Jacques Villeneuve didn't just win a race at the Hungaroring on Sunday. He also won a significant argument with his technical director Patrick Head.
For many races, the Canadian has expressed his dissatisfaction in not being allowed to set up his car to suit himself, and having to defer to the computer-generated setups of the Williams-Renault team's engineers.
"I don't like it", he said in a recent interview with French magazine Auto Hebdo. "We've wasted many weekends going back to computer setups, even after having discarded them. People will trust computers and engineers who have never even been near a race track. Sometimes it's very hard to deal with someone who tries to bring you back to the computer setups every 5 laps."
Patrick Head, however, has a different viewpoint: "Jacques is still not using the full technical potential of his machine and industrial potential of the team," he declared earlier this season.
Mexican standoff. However, with the championship in the team's grasp, it was revealed last week by Villeneuve's agent, Craig Pollock, that for the Hungarian weekend Jacques would be for the first time using the car setups devised by him and his race engineer Jock Clear. This came after a very productive 3-day test session at a tight and twisty little circuit in Nogaro, France, similar to the Hungaroring and at which Villeneuve tried out several of his own ideas with confidence-inspiring results.
Confidence in the car is so much a part of a driver's performance that one wonders why the Williams team have been so adamant that Villeneuve defer to their setups instead of a car in which he felt comfortable and which was more suited to his particular style. But as Jacques himself pointed out: "Williams is more a team of engineers than drivers." And with a reputed $200m annual budget to justify, it is a little difficult for a rookie to suggest to the team that they might be able to do without some of it.
According to Pollock, Jacques went to Hungary full of confidence in his ability to win, even at an unknown circuit renowned for its trickiness. And it showed. From the first day's practice he was right on the pace, which surprised many people, including Head himself, who came close to admitting that Jacques may have made a point.
"He did surprise us," Head said after the race. "Usually he has had some problems at tracks he hasn't seen before, but this time he really put his head down and did a great job".
Despite losing over ten seconds during his 3rd pitstop because of a faulty wheel nut, Villeneuve held off Damon Hill's challenge to score his third victory of the season and his 6th successive podium finish. The race looked in his grasp from the halfway point, and only the long final pitstop turned it into a fight to the very finish. But Jacques was very happy with the result.
"I am especially happy to beat Damon on the track, particularly as this is the kind of circuit I don't usually enjoy," he said at the media conference afterwards.
From his viewpoint, he had achieved several goals. First, he beat his team-mate outright instead of by default, he reduced the gap in the drivers' championship to manageable if not comfortable proportions, he won the race to give his team its eighth Constructors' Title, and, probably the most personally satisfying, he proved that in this age of computer-generated cars and setups, the driver is still the last and most significant piece in the racing jigsaw puzzle. For those of us who enjoy watching a race between humans instead of computers, this was a welcome win.
There isn't much doubt that Villeneuve and Head are a rather odd couple. Whether they will reach an eventual compromise in their differing philosophies is yet to be seen. But for now Jacques Villeneuve is using just as much of his team's technical resources as he needs to. Perhaps after this race they might be inclined to use some more of his.