An electronic glitch in the gearbox left the French- Canadian in the now seemingly mandatory position of "Racer Left On The Grid" and denied him the chance to race as the dark horse of the San Marino GP. But the upswing in form could not have come at a better time.
Despite a budget from British American Tobacco that allowed him to buy out the veteran team owner Ken Tyrrell, and to graduate with the full complement of bells, whistles and hype, it has been a far from easy year thus far for Craig Pollock, the former teacher who fashioned himself into Villeneuve's manager before realising his team ownership aspirations. His ambitious plans to run one of the new BAR 001s in the livery of Lucky Strike cigarettes, and the other in the rally-familiar blue and yellow colours of the 555 brand, ruffled feathers to the extent that he locked horns with the FIA president Max Mosley in a trial of strength that appeared destined to deposit the upstart team on the sidelines for at least a one- race ban.
The one thing that Pollock had not taken into account in his well-laid plans was that nobody in Formula One, despite the sea of money flooding the paddock, likes to see a cocky new team bounce in with a full budget, especially when it must have dawned on even the densest team owner that BAT did not put its golden eggs in the BAR basket without carefully considering the opposition first.
"Right now we call them Beatrice Again Racing," one team director chuckled, in a snide reference to the highly funded but ill-fated Beatrice team who sprang to prominence in 1985 and faded into embarrassed oblivion a season later.
"It was as if," Mosley said, "BAR were sticking two fingers up at the FIA and the whole Formula One establishment." Heaven forfend. Pollock was lucky to escape a ban as the FIA charged BAR with bringing the sport into disrepute.
Soon after BAR had been let off their promising rookie driver, Ricardo Zonta, damaged tendons in a mighty accident in practice for the Brazilian GP.
Then came the news that Honda, who had seemed on the verge of creating their own team under the masterly technical direction of the late Dr Harvey Postlethwaite, who died suddenly during a test session in Spain in April, may be reconsidering the depth of their investment and will, possibly instead, supply engines to BAR from 2000 onwards. Though BAR seem likely to have to pay for such an undoubted privilege, the deal has not gone down well with other team owners. McLaren's chief, Ron Dennis, whose cars helped Honda to world championships in the late Eighties and early Nineties, said last weekend of Honda's apparent change of mind: "I don't think it is the correct behaviour to be expected from a multi-national company. What they have done has one fundamental thing wrong with it. That is that Honda applied to the sport's governing body for an unusual and guaranteed assurance that they would be allowed to compete, with their own car, in 2000."
Now, drawing on the trump card of Adrian Reynard's victory-honed relationship with the Japanese team from his own racing car company's dramatic successes in America's premier ChampCar series, BAR are again wrapping controversy around their shoulders like a shroud.
Next weekend's Monaco GP is the Hope Diamond of Formula One, the race round the streets of the Principality to which the sponsors flock in their droves, to see and be seen, and to peacock their wares. For BAR, perhaps more than most, it will be a critical encounter as the team strive to earn their place in the line-up. In the past it has not been a happy hunting ground for Villeneuve, but the shrewd decision to keep Zonta on the reserves' bench and to play Mika Salo as substitute again may prove canny. The Finn finished fifth there for Tyrrell in 1996 and 1997 and fourth last year for Arrows.
Salo, who will soon test for Honda, says he will be happy to step down again if he can just do well in Monte Carlo. "With this car, I really think we can do great things there," he says. After the disappointment of Imola, Craig Pollock will have his fingers and toes crossed.Reuse content