JUNE 19, 2000

The future of Jacques Villeneuve

The major talking point at the Canadian Grand Prix was the future of Jacques Villeneuve.

THE major talking point at the Canadian Grand Prix was the future of Jacques Villeneuve. The Canadian's decision whether to stay at British American Racing or whether to go to Benetton (which will become the Renault Formula 1 team in 2002) is currently holding up all other movements on the F1 driver market for 2001. Villeneuve would like to stay with British American Racing and continue to develop the new Honda F1 engine but there are more and more doubts about whether or not the team will have a big enough budget to be competitive next year as BritishÊAmerican Tobacco is rumored to be trying to sell the team. There are also distinct advantages in jumping to Renault as early as possible so that Jacques can be settled in the team (probably taking his engineer Jock Clear with him) before the 2002 season. Staying at BAR for another season could have some advantages as it would continue the building process that has been going on for the last two years. The downside of this is that the team needs to strengthen its design staff after two years without success and this is likely to cause some disruption. The major issue, however, is money as without a big budget BAR will be wasting its time. BAT is contracted to remain as a sponsor until the end of 2002 but there are almost certainly performance clauses which will not have been met.

Selling the team may seem to be the best way out for BAT but there are problems in that as well as the management need to justify the expenditure to shareholders. This will not be easy as only so much can be written off as advertising value and with estimates of BAT investment to date being in the $280m range, it will be very difficult to sell the team for less than $160m. The problem for BAR is that no-one wants to pay that much for the team.

Life will be a little easier with the news that Johan Rupert, the company's biggest shareholder and former boss of Rothmans, is selling his BAT shares in the course of the next few months. Rupert knows what it costs to be successful in Formula 1, having enjoyed enormous success with the Rothmans Williams Renault team between 1994 and 1999, and we hear was appalled to find out how much money BAT has poured into BAR.

The option is for BAT to go on as the team owner and find sponsors to pay the bills. Given the results, however, that is not going to be easy. The deal with Honda is also rather complicated as the Japanese are believed to be using BAT money to develop its engines. Honda has an option to buy the team but it too has to justify itself to shareholders and so will not pay the current asking price. If that price does not come down, Honda may simply decide that the wisest thing to do is to join forces with someone else - such as Jordan or Prost - or to build up another start-up F1 operation.

While Villeneuve is loyal to his friends at the team he is said to be worried that there will not be enough money to do the job. He is also in need of a little extra finance as he has recently bought a $6.5m house in Monte Carlo and with expenses like that he needs to keep earning.

Villeneuve says that the most advanced talks at the moment are with BAR and there are some who are convinced he will stay but there are also those who believe that he is very close to a Benetton deal but it is in everyone's interest that this remains quiet for a few more months.

In the light of this, it is interesting to report that BAR bosses were extremely jumpy last weekend in Montreal following the theft of a briefcase belonging to one of their number. The content of the briefcase was deemed to be extremely sensitive and attempts were made to keep news of the theft very quiet in case the documents turned up in the local newspapers. This did not happen but somewhere in Montreal - probably in a dustbin - the secrets of BAR are available if anyone can find them...

It is worth reporting, incidentally, that there have been rumors in Germany that Renault has been trying to hire Michael Schumacher for the 2002 season. This is not very likely to happen but it is a convenient story if Renault want to put some pressure on Jacques to make a quick decision.

"I will be walking in the paddock next year," he said, "but I don't know under which color."