They might have been bitter sparring partners on the racetrack as they duelled it out for F1 World Championship glory just over a decade ago, but Michael Schumacher has received a vote of confidence regarding his largely disappointing top flight comeback this year from an unlikely quarter – Jacques Villeneuve.
Routinely out-qualified and outraced by young Mercedes Grand Prix team-mate and compatriot Nico Rosberg, F1 2010 was a dispiriting campaign for the most successful driver in the sport's long history – as he struggled to adapt his driving style to what was a frustratingly uncompetitive car.
Towards the end of the season, however, the German legend was beginning to show signs of getting on terms with – and occasionally even beating – Rosberg, and in an interview earlier this week, he insisted that he expects considerably more from 2011 [see separate story – click here
Villeneuve – who Schumacher infamously and unceremoniously tried to take out of the 1997 European Grand Prix at Jerez, in so doing inadvertently handing the French-Canadian the drivers' crown – backs that assertion, whilst also suggesting that the 41-year-old's past achievements in F1 are perhaps occasionally viewed through rose-tinted spectacles.
“It was difficult for him until mid-season, but by the end he was ahead of his team-mate,” the eleven-time grand prix-winner – who has been endeavouring to make an F1 return of his own for the past year – told French magazine Auto Hebdo
. “If the car didn't suit him then that's hard to resolve, but at the end of the season he was there.
“It's difficult. I was away for six months (in 2004) and physically it was tough, and then you're getting your bearings. The last tenth is hard to get back. At Ferrari, he was one or two tenths ahead of his team-mate but rarely more. Everyone thought he was going to be a second ahead of Rosberg, but it was never even like that in the past.”
Meanwhile, Villeneuve has rubbished speculation that he turned down an opportunity to rejoin the grand prix grid with the newly-renamed Lotus Renault GP outfit next season. A French-Canadian radio commentator has claimed that following a visit to Lotus' Norfolk headquarters late last year for discussions with his friend Gino Rosato, the 39-year-old was offered a KV Racing Technology IndyCar Series drive in the legendary British sports car marque's iconic green-and-yellow livery, with the carrot of an F1 seat in 2011.
“That was never discussed,” the 1995 IndyCar Champion told Québécois publication Rue Frontenac
. “There was never any discussion of F1. Everyone knows how hard I worked on my return to F1. If the only thing I needed to do was spend a year in IndyCar, I would have done it! The truth is that F1 only came into the plans of Lotus Cars in the last few months.
“It's true that we talked about Indycar, but Takuma Sato had already been hired as their first driver and I was asked to bring some of the budget that my partners at the time wanted to invest for F1. It was not an option.
“IndyCar and the Indy 500 – I've already done that, and that was before the separation, when the series was more competitive. If I have to bring a budget, it will be for a new challenge like NASCAR, not to go back to something I have already ticked off and achieved.”
“F1 was not in our plans when I spoke to Jacques about IndyCar,” concurred Rosato, who following a long career in the top flight with Ferrari, was instated as Lotus' vice-president of corporate affairs. “I would have loved for him to race with us. In my head, Villeneuve and Lotus was a natural fit, but the planets were not aligned.”