Jacques may not be back

Dropped by BAR for 2004, and quitting before the Japanese Grand Prix, Canada's former champion, Jacques Villeneuve, has no drive lined up and little prospect of anything worthwhile coming along. -- Pic. REUTERS-

Canada has won a Grand Prix reprieve but Jacques may not be coming back.

It has to be said that the chances of Jacques Villeneuve returning to Formula One next year do not look as good as Montreal's, restored provisionally to the calendar as an additional 18th race.

Dropped by BAR for 2004, and quitting before the Japanese Grand Prix, Canada's former champion has no drive lined up and little prospect of anything worthwhile coming along.

Some people at Suzuka hoped he might return but there were plenty who felt they had seen the last of him — even if nothing can ever be taken for granted in Formula One — and did not sound overly saddened.

"He can be a difficult customer, we know that," said Jaguar's Mark Webber, whose Ford-owned team has the most coveted remaining vacancy but is unlikely to offer it to the 32-year-old.

"I don't feel `Villeneuve's gone, we've lost another world champion,'" he added. "I feel that we've got more than enough guys who can kick ass.

"There's more champions sprinkled through the field, mate... just give us time and that will happen."

Briton David Coulthard was equally sanguine about his friend and motorhome neighbour's departure, which leaves Michael Schumacher as the only champion left in the sport.

"It's what happens in sport," he said. "It's not about how much of a friend he is or how much of a personality he is.

"We're talking about it in Japan but come Melbourne next year, if he's not on the grid then he'll be forgotten very quickly ... it's obviously not an ideal way for a career to finish if that is in fact what's happened."

From the day he walked into Formula One, Villeneuve was rebellious individual with his dyed blonde hair and hip-hop style. He stirred things up and had little time for convention.

"He is quite a perverse fellow and his attitude is `I'll show you I can do it my way,' " said Williams technical director Patrick Head. While recognising him as a "very talented, very fast driver," Head added:

"Villeneuve is quite a perverse fellow and his attitude is `I'll show you I can do it my way.' Whether he had learned to be a bit wiser in his older years I don't know, but I think he made bloody hard work of winning the world championship in 1997," said Williams technical director Patrick Head. -- Pic. BRYN LENNON/GETTY IMAGES-

"Whether he had learned to be a bit wiser in his older years I don't know, but I think he made bloody hard work of winning the world championship in 1997."

Five years spent chugging around in midfield with BAR means Villeneuve, despite earning huge amounts, has effectively squandered the considerable capital he acquired at Williams.

The Canadian has heaps of talent, although it has not been very obvious of late, but Jaguar are more likely to want a team player who can bring useful information from those higher up the pecking order.

Someone in the mould of McLaren's Austrian test driver Alexander Wurz for example or Sauber's German Nick Heidfeld.

Anyone hoping to drive for them, Jordan or Minardi will also have to bring sponsorship rather than hoping for a big pay day.

There is no prospect of Villeneuve swallowing his pride and reducing himself to Minardi's level. He has more than enough money and no desire to stay at all costs.

Eddie Jordan is a fan but his team, ninth this year, have been barely above Minardi in recent races.

"Whatever you think, Jacques was a very certain style," said the Irishman.

"He was grungy and rock and roll and he had a charisma and you always hate seeing the passing or leaving of a world champion. There are very few world champions. There's only one now."

Bernie Ecclestone, wary of colourless clones taking over the sport, is also an admirer of a driver who has criticised the emergence of `corporate robots'

"People want a driver like Jacques Villeneuve or Eddie Irvine, who are not afraid to say it like it is," he said this month.

"I hate it when drivers get out of their car after a win. They thank their grandmother, aunt, tyre and fuel companies, sponsor, uncle and old school. It's crap — they don't want to thank anyone."

Villeneuve, without a win since his 1997 title year, did not have to worry about that too much. Sadly, the chances are he will not have to next year either.