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What could have been: When Villeneuve’s shock return thwarted an F1 rookie

The headlines prior to Formula 1’s maiden visit to Shanghai for the 2004 Chinese Grand Prix were dominated by the return of Jacques Villeneuve. But it also proved a sliding doors moment for Renault’s diligent test driver, who 20 years later bares no bitterness

Jacques Villeneuve (CDN) Renault R24

Photo by: James Moy

Jacques Villeneuve’s return to Formula 1 at Renault for the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix in 2004 was a seminal moment in Franck Montagny’s career. Then a test driver for Renault, he had been the logical choice for the seat vacated by Toyota-bound Jarno Trulli. But instead it was 1997 world champion Villeneuve who got the nod for the final three races of 2004 alongside Fernando Alonso.

Montagny says his contract “was clear that I was getting in the car” if one of the regular drivers needed replacing. But it didn’t play out that way. He had to wait until mid-2006, when he made his F1 race debut at the tail-end Super Aguri outfit, after being overlooked for the cameo at Renault and then for a drive at Sauber also taken by Villeneuve for 2005.

Events were set in motion by Trulli’s early departure from Renault. The Italian’s impending move to Toyota for 2005 was brought forward after a disappointing performance at the Italian Grand Prix, his last for the team he’d joined for 2002 in place of Giancarlo Fisichella. But the driver Renault boss Flavio Briatore had signed as his replacement, Fisichella, was still contracted to Sauber until the end of 2004. Renault therefore needed a stop-gap.

On the face of it, several factors appeared to favour Montagny. The two-time Dallara Nissan champion was far better acquainted with the car than any other option available, having completed 14 test days in the R24 and 50 with the team prior to Trulli’s exit.

Villeneuve hadn’t driven an F1 car in anger since his acrimonious departure from BAR on the eve of the 2003 Japanese Grand Prix, 11 months before. It was far from a certainty he’d be able to adapt quickly to the Michelin tyres either, having raced on Bridgestones while at BAR.

There appeared little downside to Renault giving a debut to a Frenchman. Although Briatore harboured ambitions of beating BAR to second in the constructors’ championship, there was realistically little riding on the end of the season unless Trulli’s replacement could hit the ground running immediately and match team leader Alonso.

In what could be deemed a successful season, it had already recorded a win courtesy of Trulli in Monaco, and the respective struggles of Williams and McLaren meant Renault was unlikely to miss out on third. Moreover, without the pressure of competing for a full-time race seat, the race outings would surely only boost Montagny’s input into testing the 2005 car.

Promoting test driver Montagny appeared to make the most sense for Renault, but he was left on the sidelines looking in

Promoting test driver Montagny appeared to make the most sense for Renault, but he was left on the sidelines looking in

Photo by: Sutton Images

“Everything was set, we had nothing to prove anymore with the car, the team was good enough for the year,” reflects Montagny. “I was sure to get in the car. I had a lot of mileage in the car, a few races to go, so let’s get the third driver in the car, it’s a French guy, with a French team, it was good so nothing to lose.”

But in F1 things are rarely ever so straightforward. Behind the scenes, the wheels were already turning to bring Villeneuve back.

Given the circumstances of his exit from BAR, there could be few more motivated to wade into battle against it than Villeneuve. And the PR appeal of having one of only two active world champions on the grid in Renault colours – the other being Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher, who had already secured his fifth straight title at Spa – proved too much for Briatore to resist.

"I was just a third driver, with no background. He was a world champion, Jacques Villeneuve, so what can you do?"
Franck Montagny

Montagny recalls the moment Briatore apologetically informed him that Villeneuve would take over his car for a test at Silverstone three days after the Italian GP. He felt confident that he would be quicker.

“When he told me that, I was like ‘okay, I have no problem with that’ because I was used to the car,” he says. “Even if Jacques was coming, I was quite sure I would be faster.”

Villeneuve spent a day in the car before Montagny joined him aboard Alonso’s vacated machine for the final day. The raw times show that Villeneuve was 1.7s quicker, but Montagny stresses that doesn’t tell the full story due to the differing nature of their programmes. In any case, Briatore’s mind was made up.

