Who Barred Jacques?
A Controversial Opinion
It is not often discussed how much 1998 must have hurt Villeneuve's ego. The previous year, despite some hiccups he had successfully eyeballed Schumi for the title. He had forced Michael into resorting to his Jerez-gate tactics, which in turn had made even the proud tifosi feel ashamed. He had become World Champion within 33 races, easily the fastest in recent times, but there were still doubts as to whether this had to do with Villeneuve himself or the Williams he had been driving. If he had the hunger and ability to effectively defend his title, the pundits said, then we'd know he was the real deal.
Renault had of course withdrawn as works engine suppliers to Williams at the end of 1997, out-sourcing their program to Mecachrome, who nonetheless promised to keep up their engine development to ensure that Williams remained at the top. At the team's launch, chief engineer Patrick Head was upbeat. He regarded Williams as favourites for the 1998 title, but he also made it clear that Jacques was a man on a mission in 1998. "The general view is that [Villeneuve's] not in Michael Schumacher's class. He wants to put that right. He wants to show either that he is in Schumacher's class or better."
Everything seemed ready for a Schumacher v Villeneuve era, and even Jacques himself made his intentions clear. When asked if he felt he had something to prove by winning a second title in 1998, he said: "The first is the one where you really have to prove yourself. But that doesn't mean I'm going to fall asleep, because I don't enjoy doing anything without being in front." His words proved prophetic as the underpowered Mecachrome and inferior Goodyears caused Williams to fall behind both McLaren and Ferrari, and as Mika Hakkinen established himself as Schumi's main nemesis.
The statistics revealed Villeneuve's misery. He qualified in the top three only three times, and on the front row only once, but without a single pole. He had to be content with only standing on the lowest step of the podium only twice. And for a man who loved being out front, the number of laps he led all year tallied exactly zero. Fifth place in the championship with 21 points, only one more than Damon Hill in the Jordan, less than half that of Eddie Irvine in the Ferrari, and practically only one fifth of the score of new World Champion Hakkinen, was not how the Canadian wanted to prove himself.
If there were any lingering doubts that Villeneuve would join BAR for its debut season in 1999 under the guidance of Jacques' own manager and good friend Craig Pollock, then the relatively disastrous 1998 swept them away. And for his reputation's sake, not to mention his wallet's, the move to BAR seemed a smart one. Chassis manufacturers Reynard had a history of immediate success; with Pollock at the helm he was guaranteed favouritism within the team; his team-mate would be Ricardo Zonta, a rookie, who despite some promise looked unlikely to match him.
Most importantly, if he could drive BAR to victory, then he would do what Schumacher was doing for Ferrari. Except that Schumi was merely bringing order to a chaotic but nonetheless front-running team. Villeneuve would be taking a brand new team to the top. It must have been an alluring prospect - but a misguided one. For whereas Michael had built a team of the best possible people around him, Jacques remained the grunge individualist, not a team player, nor sponsor-friendly. And, though BAR had the likes of Adrian Reynard and Malcolm Oastler, they proved not the best in F1 design.
Villeneuve was a much more incomplete driver in a much more incomplete situation at BAR than Schumacher was at Ferrari. A neutral analysis would have observed that it was always going to be an herculean task to use the BAR project as a means of re-establishing his F1 credentials, just as Emerson Fittipaldi discovered in the 1970s when he joined his brother's Copersucar team. And, of course, history will reveal the unmitigated flop that BAR proved to be in 1999, as the team that claimed it would win its first ever race became the only team not to score a single point all season.
But, in what was actually a stroke of good fortune for Jacques, despite completing the third-fewest laps of any full-time driver in 1999, his standing remained intact, for there were too many other factors at BAR to deride. The lavish overspending was an obvious target for the critics, so too the disharmony between Pollock and Reynard, plus the team's abysmal reliability record. Nigel Roebuck still rated Villeneuve the 7th best driver of 1999, saying: "Constantly he flattered his ill-handling, under-powered car, and the season was a criminal waste of one of the great talents in the business."
