JULY 25, 2001

Would Villeneuve go to Toyota?

THE whisper this week is that Jacques Villeneuve may have signed for Toyota.

THE whisper this week is that Jacques Villeneuve may have signed for Toyota. It is quite possible. The implications of such a move, if it is true, would be enormous: both for Villeneuve and for his current employer British American Racing.

Villeneuve has wasted three years of his career with British American Racing. If he moves to Toyota it is virtually guaranteed that he will waste another two or three years before he is in a position to once again win races (and that is being generous to Toyota). Many would argue that such a move would wipe out the 29-year-old as a serious contender in F1. That would be harsh. Villeneuve may have concluded after shopping around that there is not much choice at the moment. Although he is believed to be a shareholder in BAR, Villeneuve is free to go elsewhere if he chooses to do so.

But why would any top F1 driver join Toyota. The team's prototype chassis is laughably off the pace at the moment. Next year's car and engine will be totally different but the team will still need time to gel properly. It would be very much the same process he has lived through with BAR - with all the frustrations that this would entail. But, at the end of it all, Villeneuve knows that Toyota must get it right in F1 - no matter how much it costs. He is still young enough to be in a position to win races when that happens if it is within five years.

It would be a frustrating period but he is used to that and Jacques's bank manager would not be at all frustrated as the salary on offer from Toyota (complete, no doubt, with dealerships and such sweeteners) would be enormous. Jacques is already a very rich man but getting more will not upset him. BAR cannot afford to pay the kind of money that Jacques wants and none of the other big players are interested.

Villeneuve would fit in very nicely with Toyota's other signing Mika Salo. The two are old friends, having raced together in Japan before meeting up again in Formula 1.

Villeneuve and Toyota have an association going back to Formula 3 days when Jacques raced for TOM'S Toyota in Japan. He then went on to win the Toyota Atlantic Championship in the United States before moving into CART and then F1 with Honda.

It would be a dream of a deal for Toyota. Villeneuve is a former World Champion and has plenty of pace and experience. He could help the team overcome its teething problems and steer them in the right direction.

One reason why such a deal might not happen is that it would be a huge knock for BAR, which is still being run by Villeneuve's friend and mentor Craig Pollock. Pollock is fortunate that he has Olivier Panis on his books and the Frenchman has shown himself to be the match of Villeneuve this year. There is also no problem finding another driver as a bright move would be to sign up British Formula 3 sensation Takuma Sato, a Honda protege. This would help his case when it comes to doing a deal with Honda for the 2003 season and beyond. If Sato is too big a risk there is no shortage of drivers with experience who would jump at the chance of BAR drive. The disappearance of Villeneuve would also free the team of a massive budgetary burden as Jacques's salary is very difficult for Pollock to justify.