Villeneuve - adieu or au revoir? 16 Aug 2006
It didn't end with a bang - indeed it passed with hardly a whimper - but with last weeks announcement that BMW Sauber and Jacques Villeneuve have parted ways, it looks likely that one of the most colourful careers in recent Formula One history has finally drawn to a close.
Rewind a decade and few people would suppose that Villeneuve would ever pass from the sport so quietly. From the moment he burst onto the scene as Damon Hill's partner at Williams in 1996, it was clear that Villeneuve's considerable talent was matched with an equally substantial view of his own worth. As the son of a famous father, the legendary Gilles Villeneuve, Jacques arrived in spectacular style - instantly proving that his own merits - not his family name - had brought him to the top flight. Not only was he fresh from victory in the American Champ Car series the previous year, but he also managed to set pole in his first race, in Australia, and came close to taking victory, eventually crossing the line just behind Hill.
But early expectations that Villeneuve would become the one of the dominant drivers of his age were to soon fade. Having finished second in the 1996 standings, he became champion in 1997 once Hill had left Williams for Arrows, to be replaced by Heinz-Harald Frentzen. But with the loss of Renault engines the following season, Williams' fortunes declined - and in 1999 he moved as star driver to the brand new BAR team, for what was rumoured to be one of the richest driver contracts in the paddock.
It was to prove a disastrous career move. During four seasons with the team he stood on the podium just twice, with two third places. His races were marred by mechanical breakdowns and enormous accidents - including one memorable flat-out shunt at the daunting Eau Rouge corner at Belgiums Spa circuit - while off the track his reputation as something of a non-conformist continued to grow. The promised BAR superteam failed to emerge, and after being conspicuously out-performed by team mate Jenson Button during the 2003 season, he was dropped at the start of the following year.
Many presumed Villeneuve's Formula One career was effectively over at this point - but he proved critics wrong by bouncing back later the following season, being called up for the last three races of the year by Renault as a replacement for Jarno Trulli, whose commitment was doubted by the team - an interesting reflection on Villeneuve's recent replacement by Robert Kubica at BMW.
Despite three indifferent races, Villeneuve was offered a full drive by Sauber for 2005 - and although he was still struggling for pace during the opening races of the season, he scored a respectable fourth place in San Marino and later on managed a sixth in Belgium. It was enough to enable him to keep the seat for 2006 with a one-year contract, after Sauber had been taken over by BMW.
Despite being the one of the oldest drivers in the paddock, Villeneuve's competitiveness seemed undiminished - out-qualifying BMW Sauber team mate Nick Heidfeld by seven races to five, including a memorable P6 grid spot at the United States Grand Prix. But in the races itself it was a different story - with Heidfeld crossing the line ahead of Villeneuve six times in the eight races they both finished. Yet it remains a strange irony that Villeneuve looked more competitive than he had for some time when the announcement was made that he and the team had decided to part ways.
Villeneuve's career with BMW Sauber came to an end after a heavy shunt at the German Grand Prix - which he walked away from, but which was subsequently given as the reason he was going to sit out the Hungarian Grand Prix. The team replaced him with third driver Robert Kubica - who finished in seventh but was subsequently excluded for running underweight - but was the team's mind was already made up? With Kubica clearly a contender to inherit the second seat next season, BMW Sauber opted to continue running him through the remainder of this year - effectively bumping Villeneuve from his berth at the team.
So can Jacques bounce back again? Even considering his phoenix-like return in 2004, it looks increasingly unlikely. At 35, the French Canadian would be one of the oldest drivers in the sport - only David Coulthard and Michael Schumacher have more years under their belts - while Formula One racing's increasing emphasis on bringing up new talent means it's hard to see a place for him at any of the existing teams. If he doesn't reappear then the Formula One paddock has lost one of its great characters.
For that fact alone, Villeneuve - and his many eccentricities - will be missed.