Villeneuve exclusive: Could BAR really happen?
If Jenson Button's departure from BAR is confirmed, Jacques Villeneuve might return to the team he helped create. Such a prospect seemed impossible just 10 months ago, but behind the scenes interested parties are working to make it happen. Adam Cooper spoke exclusively to the Canadian about the prospect of a sensational comeback
You read it first on Autosport.com! Nearly three weeks ago in a column about the Jenson Button saga, I suggested that Jacques Villeneuve would be the ideal replacement at BAR. In Hungary I punted the idea around. Most people laughed out loud, and even well connected folk such as managers of other drivers thought it was a crazy suggestion.
In fact the wheels were already in motion. Jacques had taken on a pro-active stance and called everyone and anybody who could influence the decision, including team boss David Richards. That was the hardest conversation of all, since there had been such a big personal rift between the pair. But they could yet become partners again in a marriage of convenience.
On Sunday in Budapest I asked DR what the latest situation was. He admitted that Jacques was on the list, but was just one of many names. In any case, until the Jenson situation is finalised, he didn't want to dwell too much on possible replacements.
However, he made a point of saying that he had cleared the air with Jacques, something that once seemed impossible, especially after Villeneuve had snubbed a friendly handshake in a nightclub in Monaco. But Richards insists he's a man who doesn't dwell on the past, and always looks forward. If the pair have genuinely been able to agree to start afresh, it really could happen.
Richards may be playing it cool, but Jacques is definitely in favour at Honda and within elements of British American Tobacco. After the Button affair blew up in his face, Richards is in a tricky position. It probably wouldn't help him right now if he was to throw his weight around and insist that Jacques will never return. He has to keep BAT and Honda happy, and a cynic could argue that he's letting the Villeneuve saga run its course while having something else entirely up his sleeve.
BAT has a huge say it what goes on, but it's a complex organisation, and certainly there are some key players who, like Richards, are not hugely enamoured with Jacques' manager Craig Pollock. Whether that issue can be overcome remains to be seen. Some insiders also believe that BAR is a team that has to be seen to be going forward, and that taking Jacques back would be a retrograde step.
It could be that all concerned will eventually agree to take an easy option, such as promoting Anthony Davidson. But whether Davidson/Sato is a combo that will sell cigarettes - and crucially, bring in secondary sponsors - is open for debate. And money talks...
While Villeneuve's appeal on the marketing front is undeniable, all agree that the team needs someone who can get the job done in the car. Jacques says he is the guy. So let's hear what the man himself thinks...
"I spent the winter playing ice hockey and racing on skis, so that kept the spirit alive. Since the end of February all I've been doing is training like a maniac. The incredible thing is my level of training is higher than it was at the end of last year, purely because of this little break. I'd reach a point before where even training was not positive, not constructive. It was just aggro. Now it's been easy to step up."
"The only reason it's been difficult seeing the car getting podiums is that there's never been an admission of the work that was done before, and why the car is now achieving that. It's as if the team didn't exist until this year, and the car was only created by the drivers working on it now, when it was actually done before this year. It's a lack of recognition of the work that's been achieved before. But apart from that, to see the car doing well - and it's all the guys I worked with - is great. It's decisions from the past that we made that are now making this car quick, and I'm proud of that. It's easy to show that I wasn't wrong to stick with the team."
"As soon as they changed tyres they gained a second and a half. So put those tyres on last year's car and see where we would have been. It's very simple. It's ludicrous, very short-sighted people can say that, but it's not the reality."
"I hadn't had contact for a while anyway, since around Montreal time. So it didn't smell good in the first place. I kind of knew something was going on."
"I met with Frank, Patrick and Sam Michael some time in April I think. And it sounded very serious and positive, but then I never heard anything again. I don't know what happened after that because at that time it sounded extremely positive, and then suddenly it disappeared. Something changed somewhere, and I've no idea what. That was the only time something serious was discussed. I made a few phone calls after that to Patrick and Frank, even people at BMW, just to find out how it was all going on, because I wasn't being kept in the loop, and no one was talking to me any more."
"No. Last year they needed a seat for Sato, and Jenson had a contract and I didn't, and that was it. From that point of view it was every easy to see, so I didn't want to think that Sato wouldn't be there next year."
"That happened before Jenson's thing anyway. So it wasn't enough yet to start reacting."
