In typically ill-fitting overalls and in desperate need of some kind of haircut,
Jacques Villeneuve was presented to the world’s press as one of Peugeot’s six
Le Mans drivers for 2007. The car may be a month late, the budget never set in
stone, and Audi has already stolen the march on the Peugeot (which announced
first that it was coming to Le Mans with a diesel – six months before Audi did) by
winning seven ALMS races, including Sebring and Le Mans during 2006.
That was all the bad news and to be honest, if that is all there is, you are not in
bad shape. John Nielsen, an interested observer at the Aston Martin party on
Friday night, concluded that the lack of budget constraint is what a manufacturer
should be about. It should not be a question of money, but of getting the job done.
With between 20,000 and 30,000km of testing planned this season, that should
get the job done if not this year, then in 2008.
The car being a month late is not a great problem. There were never any plans to
run at Sebring, or in any other ALMS race this year, so the target is March’s tests at
Sebring and Paul Ricard, and its first race is in April at Monza. Initial tests have
gone well and Peugeot is quite happy to aim for Le Mans glory in 2008 if fate
doesn’t hand it to them this year. So the question everyone has asked since is:
why Jacques? Having attended the launch, my question is: why not?
We’ll always have Paris…….Britney……….Lindsay………Nic?
Sure, JV was in cruise and collect mode in his latter years of Formula One. Sure,
he won Indy and the F1 title in the last century. Sure, he has a reputation for
arrogance which carried him through F1 and which is not welcome in sports car
circles. He is despised by Sniffpetrol.com and at the launch in France he was
more concerned with presenting himself as a father than as a full-time racing
driver, which probably wasn’t the image Peugeot was looking for.
Yet at the launch he did almost everything right. The overalls and the haircut made
him look as though he had been on a wild night with Paris Hilton and Britney
Spears, and he had nicked whatever was to hand in the morning, but that is his
style. With Nicolas Minassian, Stephane Sarrazin, Pedro Lamy, Sebastian
Bourdais and Marc Gene, he drove several laps of the Mortefontaine proving
ground in a 407SW before parking up and sitting still while Eric Helary completed
a few laps in the new 908 HDI FAP which will run at Le Mans this year.
He was the last to be presented before going through to the press conference
where he was largely ignored. The questions were to the Peugeot hierarchy and
primarily concerned the issue of cost (yes, the Le Mans programme is cheaper
than the WRC, yes, the Le Mans programme meets with the parameters set at the
start of the project), and the amount of testing which will go into the car in 2007.
A Question of Sport
The questions did turn to Villeneuve eventually. As Peugeot announced that their
star wanted to win at Le Mans, and Peugeot doesn’t think it will be ready to beat
Audi this year, is Villeneuve on a two-year contract? Apparently like the others, he
is on a one year, with a one-year option for 2008. (Villeneuve is looking at NASCAR
for 2008, and probably wouldn’t have time to contest Le Mans anyway, but it was
good to know.) Pedro tried very hard not to answer a question as he doesn’t speak
French, but the others didn’t let him get away with it and he had to come up with
However, as the press conference drew to a close, there was a tidal wave of
media heading towards the stage, and straight to the little guy. Unprotected by
anyone, if ever Villeneuve’s temper was about to boil over, it would be here.
Microphones and tape recorders bashed his face and arms, questions came from
all sides and he answered patiently and in French. That was no good to the
English speaking fraternity (Gary Watkins, Marco Ragazzoni and myself, anyway)
and eventually he was dragged away to the relative safety of a roped off area
outside. There he was free, and moved along answering questions in French and
eventually, hallelujah, in English.
Should he win at Le Mans, he would be the first since Graham Hill in 1972 to win
Indy 500, F1 and Le Mans. However, he was not to be second best in anything,
and claimed he was going not for the triple, but uniquely for the quad, including the
CART title in 1995. He was asked about the circuit of Le Mans, criticised by
Schumacher who has vowed not to return. “I would drive those cars around the old
Nurburgring,” said Jacques.
Is this a step back from Formula One asked one hack who had jumped the rope
and was in danger of getting castrated by the Peugeot Sport lady. “No. I achieved
in F1 what I had to achieve. I won the championship and I raced there for many
years. GP2 would be a step back. This is something completely different.”
How will he cope sharing a car with anyone else? “You cannot have the perfect
set-up for you. I was used to doing a lot of testing in Formula One, and from what I
have seen there are enough miles planned to be ready for Le Mans.” Sounds
good. Looks promising. Villeneuve is the star of the show, the Sebastien Loeb of
Peugeot’s Le Mans programme, the darling of the French press. Yet behind the
wheel, he is the new boy and will no doubt get his doors blown off by Minassian
and Sarrazin in the opening stages before he proves himself. How will he fare at
3am, on worn tyres when it has all turned to poo? Team manager Serge Saulnier
wouldn’t have accepted a lemon in his car, so I reckon he’ll do OK.
Good Ole Boys…………
I am not so sure about Montoya. Though the Colombian never won the World title
in F1, he won the CART title, won the Indy 500, trod his own path through Formula
One and is also the object of derision by Sniffpetrol.com. He, too, will contest a 24-
hour race this year with Chip Ganassi Racing at Daytona next weekend (January
27/28). He, too, has his eye on NASCAR, and has signed for the full season this
year, becoming the first ex-F1 driver to do a full season of the American touring car
While Villeneuve will drive a diesel, Montoya will drive a deliberately low-grade
prototype with Scott Pruett and Salvador Duran. The handling characteristics of the
car will suit Montoya’s style, and he will be spectacular, but he will have nae grip,
nae grunt as coined by Tom Walkinshaw, and that might not make him such a
How will Montoya cope at 3am, on spectacularly crap tyres, when the temperature
in Florida dips so low he will think he is back at Snetterton on a really, really bad
winter day testing a Formula Three car? The jury is out for two weeks while we find