Runner-up in his home race, as he is in the Championship, Jacques Villeneuve has nevertheless struggled to live up to some some people’s expectations. Mark Skewis considers his impact on F1
He was the media’s messiah, The son of an icon for a generation, fresh from victory in the biggest race in the world the Indy 500 and a man who could enliven a year which threatened to be rendered dull by the Williams team’s domination. Jacques Villeneuve had it all, it seemed, and he duly obliged the world’s press by giving his team-mate a hard time in Melbourne’s season-opener.
But then it began to go wrong. The Villeneuve legend may interest the media but, as Jacques’ uncle remarked in acid fashion to the press before the race in Canada, it doesn’t appear to interest his nephew.
Furthermore, having led his team-mate at the opening race, he has won only at the Nurburgring, where Damon Hill made a poor start. In the same period, Hill’s five wins have paved his route to the title.
Ironically, Villeneuve’s pace in Australia on a circuit where no one had prior experience has proved a hard act to follow. “In Melbourne a newcomer like myself was at less of a disadvantage,” he admits. “From the outset, I was aware that I was onto a good thing with Williams. I was joining a team with a good car and good engine. I was also conscious that my arrival in F1 coincided with the moment when practically all the top drivers had just switched teams. That’s not a situation that happens very often. I knew they would need a certain amount of time to get used to each other, so the cards were stacked in my favour.
“In a way Melbourne made it more difficult after, but there is nothing wrong in that. The higher you are, the lower you can fall but you don’t get into F1 with a top team not wanting to be up there. If you end up being up there, the plan is to stay up there. If you are with a mid-range team then you have excuses. You don’t have any excuses with Williams.”
So why hasn’t he lived up to early expectations? Initially, there was talk of the newcomer being headstrong, of his trying Indycar settings rather than using the team’s own data. Much of that was blown up out of proportion, though. He did experiment with some oval tweaks, but only on the high-speed corners at Estoril in testing. In reality, his settings have inevitably evolved much closer to Hill’s than was initially the case.
Impressed though he was by Villeneuve’s debut in Australia, Williams Technical Director Patrick Head counselled that it might be unrealistic to expect his new charge to take the establishment by storm. His assessment was correct, for it has proved apparent that a lack of circuit knowledge, allied to the restriction on laps in practice, has hindered the French-Canadian’s progress.
“It would be nice to be able to drive 10 laps with no other aim than getting to know the track. With the number of laps restricted, this is a luxury I simply cannot afford,” Jacques explains. “After my first three laps, I am already supposed to have got close to the limits of the car with a view to working on settings. For someone new like myself, that is a real handicap.
“I still haven’t reached the same degree of confidence that I enjoyed last year in Indycar. In order to drive a car to the limit, you have to be able to predict its reactions. For the moment I know what my car is going to do, but it doesn’t yet react quite the way I want it to, I am still on a level where I have to work like crazy just to be on the pace.”
In the second half of the season experience should not prove such an issue. Villeneuve has already tested at Magny-Cours, Silverstone, Monza, and Estoril, and has prior experience at Suzuka.
His victory at the European Grand Prix, where he was harassed by Schumacher throughout the second half of the race, demonstrated his ability to cope under pressure. The cool manner in which he dealt with the media intrusion, in Canada, where he confessed to’ feeling “like a mouse in a cage”, further underlined his composure. Above all, his home race indicated that he may, after all, be able to challenge Hill in the remaining GPs.
Damon conceded that he had to dig deep in qualifying, where he emerged on top by just two hundredths of a second. The race itself hinged upon the first corner. Had Hill’s aggression not won the corner, his colleague could easily have won the day, for Damon could have spent the first 20 laps frittering away the advantage of his lighter fuel load behind the sister car. As it was, the early lead he amassed, allied to Villeneuve’s brief entanglement with Herbert’s Sauber in traffic, enabled the championship leader successfully to execute a two-stop gameplan where the bulk of the field had opted for a solitary refuelling stop.
Steep though his learning curve may be in the car, Villeneuve admits that life outside the cockpit has been perhaps the biggest eye-opener of all. “You have three times as many journalists in F1 and they are more hectic than the journalists I have been used to. It gets a little crazy.” And every one of those journos is waiting to deliver a verdict. For now, the jury remains out…