Motor Racing: New colours of Villeneuve put into spotlight

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The Independent Online
EXTRAVAGANT LAUNCHES, lofty ambitions, noise, colour and controversy: It can mean only that Formula One is back on the road.

Two months before the start of another world championship, grand prix racing's newest team set the pace by unveiling their cars yesterday and, true to this sport-comebusiness, steered straight into a confrontation with the governing body.

British American Racing, the team that has risen from the ashes of Tyrrell, introduced their drivers, the 1997 world champion, Jacques Villeneuve, and the GT champion, Ricardo Zonta, with their machinery at the factory in Brackley, barely the distance of a lap from Silverstone.

Canadian Villeneuve, who left Williams to join the adventure led by his former manager, Craig Pollock, appeared in red and white overalls, matching the livery of his car. Zonta, of Brazil, wore the blue of his car.

Pollock is challenging the rules, which insists a team's cars must be in the same livery, and the case goes to arbitration today. British American Tobacco, which entered into the deal to fund Pollock's mission, want to promote two of their brands and took the opportunity to give visual effect to their campaign yesterday.

Pollock said: "We're going into arbitration. We've done this to protect our commercial rights. I hope we'll get a decision tomorrow although we may have to wait."

The BAT commitment is said to be worth pounds 250m over five years. Pollock has a workforce of more than 200 in what he describes as "the largest and most modern factory in Formula One". His goal, he announced, was to have the most professional team in the pit lanes.

A huge chunk of the funding has been used to lure Villeneuve. Estimates of his salary range from pounds 6.5m to pounds 10m a year, plus a stake in the company.

Successful racing car maker Adrian Reynard is the technical director and Renault Engines complete the package. Reynard has won his debut race in every other category and has gone on record as declaring his intention to maintain the sequence. He and the rest of the camp played down that specific target yesterday, but the mood was still suitably buoyant.

Villeneuve contends he has found a new lease of life at BAR. "I did three years at Williams and I thought now was the right time to move," he said. "It was not a case of getting fed up at Williams or losing respect. In fact, we made a lot of progress last year and it was good. So nobody is shooting bullets.

"But this is like a breath of fresh air, and that's not easy to find in Formula One. Usually it's about evolution, it's difficult to get new ideas. Here it's all new, a new team taking the responsibility to make decisions."

This is not, however, change for the sake of change, he stresses. The racer in Villeneuve demands more than that. "The only reason to go racing is to win, to go better, every time, every lap. The team have the same vision. I didn't come here to pretend. I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe we could be competitive and win. We've got the team, the technology and have set very high goals."

Villeneuve was hugely impressed with his performance in the car's first test, at Barcelona last month. "We only did a few laps but they were good laps," he said. "I could tell straight away the car was fast as soon as I went out onto the circuit."

Pollock admitted he also had his anxieties in Spain. "Jacques got up to 300kph and pieces started coming off the car. I was in a state of panic. I thought he was going to hit me. Instead he just smiled and said she was like a fast lady." Villeneuve took up the story: "She must have liked me. After 25 laps she gave in and threw everything off."

The testing will become more intense over the coming weeks and all concerned will be content for the fast lady to keep everything on from now on. Even if instant victory is highly improbable, Villeneuve aspires to a piece of the main event when the championship begins in Melbourne on 7 March.

"We're looking to be up there," he said. "McLaren and Ferrari will be competitive again for sure. McLaren had the advantage last year and they should keep it. Ferrari, though, have been working very hard. Williams will probably be better also."

Pollock ought to have no illusions about the scale of the test they are encountering. He has seen other teams come and go in recent years. Jordan, a rare success story, achieved a maiden grand prix win last season, their eighth in Formula One.

Undaunted, Pollock said: "What Jacques says is correct - if you're going out to pretend, you shouldn't go out. If he believes we can aim for a win then so we should. It is our job to keep the car around him."