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Villeneuve says his batteries are recharged

Villeneuve takes the Sauber wheel (Peter Sauber on left) Keystone

Former world champion Jacques Villeneuve says he is optimistic about his chances in Formula One this season with Switzerland’s Sauber motor racing team.

This content was published on January 20, 2005 - 17:04

The 33-year-old Canadian driver, who lives in Switzerland, told swissinfo he will also be racing to restore his tarnished reputation.

The son of former Formula One legend, Gilles Villeneuve, had everything going his way in the mid-1990s.

After winning the IndyCar world series in 1995, Jacques Villeneuve was runner-up on the Formula One (F1) circuit a year later and became F1 world champion in 1997.

His career took a nosedive in 1999 while driving for BAR (British American Racing), a team built around him and led by his personal manager, Craig Pollock.

Villeneuve failed to earn a point that season and while the situation improved after BAR signed an engine deal with Honda, the Canadian’s days were numbered.

Pollock was replaced by David Richards at the end of 2001 and Richards dismissed Villeneuve two years later, in favour of inexperienced driver Takuma Sato.

Villeneuve refused to race in the last grand prix of the season, effectively walking away from the sport and withdrawing to the Swiss ski resort of Villars where he has lived for most of his life.

His comeback was officially announced last September when he signed a two-year deal with Switzerland’s Sauber team, led by Peter Sauber.

swissinfo: Where’s home?

Jacques Villeneuve: It depends what you mean by home. I live here in Switzerland, it feels like home but my roots are still in Canada.

swissinfo: Are you most at home on a racecar track, or on snow or ice, since you also love winter sports?

J.V.: Up here in the mountains I would say, where you can ski, play ice hockey, also where you can be alone and spend time thinking and relaxing. Being in the mountains helps that.

swissinfo: Is that what you did last year during your time away from F1?

J.V.: I played ice hockey and skied but as of April I started training intensively for racing again. That’s what took most of my time.

I needed to recharge my batteries anyway and get back into a positive mindset. I still ended up doing the last three races of the season just to get back into racing before starting work with Sauber.

swissinfo: You probably did a lot of reflecting on what went wrong. After you were the world champion in 1997, your career started going down hill. Do you regret the years at BAR Honda?

J.V.: It wasn’t a mistake. Going with a new team is always a big risk and it just took longer than expected for things to improve. I worked hard for five years but I wasn’t there last season when the team finally became good.

swissinfo: Are you physically and mentally prepared for this F1 season?

J.V.: Definitely. Because I only raced at the end of the season I didn’t need a big break in November and December, so I could keep on training. I’ll definitely be ready.

swissinfo: Peter Sauber says this is your last chance. What do you say to that?

J.V.: It’s a way of forcing someone to be hungry but that’s not a problem. The good thing is I’ve already won a championship so even if nothing good happens, it doesn’t matter. I’ve achieved my goal.

It’s just that the image has been tarnished over the last few years and now’s the opportunity to get back on the right track.

swissinfo: Your salary with Sauber is about a tenth of what you were earning with BAR Honda, not including bonuses based on points won. How many points do you realistically think you can get with Sauber?

J.V.: The way the team finished last year, it was the team that improved the most thanks to the wind tunnel that they have.

If the same trend continues - and there’s no reason for it not to - then we should be looking at fighting for podiums and who knows, depending on the tyres, possibly a win as well. We’ll just have to work really hard and hopefully it’ll pay off.

swissinfo: But Peter Sauber said in a recent interview that he thinks Sauber’s chances of actually winning a grand prix race are next to nil.

J.V.: The last years it’s been very hard for anyone to beat Ferrari and that’s why I say it depends on the tyres.

The new rules this year means the tyres have to last the entire race and that will rebalance the tyre effect. Winning a race will be dependent on that.

I think we can compete head to head with the other Michelin runners although it will depend on how their new cars will improve over last year.

swissinfo: You’ve signed a two-year contract with Sauber. What comes after those two years?

J.V.: It all depends on how those two years go. Hopefully F1 will still be as great as it has been and as exciting. If not I would consider maybe Nascar [stock car auto racing circuit in the United States].

swissinfo: So you would go back to North America?

J.V.: Just because Nascar is something I’ve never done and it’s very exciting and it’s at the top level of motor sports. That would be fun and exciting but my first goal is F1.

swissinfo-interview: Dale Bechtel in Villars

Key facts

Villeneuve’s career:

1995 – IndyCar World Series champion
1996 – F1 runner up with Williams Renault; new record for rookie driver.
1997 – F1 World Champion.
1998 – Finishes fifth in standings with Williams Mecachrome.
1999 – Move from Williams to BAR. Finishes 21st.
2000 – Finishes seventh.
2001 – Finishes eighth.
2002 – Finishes 12th.
2003 – Finishes 16th.

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