Motor Racing: Disgruntled Villeneuve ready to consider leaving Formula One

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The Independent Online
Whether or not Jacques Villeneuve becomes world champion in the last race of the season, he may not choose to continue racing in Formula One. David Tremayne examines a climactic end to the drivers' championship.

Jacques Villeneuve's chances of keeping the two points he scored for finishing fifth in Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix are remote. Suzuka should have yielded the 26-year-old French-Canadian the world championship crown, but instead he raced under appeal after receiving a ban for yet another offence of ignoring a yellow caution flag.

The regulations specifically demand that drivers slow down for waved yellow flags, which warn of potential hazards ahead. Villeneuve ignored one in Argentina and another in Imola earlier this year, and when he ignored a third at Monza in September he received a one-race ban, suspended for a probationary period of nine races. When he sped past Jos Verstappen's abandoned Tyrrell on Saturday morning in Suzuka, again ignoring yellow flags, the international governing body of motor racing, the FIA, banned him from the Japanese Grand Prix and only relented when the Williams team appealed.

The auguries for the success of this appeal are unfavourable, by the most charitable estimate. When Jordan appealed against a one-race ban for Eddie Irvine after an incident in the 1994 Brazilian Grand Prix, the ban was not merely upheld, but tripled. Later that season Michael Schumacher and Benetton appealed against disqualification from the British Grand Prix for ignoring the black flag which demands that a driver stop racing immediately. A $25,000 fine(pounds 14,750) was multiplied by 10, and Schumacher was banned for two races. More recently, Mika Hakkinen raced under appeal in the Belgian Grand Prix following a fuel infringement in practice. When McLaren's appeal was heard, Hakkinen lost his third place and the team's fine was doubled to $50,000. There is a clear lesson here: mess with the FIA at your peril. It is easier to find Lord Lucan than a successful appellant.

"We think an appeal was a good idea," Villeneuve insisted, "because five other drivers did the same thing at the same time on the track. It was important for us to race in Japan, because you never know whether the FIA might allow us to keep the two points, and let me off the suspension."

In the real world this is regarded as little more than folly by Williams, and bound to end in tears. And the incident may not just cost Villeneuve the world title.

Speculation even before Suzuka suggested strongly that he may be having second thoughts about continuing in Formula One. He detests the narrow cars which the FIA is introducing for 1998, and their grooved tyres, and has frequently clashed on the subject with the FIA president, Max Mosley. Above all, he relishes the danger element of motor racing, and has often hinted, publicly, and privately to friends, that he might reconsider his future if he lost the thrill of driving. Few drivers really possess the strength of character to walk away when an indulgent and lucrative lifestyle turns sour, but Jacques Villeneuve is enough of a maverick to do just that, regardless of the contract that he has to drive for Williams in 1998.

"Definitely I find it very difficult to accept," he said. "It's a heavy blow now that we are fighting like this at the end, for the championship."

"We have seen in the past before, in the last race that the man who is a point ahead can afford to be very aggressive with the one who is behind," Williams technical director, Patrick Head, said on Sunday night, "and if both cars don't finish... We saw that with Damon at Adelaide in 1994. I view that as deliberate removal of one competitor by another." But the difference is that where Hill plugged on to win his title two years later, there is a real chance that Villeneuve just might choose not to stay around that long.