Similarly, Andrew Benson wrote this: "Villeneuve never stinted in his efforts on the track. No matter how bad the car, he drove it with the manic determination and huge confidence and bravery that had been in evidence from his first days in F1, and you could not but admire him for that." Jacques had actually escaped from his pointless 1999 viewed as a victim, with the myth of his greatness intact, if not enhanced. The paddock moaned: if only Villeneuve had the machinery to take the fight up to Michael and Mika. At this stage, Jacques' weaknesses were still easy to overlook.
Spa was a case in point. Here he had written off his car in practice when he attempted his usual party trick of taking Eau Rouge flat, in a car that was never going to be able to handle it. Instead of being seen as somewhat foolish and careless, and instead of being criticised for costing his team a massive repair bill (the fact that Zonta had two massive accidents at the same spot didn't help) in favour of his own bravado, Jacques was almost universally praised as a refreshing daredevil giving his all. He went into 2000, and a second season with BAR, with nothing to lose at all.
That surely gave him extra confidence, as did his team's efforts over the winter. BAR set its sights lower, aiming for points not podiums, and building a reliable car to complement the conservative works engine of F1 returnee Honda. Jacques responded, and delivered on all that ability, with interest. Qualifying outside the top ten only twice, with an average grid position higher than 9th, he scored BAR's first points in the season opener, before backing it up with six more points finishes, including four 4th places in total. 17 points placed him 7th in the championship standings.
But the bare statistics didn't tell the whole story. Jacques had been unlucky to miss out on podiums at Monza and Indianapolis. He had made demon starts throughout the year, notably in Canada, where he vaulted from 6th to 3rd and held off Rubens Barrichello and Hakkinen in the opening laps, and also at Imola, where he jumped from 9th to 5th. In what was still a far from perfect car, he had driven out of his skin, relatively free of errors, and he had almost single-handedly dragged his team in the constructors' title to equal Benetton's point score but down to 5th only on count-back.
It had been a positively heroic 2000. Our website rated him the third best driver in the field behind title protagonists Schumacher and Hakkinen only. Villeneuve's stocks in F1 had hardly ever been higher. If there was anything left to prove after 1997, he had just done it. The paddock, and his team, were his oyster. But ironically, this was perhaps the very time when things started to unravel. For this was his carpe diem moment, this was the opportunity Jacques had to grab, to assert himself within his team, to unite and rally the team behind him to develop a car to better utilise his abilities.
He needed to get Malcolm Oastler to pen a better handling car with greater maximum downforce. He needed to force Honda to keep up their development. Or even if he didn't do that, he needed to get Pollock to do so for him. If all this sounded familiar it was because that was exactly what Schumacher had done at Ferrari. Michael had used the weight of being the best driver on the planet to get the whole of Maranello working as a united force behind him. Villeneuve had a similar leverage with BAR at the end of 2000, but he let the opportunity slip.
Jacques remained the individual, the alternative loner, instead of becoming the team developer. And, in hindsight, Pollock unwittingly exacerbated Villeneuve's failure to assert himself by actually undermining his protégé's position within the team - as incredible as that may sound. The reason being that he dumped Zonta, and brought in as Jacques' team mate Olivier Panis, coming off his successful year testing for McLaren, to bolster the driving line-up. Panis the man with no enemies in the paddock. Panis the man that every mechanic likes. Panis the ultimate team man.
Just as Jacques had missed out on the opportunity to assemble a team effort geared to bringing him success in the same ruthless way that Ayrton Senna and Schumacher had done, the team had brought in the type of team-mate most likely to divert attention from him. At the end of the day, success in F1 is not just a matter of racecraft; it is also a matter of teamwork and psychology. Panis entered and immediately had a huge impact, pushing the team forward. If BAR up to this point had been to a large extent Jacques' team, then as soon as Olivier arrived at Pollock's behest, it was no longer.
In addition, Jacques had also missed another type of opportunity as well. Midway through 2000, strong rumours persisted that Flavio Briatore was going to lure him to the Renault-owned Benetton in 2001. But while Villeneuve dithered and eventually put his faith in BAR's continued progress, Briatore chose to stick with Giancarlo Fisichella instead. As Jacques discovered to his cost in the following years, while he threatened to leave BAR if the team's performance wasn't up to scratch, no other competitive team desperately wanted him any more.
