Villeneuve driving close to the edge

'Safety is very important. I'm not saying the sport should be more dangerous, but I don't want to destroy the racing'
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The Independent Online
The Freddie Starr hair, the critics say, is the externalisation of everything that is going wrong with Jacques Villeneuve as he struggles some 14 points behind Michael Schumacher in the Formula One world championship. That crop, and his series of outspoken comments, have now assumed albatross status as Villeneuve heads for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone at the weekend.

In Imola he slammed the grooved tyres which will be introduced in 1998; in Monaco he suggested that previous generations of drivers would not match today's. "The level of drivers is better than it used to be," he said. "The drivers are better prepared physically, mentally, and are more on top of the matter and closer to perfection."

Then came his "talking is one thing, but listening is another" remark after he was asked if he had aired his views personally to Max Mosley. This did not endear him to the FIA president, who summoned him to Paris to account for himself prior to the Canadian Grand Prix - from which he made an ignominious exit on the second lap.

Villeneuve is an individual, a maverick. He is also the one top-line driver who is not a member of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, something he explains away with customary candour. "I don't really agree with all their decisions and everything they are doing, so I don't really see why I should be part of it. I don't want to be part of something just because it exists and just because everyone else is. I'm not against safety. Safety is very important, I'm not saying the sport should be more dangerous, but I don't want it to destroy the racing. There's no point in having drivers' groups if they don't stay strong together. And they don't."

But it was his comments on Olivier Panis' accident in Canada, widely seen as offensive, that accelerated his slide from title favourite into beleaguered enfant terrible. "I don't like how politically correct Formula One has become," he began, "and how when someone has an accident the drivers will do as if they were really sad, when they don't really care. He just broke two legs. Fifteen years ago, he'd have lost them. Now the safety is so good that accidents like that are not a major concern. They should not have stopped the race. I hope if one day I blow up in a race, they won't stop it, because I know the risks of what I do, and so do all the other drivers.

"If you think about it, two broken legs is nothing very bad. That happens to everybody in their lifetime. How many skiers hurt themselves like that in winter? So, just relax a little bit. Olivier was having a great season and it's terrible that it has happened to him at this point, but you know even when your legs are weak, you can still come back in a race car. If he was a skier, then he would be off for a longer period of time." The sentiments are not necessarily wrong, but Villeneuve has yet to learn the art of expression.

Some genuinely believe that he has an inherent death wish, and certainly his conversation is continually peppered with references to what he calls "the edge". But he summarises his motivations rationally enough. "There's one reason I'm racing cars, and if changing the rules will take away a little bit from what you enjoy about racing, then of course I'm going to go against it. When you feel strongly about something, you should say it. I just couldn't keep quiet and accept everything just because I'm happy to be in Formula One. I'm not racing to be in Formula One, it's because of the speed and the edge, the challenge that goes with it, and the risk as well, a little bit."

Sources suggest that his relationship with the Williams team is rocky. Tensions which started over financial negotiations now embrace performances. No driver has ever been so molly- coddled as Villeneuve was when Formula One's powerbroker, Bernie Ecclestone, shoe-horned him into the team. He did 6,000km of testing before his GP debut, and was allowed - in an unprecedented indulgence - to make his own experiments with chassis set-up. Now he says the team have to work harder, though their failure to score a one-two result so far this year doesn't worry him. "What concerns me is what I do," he says curtly. "I don't really care what my team-mate does, as long as he's behind me."

What Williams miss most is Damon Hill, and his stabilising ability to race to win while remaining a team player. Villeneuve will almost certainly stay for 1998, but his name is continually linked to a new Formula One project planned for 1999 by his managers.

Jock Clear, Villeneuve's engineer, says that on a professional level he is very strong-minded and makes others justify themselves, but that he can also lark around, "just like an overgrown schoolboy". Rumour says that the schoolboy has lately had a lecture from the headmaster and his deputy, as well as from the school governor.

So why the change of hair colour? "I just felt like it. To tell you the truth, if I wasn't racing, I would have died my hair easier without thinking about it. Now I thought a little bit about it, because there's no reason to do something if it's going to get everyone mad, unless you do it just to get a reaction from people. But that's not why I do it."

Jackie Stewart always maintained that losing the 1968 World Championship battle to Graham Hill was the best thing for him, as he was not then ready for champion status, but Villeneuve has a typically Nineties view of last year's defeat by Hill. "It would have been better to win it. If you can win something, then you can't say that not winning it is better. I'm in racing to win, so if you get a chance to win, then you should try to win it. There would have been more work and pressure and all that, but the fact that you win outweighs that a thousand times."

If he fails to kick-start his campaign with victory at Silverstone, Villeneuve, the fast kid who sometimes trips over his own precocity, might just find that 1996 was, after all, his best shot.