Motor racing: Villeneuve driving up his market value

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Jacques Villeneuve, newly restored to the top of the Formula One drivers' championship, heads for his home grand prix in Canada next month pursued by the customary uncertainty over the future of any Williams-Renault driver on course for the title.

Williams have made a habit of splitting with their champions, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Damon Hill all parting with their CVs enhanced. Now, despite claims that the team have an option on Villeneuve's services for next year, it appears his contract is far from settled and he might join the distinguished exodus.

Villeneuve, who regained the lead in the championship with victory in Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix here, is involved in negotiations with Williams, who are, depending on your view, admirably restrained or foolishly mean when it comes to pay deals. Villeneuve is said to be seeking an increase next year from pounds 3m to pounds 6m. If Williams are not prepared to satisfy him, others probably are.

Villeneuve's manager, Craig Pollock, said: "Jacques is free to leave Williams if he wants. I don't want to name specific teams, but I am aware of many being interested in Jacques."

After Michael Schumacher, Villeneuve is the most sought-after driver in F1. Links with Benetton-Renault were assumed when he was seen talking to the team's managing director, Flavio Briatore, and other theories point to a possible move to McLaren-Mercedes.

Stronger still is the French connection with Prost. Villeneuve fills the requirements of a team leader the four-times world champion is seeking for the organisation formerly known as Ligier. Villeneuve, a French Canadian, might be lured by the challenge as well, of course, as his share of the additional sponsorship money his name and stature would doubtless attract. Pollock has personal business relations with Prost.

Still on the back-burner is the prospect of a new team built around the 26-year-old, which may or may not eventually come to the boil.

If Williams again find themselves with a vacancy, there would be no shortage of applications for the job. Keke Rosberg, another of their former champions, is said to be eager to move his driver, Mika Hakkinen, out of McLaren and, given F1's propensity for irony, Hill cannot be written out of the equation.

Mansell returned to the team to win his title and, as Williams will know, Hill has better credentials than most. After his anguish at Arrows-Yamaha, he may welcome the opportunity to make up with his former bosses. The Englishman parked his stricken car in front of Williams' pit-wall crew on Sunday. Perhaps it was an omen.

While Arrows' owner, Tom Walkinshaw, has summoned "crisis" meetings with Yamaha in an endeavour to improve performance and reliability, the signs for Villeneuve in the championship are again pointing to prosperity. He will be the favourite to win the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal and come back to Europe with a firmer hold on the title.

This is traditionally a strong sector of the season for Williams, and their other driver, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, will hope that indicates a change of fortune for him. Apart from his maiden victory at Imola, the campaign has brought him only frustration.

He still has a chance to figure in the championship contest, especially as the season will probably be extended to 18 races to accommodate the reinstatement of Portugal. Whether Schumacher can maintain his challenge depends on the effectiveness of the long-awaited developments on the Ferrari. Even he could not steer the car to the podium here.