Villeneuve keeps tongue in check

Motor racing
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The Independent Online
Jacques Villeneuve had the last laugh yesterday morning when he returned to his native Canada to set the fastest lap time during initial practice for tomorrow's Canadian Grand Prix on the circuit named after his late father.

The Canadian could have been forgiven for thinking more of his ongoing spat with Max Mosley, the president of FIA, the sport's governing body, than he was of his campaign this weekend. But he showed that he can compartmentalise his life by rising to the challenges of the Ferraris and his Williams team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

When Ayrton Senna caught the red-eye flight from Brazil to Italy in 1993 at the height of arguments with McLaren and Ford over engine supply, there were suggestions his erratic driving in the first practice session were the result of jetlag - and murmurs that anyone but the Brazilian champion might have been prevented from driving.

Villeneuve has little sense of history of his sport, but observers recalled Senna's situation when his successor at Williams was summoned from Canada to a meeting with Mosley in Paris on Wednesday. Villeneuve has had several verbal skirmishes with Mosley this season and is passionately opposed to Mosley's plans to change the regulations next season to incorporate treaded tyres in a move to slow cars down. Mosley had taken exception to comments attributed to Villeneuve last week in the German magazine Der Spiegel.

After testing a Williams to the new specification earlier this season, Villeneuve had said the proposed changes were "a joke, basically. It takes all the precision out of the driving. I think it's ridiculous to drive race cars like that."

And though he said he had no immediate plans to quit F1, he warned: "If it becomes boring to drive in F1, the best racing will probably end up being IndyCars, and it could have a big influence on decisions. The reason I'm racing is because I enjoy the racing and if that's taken away, just the money side isn't going to be enough to keep me for a long time. For a short period maybe.

"And I've heard some other drivers saying that as well, that they would probably look at the other side. You need to enjoy it. What's fun this year is the extra grip you have. You really get a rush. Even in Argentina you could get a rush because of the extra speed and it has become fun. I think it's going to take more away from the driver and instead of still being the ultimate sport it is, it's going to become more of a travelling circus."

Asked if he and Mosley were still talking, he had snapped back: "Talking is one thing, listening is another."

Mosley responded in Monaco with a few punches of his own, accusing Villeneuve of believing that history began when he first stepped into an F1 car and that racing drivers of the past were inferior, but he took a dim view when Der Spiegel quoted Villeneuve as describing the current situation in F1 as "shit". Thus he had to return to Europe to explain himself, emerging with a reprimand and the threat of more sanctions were he to repeat his offence.

At the start of each season drivers sign a document agreeing not to bring the sport into disrepute when they apply for the super-licences they need to race, and in the past both Alain Prost and Senna have received similar warnings.

The World Motor Sport Council stressed to Villeneuve that he had not been summoned because of his opinions but because he had expressed them in offensive terms. When he arrived back in Canada, Villeneuve promptly told a press conference: "I have no intention of changing my views, but perhaps I will express them in better language next time."

Insiders believe that Villeneuve's principal mistake was not so much to comment at all on the proposed regulations, but to deride Mosley with the comment: "Max doesn't know what he is talking about because he has never driven a racing car." This was indeed a foolish faux pas because Mosley was in fact a competitor in the Formula Two race - one step below Formula One - at Hockenheim in 1968 in which Jim Clark was killed.

Villeneuve yesterday continued to drive with the aggressive determination that has earned him the lead in the World Championship, and continued to reiterate the need for some measure of risk in F1 if it is to be regarded as the pinnacle of the sport. And he pledged to remain outspoken.

"I don't think people should stop saying what they believe if they truly believe it," he said. There are a lot of people in F1 who would not disagree with that point of view.