when good news starts, it all happens at the same time. You just wait, nothing happens for a long time, and then suddenly it all drops. It was a little bit hectic for a day and a half! I didn't know what I was doing until I got into England. If we had known earlier, we would have been there on Monday night. I've known Flavio over the years. Some Renault people I worked with at Williams or BAR, so it wasn't totally new."

It was indeed a bit hectic. Signing two deals, organising travel and visa arrangements, having a seat fitting, getting to know his engineers, and two frantic days of testing at Silverstone. It was pretty amazing stuff: "It just adds to the stress, but after a year off you can take all that stress, it's no problem."

For China, the bottom line was he had to go to a circuit he didn't know in a car he barely knew and face up to Fernando Alonso, a man who in recent races had either been on the podium or retiring after being in contention for victory.

In China he compared favourably with his team mate in practice, but he fell back when it really mattered in qualifying. Unfortunately a large group of cars filled the time gap, so it looked worse than it was.

"I was disappointed with the starting position. I was OK with the lap time compared to Fernando, but in a small amount of lap time there were a lot of cars, and that was frustrating. I had a hard time all weekend with new tyres. In first qualifying they worked well, and in second qualifying I wasn't happy somehow. I also didn't want to go off, because there's no point starting at the back."

So what of the race itself? Villeneuve spent some of the time in company with old rivals like Michael Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya - the latter actually put a big hole in the Renault's sidepod - but despite rubbing wheels with the big names, he finished only 11th, having spent much of the race chasing Mark Webber. It was hardly an improvement on what Trulli had achieved in the last couple of races, but he was always going to be up against it, having to learn about the team, the car, the tyres and the track all in one go.

"I'm not happy with the position in the end, of course. The start went well, the Renault's really great at the start, but then I didn't get into the rhythm quick enough, and lost the positions again in the first two laps. Once I got in the rhythm, I was stuck behind Webber. I was just going faster and faster. But it was fun. I could fight until the end, and that made it fun. But we didn't score any points, so that's a little bit annoying."

He certainly got a lot of TV coverage, and at one point the cameras caught a spectacular moment at Turn One. "The car is a little bit hard to drive on the brakes and hard to drive when you're close behind someone. The first set of tyres was a little bit hard to drive, and the rear was very loose under braking, it was hard to brake late."

Nevertheless, Villeneuve admitted that he'd enjoyed himself, especially battling with the likes of Montoya and Schumacher. At one point Michael got past him at the hairpin, only to dive straight into the pits.

"It was fun, but it must have been boring for Michael. He's used to being at the front, and to be stuck at the back of the race must have been quite boring for him.

"I didn't know Michael was going into the pits. I wasn't going to let him by, but I wasn't going to block him either. There was no point. I was fighting with Mark, not with Michael. When he got on the inside of me I still tried to brake late, but he was quicker than me, of course.

"I could fight until the end, and that made it fun. In the last few laps the car really got better, and I could stay closer to Mark in the high-speed, and I thought I could maybe attack him in the last two laps in the hairpin. Then Rubens go to close to me and I had to let him by."

Although he had been training hard since March, the first race was bound to be tough, simply because it's impossible to prepare all the right muscles out of the car.

"It was better than I expected. I could push until the end, so that was good. The only problem is it took me a couple of laps too many to get in the rhythm. But physically it's gone up in level by quite a lot, the tyre grip, downforce, everything. The G-forces that are pulled are a lot higher."

Next stop is Suzuka. It should be much easier, because he doesn't have to learn the track, and will thus have one less problem to worry about. He's always loved the place, and knows what he needs from a car. He can also build on the knowledge he gained about the Renault and Michelin in China.

"I know the track very well, so we should be able to work on the car from the start. It should make it a little bit easier. The engineers don't know how I work or how I drive, and it's the same for me, I don't know how the tyres work or the car. This being the first race it's where we're learning everything. Hopefully we used this weekend to learn how to work together with the engineers, so we don't lose any time in Japan."

The jury is still out about his longer term prospects. Will the Sauber wind tunnel really help the Swiss team to move forward in 2005? Will Jacques be up for a better offer in '06, or stick with the Hinwil outfit? Is there a suggestion, however tenuous, that he might even find his way into Ferrari?

"I'm not working or hoping for something like that to happen. I'm happy where I am now. I'm happy to do these three races, and I'm happy about the next two years. That's all that matters."

A finale thought. He claims he doesn't know how closely Sauber and its engine supplier operate ('I won't be working with Ferrari, I'll be working with Sauber'), and it may come as a surprise to him how much information flows between the two teams, albeit mostly in one direction. No doubt anything he can tell Sauber about Renault's much admired electronics will find its way to Maranello, and he's also the first driver to come to the Ferrari/Bridgestone camp with current info about Michelin in his head since Luciano Burti arrived from Prost a couple of years ago.

And from December at times he will be testing and generating information that ultimately is of benefit to one Michael Schumacher. And that's something that we never thought we'd see...

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