AUGUST 21, 2002

Villeneuve's Catch 22

Jacques Villeneuve has always been a very independent character and while this has made him a popular figure with race fans, it does have its drawbacks.

Jacques Villeneuve, French GP 2002
© The Cahier Archive

Jacques Villeneuve has always been a very independent character and while this has made him a popular figure with race fans, it does have its drawbacks. Teams have never been happy with the amount of promotional work Jacques is willing to do and now that British American Racing is under a new management there is a desire to use the money he is due to be paid to help develop the team.

This makes sense for David Richards, the new boss of BAR. Villeneuve is good but not good enough to warrant the kind of money that has been paid in recent years. Richards is paying considerably less for Jenson Button and could get a nice cheap deal with Olivier Panis as well. In this way he can save $10-12m a year and that money can be used to build up the infrastructure of the team. Once Villeneuve was the key element in the team in terms of branding. He fitted the rebel image that Lucky Strike was trying to promote. But now the team is being rebranded and Villeneuve does not have to be part of that.

But BAR has made it very clear to him that it will honor his contract for 2003 if he forces the team to do so. But if he insists on the deal the team has also made it clear that there is no chance that he will be employed in 2004 and beyond. BAR is happy to keep him if he is willing to compromise on money and sign a longer contract but Jacques does not wish to do this. The danger for Jacques is that if he is seen to be more keen on making money than making the team competitive it will undermine his reputation in F1 circles and that will make it more difficult for him to get a drive in the future. A deal to go to CART would therefore be a way in which Jacques could get the money he wants and he should be able to return to winning ways in the United States. If he wishes then to return to F1 in the future he can do so.

Gerald Forsythe, the man who is thought to be offering Jacques a drive, is in an unusual situation. He is a BAR shareholder as well as running Players Forsythe Racing (which is half owned by British American Tobacco, BAR's parent company). In addition he is a shareholder and director of CART. The involvement of CART is important because the series needs some help at the moment.

On Tuesday CART stock dropped to $3.80 before bouncing back to close at $4.00. Until recently the stock was being traded at $16.00. This means that the value of the company is around $58.8m despite the fact that the most recent accounts revealed that CART has assets of around $120m. In any normal circumstance this would lead to a rush to buy the stock because, in effect, one is buying something which costs half what it is worth. But this is not happening and the only logical explanation of that is that the stock is now held by a small group of people who are not letting go of their shares and are waiting until other investors have given up hope and depart. This would then enable them to take the company off the stock exchange so that they can run it without the restrictions that listed companies face.

The big issue therefore is not the stock exchange but rather whether or not CART can convince teams to stay in the business and to do that they need to see how the series will recover and how they can all make a profit in the future. Signing up Villeneuve would do two things: it would send a message that CART is still a serious choice for a topline racing driver and it would increase the interest in the series both in North America and around the world.

Our sources in America say that CART is willing to help pay for the French-Canadian to join Players Forsythe Racing although Jacques and his manager Craig Pollock say that they have not received any offer from Forsythe, which is odd considering that Forsythe has spoken openly about getting Jacques.

The deal makes sense for everyone - except perhaps Villeneuve - but unless there is a good alternative for him in Formula 1 in 2004 it might be wisest for him to head to the United States.