No one within motor racing can genuinely believe that Jacques Villeneuve is the best driver in the world, just as few would seriously claim Damon Hill was last year. Michael Schumacher remains a class apart: and that suits Williams-Renault fine.
Williams are on the verge of a record ninth constructors' title, as well as the individual prize, and they will consider Villeneuve's coronation as both confirmation of their continued superiority and vindication of their policy on the hiring and firing of drivers.It is generally accepted that had Schumacher been in a Williams instead of a Ferrari this season he would have secured the championship long ago.
The Oxfordshire-based team have taken much criticism for "losing" world champions. Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Hill all left them after winning the title. There has been speculation this year that Villeneuve might join the triumphal exodus.
But then Williams view racing as a team game and the driver as another member of that team. Rather than blow the budget on retainers they prefer to invest in the next car. They pulled out of the bidding for Schumacher two years ago because they felt $20m (pounds 12.5m) a season was too high a price to pay. Their track record indicates their business sense is not awry.
Motor racing's critics say it cannot be a true sport because the car and not the driver is seen as the important factor. But Patrick Head, Williams' technical director, argues a success for anyone other than Schumacher would not devalue the championship. Head said: "There has seldom been a champion who has not had the best car. Being world champion does not prove you are the best driver in the world. Winning is a team effort and the driver is part of the equation.
"Jacques is not as adaptable and good in all conditions as Schumacher is. Schumacher is a more complete driver. But Jacques is still in his second season of Formula One."
Williams elected to partner Villeneuve with Heinz-Harald Frentzen rather than Hill this season and although the German has had a generally uncomfortable ride Head contends there is no evidence the Englishman is any better than the Canadian.
Head said: "Jacques caught up Damon in terms of performance in the second half of last season, but then when you are ahead you have to put a bit more conservatism in your driving, whereas the man chasing you has less to lose. So I wouldn't like to split the two.
"What I will say about Jacques is that he is a very individual character, a very fine driver, and quite a lot of teams would like to have him."
Head also takes the view we may not have seen the best of Villeneuve or Williams this season because of the driver's "individual" preference on set-up.
"We have a difference of opinion on settings, although we haven't had the stand-up rows that have been reported," Head said. "Jacques likes stiffer settings, whereas we believe softer settings would be more appropriate and productive. This is something we are going to have to work on over the winter."
The title balance shifted Villeneuve's way after Schumacher was shunted out of the Luxembourg Grand Prix a fortnight ago, by his youngster brother. Ralf. The Suzuka circuit should suit Villeneuve and his car, and Head is anxious to avoid a last-race decider, at Jerez, Spain, in a fortnight.
Head said: "The same thing that happened to Michael at the Nurburgring could happen to Jacques and I wouldn't feel desperately happy going to Jerez, with say, a three-point lead. We'd like to finish it at this race."Reuse content