Jacques Villeneuve - end of term report

Motor racing fans love to argue. Perhaps that is true in all sports where one driver is compared to another or the talents of a particular driver are held up to be examined closely. Damon Hill has been a popular subject in such arguments - hence the Boxseat - but this year the F1 paddock has been much involved on the subject of whether or not Jacques Villeneuve has done a good job in his first year in F1 - or whether he should have done better.

It may seem ludicrous to question a man who has won four of his first 16 Formula 1 races but that has been happening. People keep asking me what I think about Jacques Villeneuve. My only real answer so far has been: "We'll see when he gets up against Heinz-Harald Frentzen." The 1996 season has been fairly inconclusive.

Villeneuve proved in Melbourne last March that he was fast enough to be an F1 frontrunner. In fact he had done that in the summer of 1985 when a sceptical Frank Williams tested him in a Williams-Renault. But it was Melbourne where people noticed he was quick. Throughout winter testing Damon Hill had been quicker than Jacques but in Melbourne - on a track which neither of them knew at all - he took pole position in his first race in F1. The Grand Prix circus was surprised and impressed. He was the first new boy to take pole position since Carlos Reutemann did it back in 1972. Obviously it helped that he arrived in Melbourne with 9000 kilometers of Williams testing behind him and it certainly helped that there was no pressure on him. He had nothing to lose, expectations were not high.

Although he had won the Indycar title and the Indianapolis 500 in 1995, the Formula 1 world does not pay much heed to such things. Grand Prix racing feels itself to be a superior championship to Indycar racing and still looks at Indycars - rightly or wrongly (I don't want to get into that argument) - as at the same sort of level as Formula 3000. F1 cast-off drivers (Alessandro Zanardi) turn up in America and win; top Indycar drivers (Michael Andretti) come to F1 and struggle...

Before Melbourne the general feeling in F1 circles was that it would take Jacques time to match Damon Hill - but that he would need to be doing that by the mid-season if he wanted to be taken seriously in F1. His performance in Australia raised those expectations. People began to talk about him as a possible World Champion and the more excitable elements began to make silly comparisons between Jacques and his father Gilles. As a result of the hype in Melbourne everyone was expecting far too much from Jacques in the races which followed and as the races which followed were not as impressive so the F1 chattering classes became disappointed with Villeneuve. People began to write him off. "If he can't beat Damon Hill..." they said, "he's not up there with the fast guys." It was pointed out that by midseason in 1995 David Coulthard was regularly outpacing Hill.

The end of the season saw something of a Villeneuve revival and he ended up with a very slim chance of winning the World title at Suzuka. He was overdue a car failure and his car duly failed. It didn't really matter because when Jacques went off into the sandtrap at Suzuka he was already beaten by Hill.

When you take all 16 races and analyze them all you will find that there was only really one race in which Villeneuve really blew Hill into the weeds - that was in Portugal. His other three victories (Nurburgring, Hungary and Britain) all came about because Damon screwed up at the start.

When you sit down and analyze all the available information it is clear that Jacques's major problem was qualifying. The Hill-Villeneuve comparison was 13-3 to Damon and that meant that Jacques was always starting at least eight metres - the space between the rows on an F1 grid - behind Hill. Eight metres may not seem like a lot in a 300 kilometer race but overtaking in F1 cars is now so difficult that it rarely happens unless the man ahead makes a mistake. Many times we watched a driver on the move come up behind a slower car and stay there.

At the start of the year Jacques was clearly in some difficulty with Williams engineers. There was some friction between Villeneuve and Williams technical director Patrick Head. Head is a man of enormous F1 experience and knowledge and he seemed to be rather irritated that the new boy Villeneuve was going his won way on settings. Such an attitude would have been fine if Jacques had been quicker than his team mate but he was not. The two finally began working together better and that produced better results.

There were one or two people within the Williams team who felt that Jacques did not have enough technical interest in the car and that this was something of a handicap to him but Villeneuve's own engineer Jock Clear said the opposite.

The one area where Jacques did failing badly was in the building up of a good relationship with the F1 world. This goes as much for the Williams team as it did with rival teams and with the media. The team liked to see Jacques do well but it was hard to find anyone with any real affection for the young French-Canadian. This was probably because Villeneuve was rather backward in coming forward - a little shy. He did not work at improving this and did not bother to hide his distaste for hanging around in the F1 paddock.

This also harmed his relationship with the media. One can argue that the media does not matter - apart from the fact that the media actually represents the public - but it is wiser for a driver to try to build better relationships with the press. If a team is faced with two quick drivers, it will always take the one with the better image.

The media problem came about, I think, because Jacques and his manager Craig Pollock simply did not expect the scale of attention which Jacques generated. Used to the quieter world of Indycars - where the serious press corps can be counted in 10s - Villeneuve found the hundreds of F1 media men rather too intrusive for his taste. He used Pollock to shield him and one would often hear journalists complain that everything had to be done through Pollock. Some F1 journalists could not be bothered to go through these procedures and did not bother to try to overcome the barrier. Whatever the case Villeneuve appeared distant and difficult. It is hard for people to sympathize with your plight when they do not understand your problems. If Jacques had been more open and Pollock less defensive of his charge, Villeneuve might have won an easier time for himself.

By the mid-season Villeneuve had developed what looked like an almost perverse desire not to answer the questions which the media wanted answered. The fact is that Jacques did not seem to like being a celebrity. The only conclusion one can draw is that in F1 he is in the wrong job. It might be nice to go off and sit in the hotel and read science fiction books rather than hanging around the paddock but that is not something a rising star should be doing. A World Champion, who has proved himself, is better placed to ignore the media.

A lot of people in the F1 paddock feel that Villeneuve's dislike of the paddock is a sign that he was not applying himself fully to Grand Prix racing and there is little doubt that he did not train as hard as Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill. He jogged a little and played tennis to keep fit but the other two spent a great deal more time, pumping iron in the gym. Fitness is very important in F1 - something which Damon Hill discovered this year.

But all this incidental. Jacques biggest problem this year was actually Hill's image. Damon was never an explosive talent and developed gradually. This year he improved again but despite this his image remained one of a driver who was not quite as fast as some of his rivals. This is unfair but it did exist. It will go on existing until Damon wins in another car. Hill's image reflected badly on Villeneuve and because he did not beat Hill on a regular enough basis Jacques could not escape comparison.

There is little doubt that Villeneuve is a driver of considerable talent - but this does not mean he has what it takes to survive long-term as a top Grand Prix star. He won races because he was in the right place at the right time. This was thanks largely to F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone who made it possible for the door at Williams-Renault to open for him. Almost all of the current F1 drivers could have won races in a Williams-Renault.

There are very rarely men who show that they can win races in a bad car. This is the sign of an exceptional talent. It happened in 1993 with Ayrton Senna and it happened in 1996 with Michael Schumacher.

Villeneuve is still young. With more experience he will certainly develop into a stronger driver in 1997. Perhaps he will even beat Frentzen. Only time will tell. You'll just have to keep on arguing for the time being...

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