How will Villeneuve measure up? 20 Sep 2004
Returning world champions have had mixed success in Formula One racing. Will Jacques Villeneuve follow in the footsteps of Alain Prost and Niki Lauda or will his comeback come to nothing?
The paddock has been filled with rumours of unlikely driver moves all summer - and now, at last, one has come true. Former World Champion Jacques Villeneuve will be returning to a race seat this weekend at Renault, replacing Jarno Trulli (who has left the team and joined Toyota for next year) - and the French-Canadian veteran is also set to take on a full race seat with Sauber next season.
History suggests that he will have his work cut out, although there have been some notable Formula One returns over the years. Villeneuve last drove a race at last year's United States Grand Prix, the end of his largely unsuccessful five-year relationship with the BAR team. To add insult to injury, BAR has since gone onto great things this season, with Jenson Button and Takuma Sato taking no fewer than nine podiums between them. Now Villeneuve is back but how is he likely to fare? We opened the history books to find out.
Several former world champions have retired from Formula One racing only to change their minds later. Some of them have returned with little success. Alan Jones is a prime example, the 1980 champion leaving the sport at the end of 1981 (after a fine victory at the US Grand Prix) only to return twice, for a single race in 1983 and then for two seasons with Lola in 1985/6. He finished the 1986 drivers' championship in 12th place.
Others have fared better on their return to the sport. Nigel Mansell left Formula One racing at the end of the 1992 season, his championship year. He returned in '94 to Williams after the death of Ayrton Senna and took an emotional final victory at the Australian Grand Prix, but another attempt to revive his fortunes with McLaren in 1995 ended in failure and he only competed in two races.
Alain Prost was another world champion who returned to form in spectacular style. Having left Ferrari at the end of 1991 after a disappointing season he sat out 1992 without a drive. In 1993 his luck changed after Mansell left Williams and Prost was offered a race seat. The Frenchman took seven victories to win his fourth and final championship in fine style, although he was dropped for 1994 to make room for his arch-rival, Ayrton Senna.
But the all-time comeback king has to be Niki Lauda. Not only did the Austrian recover from the terrible accident that almost cost him his life at the Nurburgring in 1976, he was also, later, to emerge from a three year retirement in 1982 and prove himself immediately on the pace again. Driving for McLaren in 1984 he took the world championship by just half a point from Alain Prost, before retiring (for good) at the end of 1985.
Back to the present, and Villeneuve finds himself in one of the most competitive (non Ferrari) cars on the grid - as good a place as any to make an impression. He's certainly got the hunger to succeed and to prove his doubters wrong. The fascinating question will be that of whether he can also muster the pace and the temperament after nearly a year away from the sport.