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Villeneuve delays driver market decisions

JACQUES VILLENEUVE's decision whether to stay at British American Racing is currently holding up progress on the driver market for the 2001 season. The Canadian's BAR contract, which is rumored to be worth around $11m a year, expires at the end of this year and he has to decide whether to stay on at BAR or move elsewhere. The new Honda engine is very promising but the BAR chassis is not very good and so Villeneuve's efforts this year have so far gathered only five points in five races.

Villeneuve says that he wants to win races and if possible would like to do so with BAR but the long-term future of the team is not clear as there are increasing signs that the supporters of the F1 program within British American Tobacco are being weeded out after last year's embarrassments. The company is keeping a strict control on the budget this season. The current agreement with BAT, which is worth around $75m a year to the team (and, rumor has it, a similar amount to Honda for engine supplies) is, according to Reynard filings with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, scheduled to continue until the end of 2001.

BAT may like having Villeneuve but, with the accountants increasingly in control of the racing program, the company will probably not be willing to pay him the same sort of money as it did to secure his services from Williams at the end of 1998. Honda may be willing to pay extra to hold on to him but that only really makes sense if Honda is planning to take over the team - which, it says, it is not.

It should be remembered that money is not Villeneuve's chief motivation. He has plenty and can add to his cash pile by selling whatever shares he owns in BAR. He is more interested in success and at 29 he is no longer young in Formula 1 terms and there is a strong argument that he needs to get back into the mainstream if he wants to be a winner again.

Ferrari is currently closed to him and McLaren says it might be interested in Villeneuve but not until much later in the season. On the other hand Renault is certainly keen to get its last World Champion back and as Villeneuve is likely to the be the only topline French-speaking driver available in 2002 (when Renault takes over Benetton), he is the top target for the French company. With Benetton expected to be moderately competitive in 2001 and right on the pace in 2002, Benetton is the obvious choice for Villeneuve and he can do the deal now.

There is talk that Jaguar may also be interested but it is not as easy to see why Villeneuve would want to join the team until the necessary facilities (such as a dedicated windtunnel) are in place.

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