BAR-Honda team boss David Richards has admitted that he hopes Jacques Villeneuve - the driver he drops for Takuma Sato next season - finds a team willing to keep him in Formula One for 2004.

Richards, who admitted that the decision to replace the Canadian with Honda favourite Sato was not taken lightly, said that Villeneuve remained an important part of the grand prix scene, even if he did not fit in with BAR's plans for the future.

"I hope that F1 hasn't seen the last of [Jacques], because I think he is an incredible character and a great asset to the sport," Richards was quoted by Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper.

"Some people think it was a pre-determined decision taken a long time ago but I can contradict that completely," he had earlier insisted at the press conference called to reveal the 2004 line-up, "It came after long debate and the decision was taken internally.

"However, as his contract with the team has come to an end, we believe this is the appropriate time to refresh the driver line-up. There comes a time in all relationships where you have to move on."

Villeneuve's hopes of landing any drive - let alone a competitive one - for 2004 continue to dim ahead of an off-season where most of the top seats remain in the possession of the drivers occupying them in 2003. Only Jordan, Jaguar, Minardi and Sauber have definite vacancies, although the Swiss team is strongly tipped to sign Ferrari test driver Felipe Massa to partner Giancarlo Fisichella next season - provided that Michael Schumacher does not contradict the thoughts of his entourage and retire after Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix.

Ironically, team boss Peter Sauber is one of the few in F1 to have admitted that he would have liked to run Villeneuve after his exit from BAR, as Formula One tsar Bernie Ecclestone confirmed that his attempts to find the Canadian a berth for 2004 foundered on the rocks of apathy.

"I did everything possible to talk teams into giving Jacques a drive for next season, but the truth is no one wants him," he told British newspaper The Sun yesterday [Tuesday]

"I still regard him as a great racer, but he needs a team that would give him extra motivation. Toyota would have been the perfect platform for him because they could have given him a car capable of winning races."

Ecclestone admitted that he had even suggested that Villeneuve offer to drive for free at Ferrari, 'but that didn't come off because Michael [Schumacher] insists on number one status."

Villeneuve's options thus remain cloudy, as he has admitted in the past that he feels Formula One remains the pinnacle of the sport, and that reverting to anything else would be a step backwards that he is not willing to take.

He has been connected to a possible return to the CART Champ Car World series, in which manager Craig Pollock co-owns a team, but both parties have denied that this is likely. Pollock has recently been connected to a possible share purchase in Jordan - again denied - which would possibly allow JV to slip into the Silverstone team - should he want to - while a NASCAR has also been bandied about - something Villeneuve has denied any interest in.