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MARCH 1, 1996

Is Jacques Villeneuve really a fast driver?


Being a fast Formula 1 driver these days takes more than just being able to drive quickly. One must be mentally strong, dedicated, intelligent, consistent and fit. One must always present the right image and one must be in the right place at the right time.

Villeneuve is certainly in the right place at the right time - Williams-Renault is dominating F1 - and there is little doubt that he is a very quick driver, but this does not mean he has what it takes to survive as a top Grand Prix star.

Jacques proved that he was fast enough when he took pole position at the Australian Grand Prix in March - at 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 in 1972.

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. Jacques had nothing to lose, expectations were not high. He may have won the Indycar title and the Indianapolis 500 in 1995, but these things do not count for much in F1. Grand Prix racing feels itself to be a superior championship to Indycar racing.

Before Melbourne the general feeling was that it would take Villeneuve 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. As a result when the performances which followed were not as impressive there was disappointment.

The major problem has been qualifying because overtaking in the races is now so difficult. This is now improving as Jacques has developed an understanding with the Williams engineers.

In the early races there was clearly some friction between Villeneuve and Williams technical director Patrick Head because Jacques wanted to go his own way on settings. This is fine if the car is quicker than that of his team mate. It was not. It seems that the two are now working together better and that is producing better results. There are one or two people in the team who think that Jacques does not have enough technical interest but Villeneuve's own engineer Jock Clear says the opposite.

The one area where Jacques is failing badly - and so is being misunderstood - is in the image he is presenting to the media. This is important because if faced with two quick drivers, a sponsor will always take the one with the better image. Jacques does not like hanging around in the F1 paddock and having to deal with the press corps. He uses his manager Craig Pollock to shield him from the media. This makes him seem distant and difficult. In the end it puts more pressure on the driver because the F1 media continue to ask the same questions. At the moment Villeneuve's reaction seems to be that he has an almost perverse desire not to answer.

The fact is that if he does not like being a celebrity, he is doing the wrong job. He may well have been surprised by the scale of the media attention in F1 - which is much higher than in Indycars - and so he has withdrawn, preferring to go off and sit in his hotel reading science fiction books rather than hanging around the paddock. This is a mistake because the less people know the more he will be judged unfairly.

Some feel that this dislike of the paddock is a sign that he is not applying himself fully to F1 and there is little doubt that he does not train as hard as Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill. He jogs a little and plays tennis but the other two spend a lot of time in the gym. Fitness is very important.

Jacques biggest problem, however, is Hill's image. Damon was never an explosive talent and has developed gradually. This year he has improved again but despite this his image remains one of a driver who is not quite as fast as some of his rivals. This is unfair but it does exist. And that reflects badly on Villeneuve.

The only way that Jacques can escape comparison is to beat Hill - and he has not done that yet. The season is slipping away. Jacques has won two victories but on both occasions Hill made obvious mistakes.

Jacques is certainly a quick driver but the impression he is currently giving is that he is not doing a good enough job. That is not really fair but he needs to open up a little and explain himself to change that view.<\#026>