JULY 26, 2000
JACQUES VILLENEUVE'S decision to stay at British American Racing comes as something of a surprise for the Formula 1 community and it is being seen as an indication that the Honda Motor Company must have made a commitment to Villeneuve that British American Racing will not be allowed to get into financial trouble if British American Tobacco scales down its involvement in the sport.
There have been rumors in recent months that BAT's board is not happy with the lack of results in F1 and is refusing to pay more than the budget agreed at the beginning of the program. However BAT's involvement in the team is a complicated business as BAT itself is only one of four companies funding the program. BAT's Brazilian subsidiary Souza Cruz is very keen that the program continue.
The wisdom of Villeneuve's decision to stay will be decided upon by results. The team is certainly built around him and there are few demands on his time other than racing and testing but this will not guarantee success and there is a feeling in F1 circles that moving across to lead the Renault Formula 1 team would have made a great deal more sense. Somehow or other Villeneuve has been convinced that staying at BAR is the right thing to do and given Jacques's competitive nature this must include undertakings (and perhaps money as well) from Honda. The decision may also have been swayed by the fact that Jacques is rumored to have a shareholding in the team. If he had departed this would have lost a lot of its value.
Villeneuve admitted that it was not an easy decision but it was reached because of the progress that the team has been making. The deal is believed to be worth around $40m over three years.
The team's managing-director Craig Pollock, not surprisingly, took the opportunity to underline that Villeneuve has "registered a significant vote of confidence in British American Racing".
In order to secure Villeneuve's signature Pollock may also have had to agree to make changes in the design team at BAR as the cars to date have not been very good although the latest development version of the BAR 02 which was seen in Austria was a step forward.
Villeneuve's decision should now get the Formula 1 driver market moving with all the indications being that Benetton will now make a strong bid for Jenson Button, who is expected to be pushed out by Williams by the arrival of Juan Pablo Montoya. Button has also been tipped as a possible at BAR but the involvement of Souza Cruz is thought likely to mean that the seat will go to a Brazilian.