Now, all this was fine if BAR did continue their upward slope. But despite more bold predictions that the team could fight for wins and aim for third in the constructors' title in 2001, Villeneuve tried the new BAR 003 and found it a step sideways, equally as problematic as the BAR 002, and still far from the easiest car to handle. In hindsight, that a driver who had proven himself so much the previous season could allow that to happen, could simply allow himself to be at the mercy of whatever the team dished up for him to drive the following year, was basically unforgivable.
And so, compared to 2000, BAR stood still in 2001. Despite two fortuitous podiums in Spain and Germany, Villeneuve finished 11 times, but only in the points on four occasions, slipping to 8th in the championship with only 12 points. Although he had been relatively consistent but unspectacular for three quarters of the season, towards the end of the year his form tapered off badly, culminating in a disastrous race at Indianapolis where he qualified 18th behind Fernando Alonso's Minardi and retired only on the fear of damage after touching Pedro de la Rosa's Jaguar.
Yes, there were underlying personal issues. His horrific crash in Melbourne, where an errant wheel killed a marshal, had overtones of the incident that had killed his father. He had also left his sobering relationship with Dannii Minogue. But the fact was that another year of wrestling an inadequate car with a gutless engine had finally taken its toll on Jacques' form. Plus by now he was no longer the centre of the team's affections. As Nigel Roebuck wrote: "Socialise with the folk at the factory? Not interested. It was hardly surprising that the personable Panis quickly became very popular in the team."
2001 signalled the start of a vicious cycle that would dog his remaining time at BAR. Having failed to gather the team behind him, he constantly found himself held to ransom by BAR's string of mediocre machines. This affected his motivation, which led in turn to some very indifferent performances and hurt his results. But, blaming the team and constantly threatening to leave, he destabilised the outfit and damaged his standing, even more so because of his character and because Panis was in the other car. Which meant he lost any influence over BAR's technical direction. And so the cycle began again.
If that was not enough, on the eve of 2002 Pollock, the one man whom Villeneuve could rely upon for unswerving support, was ousted by the no-nonsense David Richards. The Englishman immediately went about revamping the team, getting rid of Oastler and over forty 'surplus' staff, doing what should have been done much earlier by drawing close to Honda in order to get the best out the Japanese company, and engaging in a public debate over Jacques' 15 million pound annual salary. The message was simple, the epicentre of the team shifting again - away from Jacques, towards greater teamwork.
Another very average year from Villeneuve resulted, with only four points on the board. From 3rd in the F1 Rejects rankings after 2000, he had slipped to 14th in 2001, and now down to 15th. Amidst of talk that he might take a sabbatical in 2003, that he continued with BAR was something of a miracle, but born of the fact that by now the vicious cycle had dragged his stocks so low, he simply had nowhere else to go. But with Richards' favourite, Jenson Button - another affable team player - now on the squad, and Honda's favourite, Takuma Sato, as test driver, Jacques must have known he was on the bubble.
In view of all that had gone before, Villeneuve's very public derision of Button early in 2003 was probably one last ditch attempt to assert himself within the team, but all it succeeded in doing was to make him sound spoilt and arrogant. As we know, as Button shone in the other car all year, Jacques suffered from appalling reliability, whether or not there was any conspiracy involved. Just as there had been no doubt that he would join BAR in 1999, there was now also little doubt that he would be on the way out, if nothing else because his position in the team had simply become untenable.
Peter Windsor once said that whereas Nigel Mansell wanted to be at the centre of his working universe, Frank Williams and Patrick Head only ever wanted to keep him on their terms. By 2002 and 2003, the same could have been said of Richards and Villeneuve. But to solely look at the Richards years as the reason for Jacques' eventual departure would be short-sighted. Richards merely inherited a situation that had begun to brew during the 2000-01 off-season, when Villeneuve could have well and truly made BAR 'his' team but did not do so.
For all his devil-may-care exterior, Jacques was a man who desperately wanted to prove himself after 1997. When he finally did so during 2000, he failed to grab the fruits of his labour, just as Pollock unknowingly undermined his position by bringing Panis into the team, around whom a new atmosphere increasingly left Villeneuve in the cold. Jacques found himself caught in the vicious cycle of decreasing leverage within the team and diminishing returns on the track, as the team's focus progressively shifted away from him. By early 2001 his fate within the team had already been sealed.
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