Jacques Villeneuve

If the Formula 1 world was left pretty shocked at the speed with which Renault managed to split with Jarno Trulli and get Jacques Villeneuve back in the cockpit, it was nothing compared to the surprise the former world champion felt at the speed events had moved this week

Jacques Villeneuve

Villeneuve may have enjoyed close links with the French car manufacturer ever since winning the championship with one of their engines in 1997, and coming close to signing for the team in 2001, but few could have predicted this time last week that he would be testing for them now.

"The Renault side has... that has been very complicated," he smiles, ducking questions at Silverstone after his first run in the car about just when the first phone call was made. "But it happened very fast. You will just have to ask Flavio."

It has been an incredible 48 hours for Villeneuve, who had originally been due to attend a film festival in Toronto this week but cancelled at the last minute. Instead he finds himself poised for a three-race deal with Renault and he already has a two-year contract with Sauber in his pocket.

Only a few months ago it seemed as if the French-Canadian's hopes of ever returning to F1 were over. An early season meeting with Williams personnel at Oxford airport had led to nothing, as the team looked instead to Mika Hakkinen and then Jenson Button, while a push to find a way back into BAR following Button-gate was rebuffed. No-one really believed that a Sauber deal would be agreed - but Villeneuve insists that he never lost all hope.

"It looked like I would not be here, but I am generally not a negative person," he says. "I always believe the best will happen, which in the past showed wasn't always the case. But you cannot give up and, since I have been training hard since February and March, something had to happen because training for nothing is always difficult."

Although Villeneuve's long-term future is with Sauber, having announced his two-year deal just hours after he stepped into an F1 cockpit again, for now the French-Canadian's focus is on Renault and helping the team in its fight to regain second spot in the constructors' championship. His first day of testing may have ended with him at the bottom of the time sheets, but the man himself was not complaining.

"I was expecting it to be more difficult than that, but we have been training hard so thank god it has paid off," he explained after completing 70 laps to end the first day of running less than one second slower than team-mate Fernando Alonso.

"We did not actually work much on the car set-up, we just concentrated on working on the seat and stuff like that. It was enjoyable and it was fast, the lap times are fast compared to when I was racing. It is three seconds faster or something, so it is a lot.

"Surprisingly, visually when you are driving it doesn't feel that much faster because the car feels good, the engine drives well and the tyres are good. So it is just three seconds a lap more physical than anything else."

Villeneuve certainly looked as trim and fit as ever, having made sure he was race-fit as soon as the season started just in case such an opportunity came up to make an immediate comeback. Other things had also not changed at all from his previous time in the sport - including the ultra-baggy overalls that seemed about 20 sizes too big for him. Only now they were plain white rather than covered in branding.

Renault itself is keeping tight-lipped about its plans for the remainder of the season, but that is hardly surprising considering right up until it announced that it was splitting with Jarno Trulli it dismissed stories of Villeneuve's arrival as pure 'media speculation'.

Villeneuve himself is playing ball too. He ducks and dives at questions about whether he will definitely be racing for the rest of the season - but it is clear from his body language that he has been told he will be there. That also explains why he is already fast-tracking a new passport so he can get a visa for China.

"Nothing has been said," rebuffs Villeneuve, clearly toeing the political line. "Right now we are testing and that is all that matters. The only thing is to get settled in, work on the seat and make everything perfect so that if we do race then there are no worries of that and Renault's goal is just to beat BAR and be second in the constructors' championship."

The one thing that Villeneuve cannot hide, however, is the satisfaction that it would bring were he to help Renault beat BAR to the second spot in the constructors' championship. It would be sweet revenge after being axed by the Brackley-based team at the end of 2003.

"It would be great, just because of the way it ended," he nods, admittedly reluctant to carry on and say too much.

But he is not too bitter at being left out of F1 this season, even if he still has some uneasy memories of his treatment by BAR boss David Richards.

When asked whether he missed being in the cockpit this season he said: "No, I had a great time. I think I needed the break, so I guess I will have to thank David for that..."

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