Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, June 17, 2000

In Pursuit of Victory: Many Grand Prix Racers Believe Switching Teams Is Key

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Jacques Villeneuve, in Montreal for the Canadian Grand Prix on Sunday, made fun of all the speculation that has been going on recently about where he will drive next year.

''It makes me laugh,'' said the Canadian driver of the British American Racing team. ''Two months ago, they said I had an agreement with McLaren, now they say it's with Benetton.''

But what is not mere speculation is that Formula One's 22 drivers have a combined 124 years experience, and between them they have joined teams 61 times. That makes their average stay with a team only 2.03 years. No wonder there is already -- even before the season reaches its halfway point -- a lot of guessing about who goes where next.

Johnny Herbert, who has raced with seven teams over 12 seasons, is the driver with the largest number of changes, and is thought to be in his last year. Mika Hakkinen, the double world champion, is in his eighth season straight with McLaren, which is the longest current stay with a single team. Ron Dennis, his team director, said Hakkinen will probably stay at least another year.

Hakkinen has driven 105 races for McLaren -- the Canadian race is the team's 500th -- and is closing in on the record for the number of consecutive races with the same team. Jacques Laffite raced with Ligier in two stints in the 1970s and 1980s, for a total of nine seasons. His first lasted 108 races, the second was for 24. Laffite, now a race commentator on French television, can still be found hanging around the motor home of the ex-Ligier team, now called Prost.

''I place a great deal of importance in human relationships,'' said Laffite. ''As a driver I was happy at Ligier, and I think that to drive a Formula One car or any other racing car quickly, you must feel good with the people in your team, and have the confidence of everyone around you. And that develops year by year.''

Laffite said drivers often tow along their own closely-knit family of professionals. He pointed to Villeneuve, who with his friend and former manager Craig Pollock created the BAR team with funding from British American Tobacco, which sponsored the Canadian in IndyCar. Several other key people at the team were with Villeneuve in IndyCar.

''And he's got his friend Patrick Lemarie driving as a test driver,'' Laffite said. ''It's a nice, warm, little family.''

But despite Villeneuve's comment, the family may break up sooner than expected. ''It would be great to continue the dream and to reach a successful point,'' Villeneuve said. ''But if that looks like it's not going to happen, then it's important to look in other places as well.''

A driver's career, he noted, is short, and drivers have to make the most of it financially. The average length of time drivers spend at a team coincides with the duration of the typical driver contract.

Willi Weber, who manages Ralf and Michael Schumacher, said the typical two-year contract is necessary to guard the driver against a team's loss of an engine or key personnel.

''If you make a contract with a team for four years,'' Weber said, ''and after two years the team loses the engine, you're not competitive anymore. You've hooked yourself into a team where you have no chance to win a race.''

Weber said Ferrari, where Michael Schumacher is in his fifth year, is a special case since the team builds its own engine and every other element of the car.

Tom Walkinshaw, director of the Arrows team, said that the competition between the two drivers on a team creates a ''mind game'' which one driver wins.

''Once one gets unhappy and the other gets on top of the other driver mentally,'' Walkinshaw said, ''the performance of the second guy usually drops away dramatically because he's overdriving or trying too hard or gets demoralized. So then the team gets fed up with him as well, and he starts to look around to see if he can mold another team around him to get the performance that he thinks he's capable of.''

For one of the world's richest sports, money rarely has much to do with a driver's move, said Monte Field, who manages Heinz-Harald Frentzen, a driver at Jordan.

''You want to be successful in the racing car, you want to win races,'' Field said. ''That's where the thrill is. If you do that you're going to be financially rewarded.''

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