Focus - Frank Williams on Villeneuve 01 Oct 2003
With the 2003 Formula One season almost over, the future of one of the sport's biggest names remains uncertain. Jacques Villeneuve, 1997 world champion, still has no confirmed drive for next year.
Villeneuve left Williams at the end of 1998 as one of Formula One racing's brightest stars. But a move to the all-new British American Racing team was to prove disastrously costly for his career.
Six years on from his last race win, critics are calling him a has-been, even a 'never-really-was', claiming his brilliant beginning in Formula One racing was largely a result of superior Williams machinery.
This opinion, however, is not shared by one man better qualified than most to comment. Team boss Sir Frank Williams believes that Villeneuve was, and still is, one of the great driving talents.
Williams remembers what he and business partner Patrick Head first saw in him when he tested for the team during the winter of 1995-96, prior to their hiring him for the coming season.
"He had clearly outstanding car control and speed," Williams recalls. "In testing he adapted to all the European Grand Prix circuits very quickly. And at the same time he had done quite a bit of racing in America and we always believed that any man who's raced around Indy at over 200 miles an hour, and also run 800 to 900 horsepower turbo cars and won consistently with them, was a bit of a winner. So we thought we'd give him a bit of a go."
And go he did. In his rookie Formula One season Villeneuve started his first Grand Prix from pole (and would have won it but for an oil leak) and thereafter was embroiled in a season-long, see-saw struggle for supremacy with his veteran team mate Damon Hill, who finally took the title in the last race of the year.
The following season he went one better, out-driving and out-witting Michael Schumacher, to join the likes of Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg and Nigel Mansell in the ranks of hard-charging Williams champions.
"Jacques was as good as all those guys," Williams states flatly. "It is always horses for courses, the style of car that is required, the drivers you are up against in the championship. But Jacques was as good as any we've ever had."
Williams' admiration for his former driver also extends to his decision to stick with an uncompetitive team for so long; a decision Williams believes has not been solely about money, as many Villeneuve detractors would have you believe.
"The facts are that Jacques chose to move to a team and remain loyal to a team that, despite the fanfare, never quite got into the first group," insists Williams.
"You can't fault his loyalty. He can't be blamed for what he did. But what we have here is one of the basic tenets of Formula One: no matter how good he is, a driver is always coloured by his car. Put Michael in a Minardi and he might move it up the grid a few rows. But no more. Give Jacques a better car and I'm sure he'll do better."
Whether Villeneuve gets a 'better' car, or indeed any car, next season remains to be seen. If he doesn't, Williams, at least, clearly believes it won't be for the want of talent.
(The above is an edited extract from a much larger Jacques Villeneuve feature, including an in-depth interview with the man himself, available exclusively in the October issue of Formula 1 Magazine.)