AUGUST 28, 2002
A reality check for Villeneuve
The news revealed by CART team owner Gerald Forsythe that Jacques Villeneuve has turned down a $50m offer from him to race in CART in 2003 and then return to F1 for two more years with BAR is an indication that the top drivers are going to have to pay more attention to the real world. There is a major recession taking place and if the dirvers fail to take note of this, there are going to be some careers broken and some egos dented.
Gone are the days when a driver could demand whatever he wanted from a team. Only one man - Michael Schumacher - has that kind of clout in a world where money is increasingly hard to find. The fact that Forsythe and BAR were willing to offer Jacques $50m is extraordinary in itself, one might even say generous. His current deal for 2003 is worth around $20m but this was agreed in the days before the stock markets took to tumbling and before shareholders began to look more closely at where money was going. Admittedly in times of recession, tobacco companies traditionally do better, but clearly there is a limit to how far they will be pushed - and whether he likes it or not Villeneuve does not have the clout to push them beyond that.
The problem now for Jacques is that he has nothing beyond the end of 2003 and the indications are that he will not be offered another deal by BAR. One never knows in F1 whether an announcement is part of the negotiating process and it is possible that this very public rebuff has been designed to bring him back to the negotiating table with a little more realism. But perhaps the door has been slammed shut.
We will see in the weeks ahead if BAR goes out looking for someone to sign in 2003 and beyond. Looking around the F1 scene at the moment one would pick out Mark Webber as the obvious man to fit the BAR bill - which requires both speed and a certain devil-may-care image. Webber and Jenson Button would give BAR a formidable team in the future.
The big question now is whether or not Villeneuve, who is 30, is an attractive enough package for one of the top teams to take interest in the future. He is a former CART champion and Indianapolis 500 winner and the World Champion of 1997 but since making the decision to join BAR his career has drifted without any major results. His performances when compared to those of Olivier Panis have not really been value for money and his attitude towards promotional work is, at best, unrealistic. This was fine as long as his manager and mentor Craig Pollock was running BAR, but Pollock has been ousted and things have changed. The top teams are all seemingly filled until the end of 2004, and the rest cannot even consider paying the kind of money that Villeneuve is asking. The message is simple: salaries are coming down.
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