Optimism, monocycles and dreams of glory

Years ago, when I was travelling from race to race around Europe, going from circuit to circuit on miserable old trains, I met a man on the night train from Nice to Milan. He taught me about optimism.

Without wishing to sound like a Barry Manilow song, his name was Lolo, he was a showman. He came from Spain and was going to Italy to take up a job in a circus. He was an acrobat.

He was in a bit of a hurry to get to Italy because things had not gone well for him in the previous 24 hours. He had tried to cross the border the night before we met and had been stopped by the Italian customs men. They had asked him lots of questions, including: "Is this stuff in your pocket cannabis?"

They had then decided that perhaps Italy was better off without Lolo the acrobat and had sent him back to France. Lolo had spent the day in Nice feeling sorry for himself. To cheer himself up he had bought some more cannabis and things seemed less desperate when he boarded the train again that night.

"It is OK," he told me. "They won't recognize me. It will be all right. I will be with the circus in the morning."

I thought to mention that mixing with the other backpackers would be a little easier if he did not have to travel with a monocycle but there seemed to be little point. He could not work in Italy without one.

As we approached the border, however, Lolo suddenly had a thought.

"You take cannabis across the border for me?" he asked sheepishly. It seemed a funny thing to ask on The Midnight Express and I politely declined the opportunity. He shrugged. Oh well, they would not recognize him.

A few minutes later I watched Lolo being led away with his monocycle glinting under the neon lights of the miserable station. He would be back soon he said.

The train left without him.

But the glow of optimism from the station could be seen on the horizon as we rattled off into Italy.

I was reminded of this optimism the other day when I found myself pondering the issue of the moment in Formula 1. Will Jacques Villeneuve go to Benetton or will he stay with British American Racing? It is important in that the F1 Silly Season is being held up by the decision. Until Villeneuve moves all the other moves cannot be made.

Villeneuve has now wasted two seasons at BAR. The team is getting better but there is still a long way to go before it begins to challenge for race wins. World Championship points are difficult enough at the moment. And one has to wonder whether this season gives a true picture of the potential of some of the other top teams. BAR is not challenging Ferrari and McLaren. It is barely a threat to Jordan and one must point out that Jaguar, Williams and Benetton (read Renault) are all going through interim years as new relationships begin. Problems will be ironed out. BAR will no doubt improve but will the others make a bigger jump forward? And then there is the question of tires. What happens if one tire company is better than the other and BAR is on the wrong tires?

Craig Pollock told the international media that he is optimistic that Villeneuve will stay with BAR next year. It is not impossible that he will succeed in keeping hold of Jacques, but then again, moving to Benetton does make an awful lot of sense for Villeneuve. The Honda Motor Company has already made it very clear that it is less than enthralled by BAR's efforts this year. If all was rosy in the garden, the Japanese car company would not have done a deal for Jordan Grand Prix to use factory Honda engines next year. There would have been no need. BAR may be helping Honda out with chassis technology (or vice versa) but the need for results is such that Jordan was called in to do the job. And it has a five year contract to go on doing the job.

Which brings us to the other major influence on Villeneuve's decision: British American Tobacco.

There is no doubt that BAT bosses are rather confused about the fact that as much as $200m has been spent in F1 in the last two years and the result has been only a handful of World Championship points. There is no doubt that if the team wants to continue next year on its path to the top, there will need to be more commercial sponsors. Honda does not need to pay as it had an insurance policy for success in the form of Jordan and BAT's board are showing no signs of driving down to Brackley with an extra truckload of dollar bills. Commercial sponsorship is going to be hard to find because results have been hard to find. Losing Villeneuve would be a severe blow to the value of the team.

BAT could come up with more millions but tobacco companies are not doing very well at the moment. American legal actions are hitting profit margins. Two years ago the tobacco companies agreed to pay the state governments of the USA a total of $206bn in compensatory damages to cover healthcare costs for individual smokers who had fallen ill. This was a tough blow and did not restrict private legal actions against the cigarette companies. Last week a Florida court added another $145bn to the tobacco bill with the first major "class action" involving individuals. Hundreds more similar decisions could be made. It is now wiser for big investors to sell tobacco stocks and to buy legal firms, which are making zillions from all these legal battles. Luxury adventures such as Formula 1 are becoming less attractive to BAT shareholders.

The word in the Formula 1 paddock is that BAT is only willing to pay Villeneuve $8m for next year and that it wants to sign him up for a couple more years. This would get the company to the end of its current commitments and keeping Villeneuve would keep the value of the team higher than it would be with a Fisichella or a Panis driving.

The word is that Renault is willing to pay almost double that to get hold of Villeneuve, Renault's last World Champion and the major French-speaking star in the F1 world.

The deal is easy to sell because Jacques knows the men at Renault Sport. He has been with them in 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999. They have changed their shirts but they are the same people. Jacques has worked with Honda for just a few months and while he knows that the Japanese engines are good, he knows that Renault's could be better.

It was with all this in his head that Jacques went off last week on a boat to discuss his future with his team boss, his closest personal advisor and his manager (or at least the man who employs someone to be his manager). And if you think that when the daily negotiations were done that they all sat down for some interesting games of partner bridge, you would be mistaken because the foursome was really only a twosome. Craig Pollock plays all three of the other roles in this drama and so holds all the cards. One cannot negotiate with a man on a trampoline, jumping from one camp to another.

My guess is that they did no real negotiation but rather they went through every possible scenario and worked out what would happen to each of them. Whatever Jacques does, Pollock gains financially. If Jacques leaves BAR it is hard to imagine that Pollock would stay. Their futures are interlinked.

The fact that they are even talking of staying suggests that somehow or other Villeneuve must be a shareholder in the team and stands to gain far more than Renault is offering if the operation were to be sold. But it is not about money. If the pair leave BAR they will become employees again and they will have less say in how things happen. Perhaps it is better to stay on and try to continue to build up the team and eventually (in a glowing world of optimism) one day to win races. This is a lovely idea but the reality of F1 must have taught them that this is not going to happen overnight. And Jacques is not getting any younger. His five minutes of fame will soon be over.

On the long drive from Vienna to Zeltweg, a colleague and I were discussing the worst decision by a Formula 1 driver in the last 10 years. It took a nano-second for the two of us to agree. It was back in 1990 when Jean Alesi decided to go to Ferrari rather than join Williams. If he had joined Williams he would have been driving Adrian Newey's Williams-Renault FW14 and then an FW14B and the FW15C in 1993. Between 1991 and 1997 Williams-Renault won 58 Grand Prix victories, four Drivers' titles and five Constructors' Championships. Jean might have been a triple World Champion. At the French GP Jean's many fans - and I am one of them - watched in desperation as he battled for last place with a Minardi. It was terribly sad. Jean is rich. He has all the toys that money can buy and he is content. He probably tries not to think too much about what might have been. What is done is done and it cannot be changed.

This is not Villeneuve's problem but perhaps he should consider it.

I guess there is a moral somewhere in all this. You may be a great performer, but misplaced optimism will not get you to the circus if you have a monocycle holding you back...

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