MONT-TREMBLANT, Que. -- Jacques Villeneuve fans should make the extra effort to cheer their Grand Prix hero enthusiastically in 2003 because it could be the last season they'll be able to watch the Canadian driver behind the wheel of a Formula One...
MONT-TREMBLANT, Que. -- Jacques Villeneuve fans should make the extra effort to cheer their Grand Prix hero enthusiastically in 2003 because it could be the last season they'll be able to watch the Canadian driver behind the wheel of a Formula One car.
Only days after his manager Craig Pollock announced that the 1997 F1 champion would be looking for a ride with a top team in 2004, the British American Racing (BAR) driver told reporters that if it doesn't happen, he'd rather catch the races on TV than spend another year watching helplessly as the leaders disappear into the distance.
"Finding myself only with opportunities near the bottom of the grid doesn't interest me and I'll stop -- I will have to get an offer from a team at the front of the grid or one that's making big progress so that you can see it will be competitive the next year," Villeneuve said with a shrug Saturday before his annual charity ski marathon in the picturesque village of Mont-Tremblant, Que.
"But, it's not a question of deciding where I want to go, if you win races, you'll get offers and if you don't, then you won't get much. A bad season in 2003 and I'll be at staying home the next."
Despite this stark reality, the 31-year-old from Iberville, Que. looked surprisingly relaxed and rested, laughing and joking with reporters at the Quebec mountain resort after arriving late Friday night from BAR tire and electronic test sessions in Jerez, Spain.
Perhaps Villeneuve's good spirits reflected his belief that the new BAR005, scheduled for a Jan. 14 unveiling in Barcelona, Spain, will finally deliver the goods after four years of growing disappointment.
"There's a whole new group of technical people working on it and the numbers on the car look amazing, so we should make a big leap forward," he said. "For once the expectations are high and basically realistic, whereas in the past, every time we had expectations we were hoping for Christmas and it never happened."
Villeneuve begins his final year with BAR after surviving efforts by the team's new boss Dave Richards to dump the Canadian and his big contract. Richards, who took over from Pollock at BAR, made it clear that he'd like to stop lining the pockets of the former world champion with a reported $15 million US annually and start spending the cash on car development.
"It looked last year that I was being pushed out and they ended up being obliged to keep me. That's good, because finally I have a good car and we could do something good," Villeneuve said. "It would be annoying if we suddenly became competitive and started winning races and it was decided I wasn't needed."
Richards said he prefers younger and cheaper drivers until BAR finds its feet, something he got when veteran Olivier Panis left BAR for Toyota at the end of the season and was replaced by 22-year-old Jenson Button.
While he may not be the Canadian's biggest fan, the new boss spent his first months streamlining the team and putting the people into place to develop the competitive car Villeneuve has craved since jumping to BAR in 1999. Last season, Villeneuve scored only four points and finished twelfth in the championship, down from 12 points and eighth place in the previous year.
The big question mark in the BAR camp is Honda, which has failed to produce a competitive powerplant since Pollock negotiated its return to F1 three years ago. Honda's engineers concentrated 2003 engine development on reducing weight without sacrificing horsepower, which will improve overall handling and give BAR a fighting chance against most teams, Villeneuve said.
"The only team that will be unbeatable will be Ferrari because they had such a huge lead last year. We will close the gap but probably not enough -- enough to fight but not to beat them unless we have an extremely good weekend and they have a bad one."
Last week, Pollock suggested the sport would be reinvigourated if Villeneuve followed in his father's footsteps at Ferrari and challenged reigning champion Michael Schumacher in equal equipment. Gilles Villeneuve drove all but one of his 67 races for Ferrari and died at the wheel of a scarlet car during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix.
For the younger Villeneuve, such a move wouldn't reflect a desire to continue the obvious family connection with the Italian team, it would only happen because Ferrari is at the top of its game.
"Ferrari has been the best team for the past few years so for a driver it's certainly something. If Ferrari stays on top, yes, but if it does like McLaren and goes backward, it would be less interesting."
Besides, Villeneuve added with a grin, it's painfully clear from Ferrari's finish line antics in 2002 that as long as Michael Schumacher is driving for the team, the German will be dictating who takes the chequered flag in the team.
Neither cockpit at Ferrari will be available to Villeneuve at the end of 2003. There are possible spots at McLaren and Renault where all four drivers' contracts expire at the same time as Villeneuve's ends with BAR.
But the hottest rumour has Villeneuve returning to Williams where he scored all of his 11 wins and won his world championship. It's no secret that Williams technical director Patrick Head is unhappy with Schumacher's little brother Ralf after a number of crashes and costly tangles with teammate Juan Pablo Montoya.
"Certainly Williams would be well up on my list -- once the teams have launched their new cars we'll see which ones have made progress and that will make me react in a certain direction," said Pollock. "To me all you have to remember is just how professional Williams is, they've been there for so long."
Villeneuve's 24-hours of Tremblant race ended successfully yesterday with more than $330,000 raised for juvenile diabetes research. The annual event began after Villeneuve and Pollock imported their Villers, Switzerland charity ski marathon to Mont-Tremblant last year.