"No it wasn't, because we're both grown men. It's not like I'm out of IndyCars and I'm asking someone who's in F1. I've been there for quite a long time. I'm out of it right now, and not in the middle of it, so it's much easier to have a normal human conversation with someone."
"Everybody has to gain. It was something that was started years ago, and if it now works out then it will cleanse the five hard years which can have been a negative image for sponsors or whatever. It would cleanse it and show everybody that it was the right thing to do. Everyone has seen how hard I worked for five years, and where the team has got to now, a lot of it is the work I out through those five years. The car was competitive last year. As soon as they changed tyres they gained a second and a half.
"Last year's car was all my work, and this year's car is based on last year's car and all the work I did last year. The same thing on the engine side. A lot of what is on the engine is stuff I pushed, and I was the only one pushing that hard. Which made enemies, because it's not what people want to hear. The fact is the package is working, so I feel quite good about that. If people decide to be political, then it might not work.
"If they decided to not be political it would be very easy to slip back into it and continue in the direction that now proves to be the right one because the car is now at the front, and has been since testing last November. That means that the work done until November was quite good and in the right direction."
"Once you've known the people for 10 years, they expect you to express yourself anyway. That's why Craig will not be a problem. If he has to take a step back and just be in the background, it happened last year already, so that's not a problem. He won't be an issue. He can be kept outside and not be present with David or whoever it might be an issue with. Craig does not have to exist as an entity."
"I think those five hard years have made me really hard and strong in adverse situations. If you have a working atmosphere that's as good as Williams in 1997, or even better, you can only be successful. When it was really hard in the middle we worked hard at it, I never blamed the team, we were always in it together. And it's unfinished business. When BAR started everybody said I was the biggest idiot, and how I destroyed my career and all that for going with an unproven team.
"They said it was all about money when they didn't realise that there was a similar contract waiting for me in another team. Now that the team is proven, it proves people wrong. The only problem is that I'm not in the car, so I'm not there. It would only take a couple of minutes to get back into it, without having to build all the relationships, because it's still the same people."
"There have been a lot of criticisms about my attitude, but a lot of it has been perception more than reality. I don't think anybody could see from the outside the amount of work I was putting in, and the amount of internal pressure and stress that there was, because I didn't make it apparent, and I didn't use the media to bitch about it. I tried to keep it all internal. If you talk to the marketing people inside the team they'll tell you all the PR side was done professionally, and well.
"There was never a problem with that, and I've no idea where this perception came from. Over the last few years I'm one of the drivers who did the most testing and the most work for the team. The only thing is I didn't spend my time with the media trying to cure it, because I was busy driving and racing, and there were enough troubled internally that I didn't have time to sit down with the media during the day. That's when it started, and then it festered.
"Now everybody believes that I was the biggest devil in F1 - after Craig! I had no work ethic, I never worked, I just sat down in the car once in a while, did a few laps, and then bitched about everybody. With all the troubles that happened - if you look at how many times the car broke down last year - I didn't bitch about the team. Maybe by being one with the team, a win together, lose together type attitude, that's what did not protect me. Then it was easy for people to invent all this stuff."
"If pride doesn't get in the way, then I think it would work out. If pride gets in the way then it will be much more difficult, because there's no argument that can beat pride. I'm not talking about David there, there's some other people. I think that's the only thing that could block it, pride and political games."
"Then they know who to take. How many people in the paddock have won a grand prix, and how many have actually won a championship?"
"It's always good in a team to have one with experience and another promising guy, or two with experience. But not two inexperienced ones. That doesn't make the team go forward. You might as well take someone who knows how to win, that you know can take the pressure. That's what I did in 1997, and it worked out. I prove that I can take the pressure when it mattered."
"Money was just used as an excuse last year. You only get what people offer you. No driver is too expensive - if someone is willing to pay, then that's life."
"Then it will re-open a seat at Williams. There's always a seat at Sauber."
"If nothing works out, then I'll probably concentrate on doing something in NASCAR. Everybody I speak with, all the team owners, say 'You have to come back to F1, we need you.' Great, but they all want someone else to make it happen, and not themselves. So after a point you say, screw you, I'll go and do NASCAR, if you don't want to put your finger in the pot."
"Yeah, Bernie is very positive. All these people are very positive, but I'm still not in F1. It matters that you're in it, not that people tell you that we need you. If you need me, then get me. If not, then don't say you need me, that's all."
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