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Villeneuve faces F1 farewell
Alan Baldwin | October 06, 2003 11:23 IST
The final curtain is falling on Jacques Villeneuve's BAR career and Formula One looks unlikely to call him back for an encore.
You can never say never but Saturday's announcement that the 1997 champion would be leaving BAR at the end of the season had all the makings of an unhappy farewell to the sport Villeneuve once took by storm.
Formula One's other champion, the only driver on the 2003 grid other than Ferrari's Michael Schumacher to have won a world title, has few options.
The top teams have their seats filled and there are few that would interest the Canadian further down the pecking order or that could afford him.
Williams, with whom he became Canada's first champion, have Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher signed to the end of 2004.
It may even turn out that Villeneuve, son of late Ferrari great Gilles, has already driven his last Grand Prix.
Manager and friend Craig Pollock could not confirm that the 32-year-old would drive for BAR in the Japanese season-ender next weekend when he broke the news on Saturday that Villeneuve's contract had not been renewed.
"All we know at this time is that BAR Managing Director Dave Richards has informed us that Jacques will no longer be part of British American Racing in 2004," he said.
BAR have made no comment but Japanese test driver and Honda protege Takuma Sato, who finished fifth for Jordan at Suzuka last year, is available.
BAR need every point they can get in a tight battle for fifth place overall and may feel Sato will be more motivated than the Canadian.
If so, Formula One will have lost another character.
A bespectacled icon of non-conformity, with dyed hair and grunge clothing, Villeneuve was the hottest thing to hit Formula One in 1996 when he seized pole position in his first race and nearly won it.
He may be an also-ran now, but he still has his admirers.
"Jacques was as good as any we've ever had," Frank Williams said recently.
"No matter how good he is, a driver is always coloured by his car. Put Michael (Schumacher) in a Minardi and he might move up the grid a few rows. But no more. Give Jacques a better car and I'm sure he'll do better."
BAR, founded in 1999, was built around Villeneuve with Pollock -- the former teacher who has masterminded the Canadian's career since his schooldays in Switzerland -- a co-founder and team principal.
But they have failed to deliver.
While the former Indy 500 and CART champion has scored just six points this season, Schumacher has scored more in the last four races than Villeneuve in the last three years.
The uncompromising Canadian has not won a race since his last victory for Williams in 1997.
"He still is and always will be, one of the great icons of the sport," Richards told the latest edition of F1 magazine.
"Unfortunately his iconic character is bigger than his performance at the moment.
"It's been a terrible few years for him. It really has knocked the stuffing out of him. I believe the talent is still there. People don't lose their talent overnight."
Yet Villeneuve still maintained at the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis last weekend that he had few regrets.
"Even though the results have not been very good, there's been two podiums, there's been a feeling of achievement and we had a good time doing it all and we all were working in the same direction. So it was worth it," he said.
"It's just the last couple of years that have been highly unenjoyable.
"The first contract I signed (with BAR) was an easy decision to make, it was just a big risk," he added.
"But people could work themselves into understanding that, okay, it was fun to take that risk and find out what happened.
"The second one seems to be a lot more difficult to understand. I was ready to sign for another team but Honda were begging me to stay.
"And so I thought if they were willing to put so much effort into it, then it will be good and that's why I stayed."
Times move on and Honda are begging no longer.