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The future of Jacques Villeneuve

THE BAR-Honda relationship remains at the center of much rumor-mongering at the moment with British American Tobacco's interest in the program apparently on the wane and Honda keen to keep hold of Jacques Villeneuve rather than losing him to a rival operation. Honda sources continue to insist that there are no plans to buy the team but action is needed because if the team loses Villeneuve it will not be easy to get a really top driver to replace him.

Villeneuve knows that the Honda V10 engine is strong and that the BAR chassis will eventually become more competitive but he also knows that the new Renault team is going to be strong and will probably be willing to pay him more money than BAR will be able to afford. Unless Honda is willing to pick up the bill. And there is no real reason why Honda should do that unless it can be sure that it will have more control over the chassis situation. BMW has done very well very quickly and this is a worry for Honda. The company took a serious hit on the stock exchange last week when its share price dived 22% in two days when it announced that it expected profits to fall over 25% in the next financial year. One of the reasons for this is the company's dependence on the US market. The Formula 1 program is designed to boost Honda sales in other markets around the world and so it must be considered to be a priority.

Honda's insistence that there is no hurry to turn BAR into an all-Honda operation is curious given the current situation but it may be that the company does not want to have to invest a large sum of money too soon after predicting a fall in profits.

There was some good news for Honda last week when the company moved ahead of Nissan in global sales for the first time in its history. Honda is now the second biggest car manufacturer in Japanese behind Toyota.

The long goal of Honda remains a Honda-Honda team both from a marketing point of view and as a way of training engineers. That process is now advancing quickly with Honda engineers now running their own BAR chassis to try out systems they have developed for F1. This is known within the team as the "athena project" car and is believed to have Honda R&D electronics, hydraulics and pneumatic systems which are totally different from those being run on the usual BARs. The "athena project" car was shaken down last week at Santa Pod Raceway in Bedfordshire and will take part in this week's testing at Nogaro.

The whole question of Honda engine supplies remains unclear as the specification of the Jordan engines in 2001 has yet to be decided, although whatever happens these will be supplied via Mugen. Honda may be happy to continue with its current development, hiding behind Mugen and BAR but the danger is that Villeneuve will walk and unless BAR does a much better job with a chassis next year Honda's efforts in F1 may be eclipsed by those of BMW Williams and perhaps others as well.

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