INDIANAPOLIS, Dec. 2, 1999--Jacques Villeneuve is used to winning. For Villeneuve, therefore, not competing at the front of the pack during the 1999 Formula One World Championship season was something that he hadn't experienced since his earliest days in racing.
"The whole season has been so disastrous that anything we expect from next year can only be good," Canada's Villeneuve said. "It can't be as bad as this year."
This year was indeed a disastrous one for Villeneuve and the new British American Racing team.
Villeneuve failed to score a single point. He didn't even finish a race until he brought his BAR-Supertec home a distant 15th in the Belgian Grand Prix, round 12 of 16. He would post three more finishes in 1999: eighth, 10th and ninth.
"Our reliability has been pathetic, and that's kept us back," Villeneuve said at the end of the season. "We weren't able to test properly because the car kept breaking down. It was the same thing for the race weekend when we couldn't work on improving the performance."
Even though he was often obscured in the middle of the field, Villeneuve drove as hard as ever. He would fight for 10th place rather than the victory, but he never gave up. How did he keep up his motivation?
"Because every weekend is a new weekend," Villeneuve said, "and you always believe it's going to be different. When you get into this type of work, you have to give so much of yourself, physical energy and mental energy, that you can't do it halfway; that's dangerous to begin with -- you wouldn't be capable of driving anyway.
"There are so many people counting on you, the team and sponsors. You can't do something so professional and not do it properly. I wouldn't sleep at night if I hadn't given my best."
While there were races in which Villeneuve ran in the top six and headed for a finish in the points, reliability problems and the occasional driver error always kept him from earning those precious points.
Villeneuve, son of the flamboyant late Ferrari F1 star Gilles Villeneuve, spent his early years of competition in the Italian Formula 3 series, but he didn't start to really have any success until he moved to the Japanese Formula 3 series in 1992. He won three races and finished second in the championship.
The following season, he drove in the North American Formula Atlantic championship for the Player's Forsythe-Green team, winning five times and earning rookie of the year honors.
Driving for the same team in the CART series in 1994, he earned his first CART victory and finished second to Al Unser Jr. in the Indianapolis 500. In 1995, he won the Indianapolis 500 and the CART championship. He moved to F1 and signed with the Williams-Renault team for the 1996 season and won the pole in his first Grand Prix. In 1996, Villeneuve won four races and finished second in the championship to his teammate, Damon Hill.
Villeneuve won the World Championship in 1997, earning 10 poles and seven victories. His Williams was not as competitive in 1998 season when he didn't win any races and finished fifth in the final standings. His 1999 season reminded him of his early days in racing.
"It brought back memories of when I started racing," Villeneuve said. "You don't start racing at the front -- you start at the back. It's just difficult.
"It's very different because you often wind up being in the middle of the pack going into the first corner, so it's a different type of driving. You probably end up taking more risk, and because you're in the middle of the pack there is more chance for trouble."
When Villeneuve joined the new British American Racing team in 1999, he knew he wasn't in for an easy season. But he later said he never expected it to be such a struggle.
"I really thought we would have points and probably be able to get on the podium early in the season," Villeneuve said halfway through the year. "So our performance has been well below our expectations. It's frustrating." "Frustrating" was a word Villeneuve used often in 1999.
It seemed that BAR had it all: plenty of funding from British American Tobacco, a new team made up from experienced personnel in the F1 world and the considerable backing and technical input from chassis builder Reynard, highly successful in CART and other racing series.
But it took a long time for it all to jell. Still, Villeneuve said he is pleased that he has been with the team right from the beginning. "If this has been a hard season," Villeneuve said, "it will pay off next year. I couldn't wait for the team to start performing before I joined it: I had to be part of the building up process. I am happy with the fact that we are going to be competitive next year."
Next year, BAR will be the official Honda team as Honda makes its F1 comeback after being out of the series since the end of the 1992 season. Honda kept its ties in F1 since then through its sister company Mugen-Honda, which supplies engines to the Benson & Hedges Jordan team.
In 1999, BAR ran Supertec engines, based on the aging Renault V10 design. Having the might of Honda behind BAR in 2000 is going to be a major asset, Villeneuve said.
"Developing the new engine is not a worry," Villeneuve said. "I would expect a new engine from Honda to be more reliable than our car. They've always been competitive in the past whenever they've come in, so I don't see why it should be any different now.
"I'm confident because it cannot be worse. On the reliability side (in 1999), it's as bad as any team has ever had, so it would be difficult to beat that.
"The car was born weak in that area, so it was very difficult to fix because we had a lot of vibration (caused by the engine). Every time you fixed one problem, it moved somewhere else. We don't have the years of experience Williams and Benetton have had with the (Renault/Supertec V10), and it caught us by surprise. Next the car is being built bulletproof."
Reliability is the key for increasing the performance of the car, Villeneuve said.
"Our spirits will be so high if we can do three days in a row without a mechanical failure next year," he said. "It's going to make next season a lot easier."
As for the new season, Villeneuve sums it all up this way: "When you're so far down, you can only go up."