GLOBETROTTER

Jacques Villeneuve in F1

I spotted the man in the departure lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. He was reading the International Herald Tribune. He's an American, I thought. Hiding behind my French newspaper, I surveyed the gentleman in question and something about him told me that he had to have something to do with motor racing. The plane we were about to board was on its way to Bologna - I was on my way to the San Marino Grand Prix - but there were no other racing people on the flight.

Perhaps it was the deep and even tan. Or maybe the well-cut clothes and business-like air. He had a fancy watch, shiny boots and a sharp-looking briefcase. Whatever the case, I just knew he was involved in the motor racing business. You can tell.

I made a mental note to check him out when we arrived in Bologna. Some hours later there he was again in the F1 paddock at Imola, gliding around quietly behind Bernie Ecclestone, meeting Flavio Briatore, Jean Todt and other team bosses. I began asking questions. His name, I was told, was Craig Pollock. He was Jacques Villeneuve's manager. Interesting.

A few short weeks later and there was Pollock again - this time in the paddock at Montreal - but now he was in the spotlight. Jacques Villeneuve had won the Indianapolis 500 and the word on the street was that the young Canadian is to drive in F1 next year. There had even been wild rumors to suggest that the deal is already done and that the 1996 Ferrari driver line-up will be Villeneuve-Schumacher.

One man who is very keen for such a team is Ecclestone. He knows that the Villeneuve name could be big box office for Grand Prix racing. Jacques's father Gilles was one of the great stars of F1 in the late 1970s and early 1980s - a legend to all Ferrari fans. Gilles was killed at the wheel of a Ferrari at Zolder, Belgium in 1982 but the memories of his exploits at the wheel of the number 27 Ferrari are kept alive by the spectacular driving of Jean Alesi.

Villeneuve was Jean Alesi's hero when the Frenchman was growing up in Avignon. Jean wanted to be a Ferrari driver and he drove like his idol - fast and sideways. When he joined finally reached maturity at Ferrari the team could not give him good cars, but he stuck by them, as Gilles had done.

It was, therefore, hugely satisfying that Jean should win his long-awaited first Grand Prix victory on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal. It was in many respects like the Canadian Grand Prix of 1978 - Gilles Villeneuve's first win - when Jean-Pierre Jarier dominated for Lotus only to retire after 49 of the 70 laps, leaving the Ferrari in the lead. This time Michael Schumacher played the role of Jarier...

Alesi's win was greeted with explosion of joy, similar to the reaction of the Canadian crowd when Villeneuve won. In the hard-bitten F1 paddock almost everyone was smiling - Jean is a popular man and, even if it was a lucky win, it was nonetheless popular.

This popularity stems, I believe, from the fact that Jean personifies not only the legend of Villeneuve but also the very spirit of F1 competition. Smooth and efficient drivers may win races but everyone likes to watch the crazy men. Jean's wild style was never really designed to win World Championships but it has always been exciting. For a while it looked as if Jean might never win a race and the paddock chatter began to say that he must have some character flaw which causes bad luck.

In the face of such things, Alesi has shown remarkable resilience. There were occasional frustrated outbursts, but the fans loved Jean all the more because of all the stars of today he is one of the most human. He is not some perfect plastic Action Man, who always says and does all the right things. He is not PR-conscious. He screws up and he gets mad. He blows as hot and as cold as desert winds.

We should count ourselves lucky that Jean did not become a rally driver because that was his ambition in motor sport. His father was a rally driver and in due course he took up the sport.

"When I started out I wanted to be a rally driver," remembers Jean. "Those kind of cars were a lot of fun to drive. F1 cars are very fast and hard to drive, but they are not as enjoyable as throwing cars around like in rallying.

"But, believe it or not, it was easier to find money for circuit racing in France and so I started my career as a racing driver with a Renault 5. It was cheap and if you won races you got good prize money and that was enough to pay for the next race."

Jean's Renault 5 proved to be a great car because when he had finished with it and was embarking on a single seater career he sold it to an unknown racer from a little town not far north from Alesi's home town of Avignon. His name was Erik Comas and he went on to become an F1 driver as well!

Jacques Villeneuve also started out in touring car racing, in Alfa Romeos in Italy, before embarking on his single-seater career. Throughout his career, however, Villeneuve Jr. has never driven like his father did nor like Alesi does. He seems rather smooth and reliable.

I can understand why Bernie wants him in a Ferrari and why he invited Pollock to Imola to meet teams bosses. In this case, however, I seriously doubt that Bernie will get his way. And I hope he does not. He's very persuasive but I think it is remarkable that he expects Ferrari boss Jean Todt to think it is a good idea. I am not suggesting for one minute that Villeneuve doesn't have the talent necessary for F1. He may well have it. But I think it must be said that while having a Villeneuve in a Ferrari is a promoter's dream, the reality is that such a move would make no sense at all for Ferrari or for Villeneuve. In fact, I can think of no better way for young Jacques to do his career serious damage.

It is most unusual for a top Formula 1 team these days to thrust a driver new to F1 into one of its cars. McLaren tried it with Michael Andretti and it was a flop; Benetton did it with Jos Verstappen and it was not a success; Williams did it with Hill and Coulthard but both had many thousands of miles of testing F1 cars at a variety of circuits under their belts. The truth is that it is nearly impossible for anyone to arrive in F1 and get even close to a Schumacher, an Alesi or a Hakkinen.

The only acceptable choice in F1 would be for Villeneuve to try his hand in a smaller team, but why would the winner of the Indianapolis 500 want to race for a Sauber or an Arrows? Added to which an Indy winner makes a vast pot of gold in the year after his victory at the Brickyard. There is an enormous financial incentive for Jacques to stay on in Indycars and not take any risks in the world of F1.

And so I have come to the conclusion that we will not be seeing young Villeneuve in F1 - at least I hope not, for his own good. The man in Charles de Gaulle Airport was wasting his time.

Note: A few months later Villeneuve signed for Williams. He became World Champion in 1997.

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