Can BMW Sauber bring another chance of glory?
Ten years on from his Formula One debut, Jacques Villeneuve remains one of the paddocks most colourful characters. During his title-winning stint with Williams he was renowned not just for his baggy overalls and wacky hair styles, but also for his driving.
However, switching to the start-up BAR team proved a disastrous career move. Several years in the wilderness later and many had forgotten he was ever world champion. But now, with the newly-formed BMW Sauber squad, Villeneuve believes he may just be able to refresh their memories
Q: At times last season it almost seemed as if there was an orchestrated media campaign trying to write you out of a drive. How did you deal with this and how much pressure did it put on you?
Jacques Villeneuve: I keep proving them [my doubters] wrong, so I hope it continues like that. It looks like I was the only one not stressing over the winter. It turns out I am still here, it is all working well, so there are no problems. I want to be in F1. I just love competition. If I am still racing it is because I want to win again, I don't just want to be a part of it.
Q: It took a while for BMW to confirm your 2006 contract. What was it that finally swung the decision in your favour?
JV: Well, looking at last season, my performances in 2005 were quite hard. The car was difficult to drive in the beginning, and we had done an insufficient amount of testing before the season started. On this particular point, I am still extremely happy with the job we did last year. Looking at lap times we were able to improve the car by over half a second per lap during the course of the season. Of course, things like this are not very visible as we were fighting for positions and not for podiums, but it is quite satisfying to have achieved such a strong job. I was concentrating on my job, which is racing, and again, there was a contract in place which is the reason why I am with the team this year.
Q: We are now some months on from the BMW takeover of Sauber. What have been the most significant changes? Is it a case of money changing everything?
JV: I think that BMW buying Sauber triggered a budget increase for the entire operation and will allow the engineers and the drivers to develop the car further - and therefore become more competitive. A budget increase simply means more use of the wind tunnel, more resources at the factory and most importantly, more tests due to the possible use of a third driver. I can only see things becoming better in the future. Sauber was a very efficient team compared to the budget they could actually work with, so again, now that there is a bigger operational budget, I am confident that all the guys in the factory will have the possibility to show their full potential.
Q: With BAR you experienced just how long it can take to build a competitive team. Neither BMW nor Sauber are newcomers, but it is a merger between a global company - with global interests - and a small private team. Have the cultural differences presented problems?
JV: It is great to be with a manufacturer. Ultimately it will be a new team, but at the moment it is with the old elements with new bits added on. They (the old and new) will have to learn from each other. I want to do my best to help the BMW Sauber F1 Team achieve success. We are all definitely fired up. You see it in how everybody is working - everyone is positive and wants it to be good. I don't agree with your approach, I think that BMW have a very clear long-term marketing strategy and that they will know how to use F1 very efficiently, both on and off track....
Q: Sauber were renowned for their consistency, but were usually seen as a midfield team. Do you think there is now podium potential? And how soon can that come?
JV: The difference this year is that the team have all the people they need to perform - and the budget as well. We can do all the testing and use the wind-tunnel, so there won't be any excuses on that side. Everything will be there to achieve something, so it is just how good it can be. However, everybody is taking it step by step and with a very realistic approach. You know, we are starting from where we finished last year so it is up to us to capitalize on experience and that's where I fit in the equation. Hopefully it won't take too many years.
Q: And personally for this coming season - what goals seem realistic?
JV: Setting up a new team is a very complex task. I've been through it before. But I believe the prerequisites that have come together here are good. The team is an evolution of what was in place last year - all the engineering staff at the race track was already in place and everything has been incremented. But BMW has brought professional people in, there is more testing and more wind-tunnel work, and therefore more performance from the car. 2006 will be better than last year. It is impossible to know exactly where we stand right now, because everyone is testing in different configurations - some with V8, some with restricted V10 - so it is difficult to judge where we are at the moment.