“That’s the way it is, you can’t deal with it,” Montagny sighs. “I was just a third driver, with no background. He was a world champion, Jacques Villeneuve, so what can you do?”

Engineer Tim Wright worked for Renault’s test team at the time and remembers Montagny as “a thoroughly nice guy” who willingly chipped in with such a humble task as cleaning the truck.

Montagny was well-liked by Renault for his testing input and Wright believes he deserved his chance

Montagny was well-liked by Renault for his testing input and Wright believes he deserved his chance

Photo by: Mike Weston / Motorsport Images

“I'm not sure why he didn't get the break he deserved with Renault as a full-time driver because he certainly had the talent,” notes Wright. “His feedback was good, he was very popular with the whole team and would have fitted in.”

History shows that Villeneuve’s comeback was not a success. Faring no better than Trulli had, he failed to register any points, which at the time were awarded down to eighth place. He followed up an 11th place finish in Shanghai, where he at least beat Schumacher after a rare off-day for the Ferrari man, with similarly circumspect outings at Suzuka and Interlagos that yielded a pair of 10ths.

With Alonso unable to trouble the podium in the closing stanza, Renault remained in third. But it mattered little to Villeneuve, who had shaken off some rust prior to taking over Fisichella’s seat at Sauber.

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“It was not good for the team, it was just good for Jacques and good for the championship,” remarks Montagny. “Michael [Schumacher] was winning everything at this time and suddenly you bring back a world champion for the end of the year, it’s kind of better for the TV show. And that’s exactly what they did.”

But Montagny doesn’t go as far as suggesting he would have done a better job.

“I’m not the one who is going to say that,” he replies when Autosport poses the question. “I have no idea. You don’t know how it goes, I’d never done a race before. If I’d done the same [as Villeneuve], it’s already good.”

Wright is however confident that Montagny would not have let the team down. “I'm sure Franck would have done a better job, especially as he had tested alongside Alonso and knew how the team operated,” he suggests.

Montagny’s disappointment didn’t end there. He says talks with Peter Sauber over joining the Swiss squad to replace Fisichella for 2005 ground to a halt when it became clear Villeneuve was Renault’s stand-in choice.

Villeneuve was lapped by winner Barrichello on his return in China

Villeneuve was lapped by winner Barrichello on his return in China

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

“Sauber just after that told me; ‘if your own team doesn’t want you in the car and there is no reason that they don’t give you the opportunity, you understand that I’m a little bit on the edge to get you in the car,’” says Montagny. “That for me was clearly the end.”

Montagny did make it onto the F1 grid in 2006 when he replaced Yuji Ide, whose superlicence had been revoked by the FIA. But the SA05 he drove for seven grands prix was based on a 2002 Arrows and Montagny states his aged chassis in which he managed a best finish of 16th at Monaco and Magny-Cours was 12 kilos heavier than that driven by his team-mate Takuma Sato.

"I see myself kind of pretty lucky already, even if I didn’t have a chance to get in a car with Renault [in a race]"
Franck Montagny

“I knew the car was not going to perform at all,” he explains. “It was just to start a Formula 1 [race], I accepted just for that.”

Two decades on, Canal+ TV pundit Montagny maintains he’s not bitter over the missed opportunity at Renault in 2004.

“I had the chance already to drive the car, to be a world champion as a test driver with Renault [in 2005],” he concludes. “I see myself kind of pretty lucky already, even if I didn’t have a chance to get in a car with Renault [in a race]. I had the chance to be part of the Formula 1 circus, I’m still working in Formula 1, I’m a happy guy.”

Montagny did make it onto the F1 grid in 2006 with Super Aguri, but it was a desperately uncompetitive package based on a four-year-old chassis

Montagny did make it onto the F1 grid in 2006 with Super Aguri, but it was a desperately uncompetitive package based on a four-year-old chassis

Photo by: Mark Capilitan

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