AUGUST 7, 1995

Villeneuve wows the F1 world

YOUNG Jacques Villeneuve impressed the Formula 1 fraternity with some sound testing for Williams-Renault at Silverstone last week.

YOUNG Jacques Villeneuve impressed the Formula 1 fraternity with some sound testing for Williams-Renault at Silverstone last week. Jacques and the team had been talking for some time, but until the last minute they seemed to be at loggerheads and the test only seems to have gone ahead after the French-Canadian backed down on some of his demands.

Whatever the case, Villeneuve did impress during his three day test at Silverstone, despite never having visited the British circuit. He was consistent and quick and ended up a little slower than both Damon Hill and David Coulthard. He was up against Hill on the first two days of the test and recorded a 1m30.02s lap when Damon's best was a 1m29.14s - a gap of 0.8s. On the final day of the test, against David Coulthard, he recorded a best of 1m29.72s, compared to Coulthard's 1m28.69s - a gap of 1.03s. Jacques, it should be added, was using a slightly less powerful engine.

Villeneuve said that he had no big surprises in the car and added that he only wanted to be in F1 with a top team and the chance to win races. He acknowledged that any decision is not up to him: "It depends," he said, "on the teams as well."

Predictably, after the test, F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone was quick to say that the 24-year-old is "the only guy who could give Michael Schumacher some stick," and compared Villeneuve to Schumacher and Ayrton Senna. While flattering for Jacques, these comments are based more on Ecclestone's desire to get Villeneuve into F1 than on any real estimation of his talent. Ecclestone wants Villeneuve in a Ferrari, preferably with number 27, because this was the number raced by Jacques's father Gilles, one of the great Ferrari drivers who was killed in a qualifying crash at Zolder in 1982. To have another Villeneuve in F1 would boost F1 viewing figures enormously. It would also take a top star out of Indycar racing.

Ecclestone knows how to play the F1 bosses against one another and his comment that "if a team manager did not take Jacques if he was offered to him, then he would regret it in the future" is a blatant attempt to panic someone into signing Villeneuve - in the fear that a rival team will get there first.

In F1 things are rarely what they appear to be. It is, of course, possible that Frank Williams will have been impressed enough to take a risk on Villeneuve, but it is far more likely that he would prefer to have two strong and experienced F1 drivers for 1996. He has invested a lot in Damon Hill and David Coulthard and may not want to waste time doing the same for Villeneuve. Until now Ferrari has not been interested in Villeneuve, but the Williams test might have awakened Jean Todt's interest. If he signs Villeneuve, it will also make his life easier getting Michael Schumacher out of Benetton, as the German would be happier to have an F1 rookie as his teammate than having to compete at Ferrari with established ace GerhardÊBerger.

If Schumacher leaves Benetton, Williams would be in a position to grab back its once-dominant position with engine-supplier Renault. To cement that dominance, all Frank would have to do would be to sign Frenchman Jean Alesi. Benetton would have to make do with Damon Hill or Gerhard Berger or might take a flyer on Jos Verstappen flourishing if he becomes a team number one. Thus - by acting as a shop window for Villeneuve - Williams may be furthering his own aims - rather than discovering a big star.

F1 folk tend to get over-excited about new drivers - particularly when the series is being dominated as it currently is by Schumacher - and it is necessary to carefully analyze Villeneuve's performance. A gap of one second may not seem much, but Williams's current test driver Jean-Christophe Boullion came much closer to Hill and Coulthard in several of his early tests but has not been able to get close to Heinz-Harald Frentzen at Sauber.

It should also be remembered that in September, 1993, Jos Verstappen came within 0.01s of regular Arrows driver ChristianÊFittipaldi - no fool in an F1 car - at his first attempt but did not shine when Benetton put him in as Schumacher's number two in 1994.

There are also question marks over Villeneuve's lackluster early career. He did not shine until his fourth year in Formula 3, by which time - having missed the boat in European racing - he had moved to Japan. He finished second in the 1992 Japanese F3 Championship, driving the dominant TOM'S car, but won only three races to Anthony Reid's five victories. Jacques then finished third at Macau, but behind his TOM'S team mate Rickard Rydell. It was only when he went to America in 1993, that his career really began to take off; and as his confidence has grown, he has become both consistent and quick.