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Smith: Was Jacques Villeneuve’s Formula E departure inevitable?

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When Jacques Villeneuve announced back in August that he would be entering Formula E from the beginning fen season two with Venturi, the reaction was mixed.

The more idealist fans and observers saw it as one of the biggest coups scored by the infant series to date. Regardless of his reputation and somewhat backwards career path, Villeneuve is a former champion in both Formula 1 and CART – and that alone lends a great deal of credence to the series.

The cynics immediately scoffed at his arrival. Given his abrupt and failed foray into NASCAR and the nature of his departure from F1 midway through the 2006 season, few believed that Villeneuve would last long.

I personally belonged in the first camp. My love for F1 and motorsport was encouraged by my mother, who told me stories of seeing her hero, Gilles Villeneuve, race back in the 1970s and 1980s. Reading about the Canadian only increased my amazement.

So this idealist fool put a post up on Facebook on the day that Jacques confirmed his arrival into Formula E, cooing at the fact I would see a Villeneuve out on track the very next week at Donington Park for the first pre-season test.

Naturally, the cynics hit back. The responses read like a bad song list on a new album, fitting since Villeneuve also tried – and struggled – to venture into the music world post-his F1 career.

“You’re looking for the wrong Villeneuve,” one colleague said. “How long until the mid-season walk-out?” quipped another. “Every race needs a 14th place finisher,” added a third.

Villeneuve had long expressed an interest in Formula E as a concept, though. He did try and set up his own team upon the formation of the series, but was unsuccessful. As a result, his arrival at Venturi couldn’t be considered that surprising.

“I got in the car and immediately enjoyed it,” Villeneuve said of a test that helped him make up his mind. “It drove like a proper single seater and I was happily surprised by the feeling in the car and the team atmosphere was great.

“So it was an easy decision to do the full season. It’s a series that will keep getting faster and if you look at the rest of the racing world they try to make them slower, so that’s definitely a positive.”

There were early teething problems, though. The rule change for season two that allowed teams to develop their own powertrains, a task that some managed more successfully than others. Venturi was by no means the worst offender when it came to stoppages, but Villeneuve did suffer a number of issues during his test running, with one leaving him to help push the car back to the garage after grinding to a halt at the end of the pit lane.

Nevertheless, Villeneuve appeared happy. Sporting his famed baggy overalls, he caught up with Jarno Trulli, a driver with whom he raced against the majority of his F1 career. There was a certain nostalgia to it all; the old boys giving it a go against the up-and-comers.

And yet the enormity of the task facing Villeneuve became clear when Formula E hit Beijing for the first race of season two. The Canadian had a nightmarish first race that was interrupted by a tangle with Antonio Felix da Costa when battling over 14th place. He eventually came home in P14, finishing one lap down on race winner Sebastien Buemi.

Putrajaya went little better. Villeneuve came close to scoring a breakthrough point by finishing 11th, yet this was out of just 13 finishers. At the end of a race full of carnage, the opportunity was there for the midfield runners to step up to the plate and pick up some points. Villeneuve missed out here.

He didn’t even make the start in Punta del Este, though. A crash in qualifying left his Venturi car beyond repair, bringing the curtain down on his time in Formula E – unbeknownst to us at the time, of course.

Earlier this week, the team confirmed that Villeneuve had left by mutual consent after “a disagreement over the future direction of the team.” Clearly, Villeneuve wasn’t expecting to fit into the ‘employee’ role that most drivers do; he was always expecting an increased position.

Was his exit from the series inevitable? The aforementioned cynics should in fact be called ‘realists.’ If Villeneuve couldn’t stick it out in a midfield running BMW Sauber back in 2006, what were the chances of him doing so in Formula E? Surely one of F1’s most vocal critics would be unable to find joy in such a young series that, while moving rapidly, still has teething problems?

Perhaps it depended on how he started. Had Villeneuve been battling towards the front early on, it’s unlikely he would have left Venturi. The ins and outs of his departure are not known, but at the age of 44, why would he want to be trundling around at the back?

The level of belief Villeneuve had (and still has) in Formula E is another key factor in his departure. Perhaps he had higher hopes for the championship, only to be disappointed when he arrived in it. Or maybe he felt Venturi weren’t meeting the potential that Formula E offered teams. Maybe he thought it better to go it alone.

So who knows – perhaps this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Jacques Villeneuve in Formula E. The likelihood of him starting his own team anytime soon is low given the grid is at its maximum capacity as of season three with the arrival of Jaguar. All of the other teams appear committed, making a takeover unlikely.

Time will tell on this one. But regardless, Villeneuve may have brought his reputation to Formula E, but the series has proven that no driver – even an ex-F1 and CART champion – is bigger than it as an entity. And that surely is a major victory while it remains at such an early stage.

INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500