British American Racing announced Tuesday that Japanese driver Takuma Sato will complete the 2004 driver lineup alongside Jenson Button.
The announcement comes just days after Canadian driver Jacques Villeneuve was dropped by BAR Honda after a disappointing and increasingly fractious five-year relationship.
“As you know there has been a lot of speculation about who will partner Jenson Button next year,” BAR managing director Dave Richards told reporters at a news conference in Tokyo. “We’re very pleased to announce that Takuma Sato will be lining up with Jenson next season.”
The Formula One season has one race left — the Japanese Grand Prix on Oct. 12. It will be Villeneuve’s last with BAR Honda.
“Jacques has been very loyal to us but there comes a time in all relationships when you have to move on,” said Richards. “I truly hope F-1 hasn’t seen the last of Jacques Villeneuve.”
The 32-year-old Villeneuve, the lone Canadian driver on the circuit, is tied for 14th in the drivers’ standings, more than 80 points behind five-time champion Michael Schumacher. His best results this year were sixth-place finishes in races in Italy and Brazil.
He has failed to finish eight of 15 races this season.
The 26-year-old Sato, currently a test driver with BAR Honda, made his Formula One debut in 2002 with Jordan Honda. His best finish was fifth place at last year’s Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka.
“A year out of racing has been tough for me,” said Sato, who signed a three-year deal with BAR Honda. “But I’m confident the work we have done this year in testing has been extremely valuable in helping me and the team become strong partners.”
With Sato aboard, Richards said the future looks bright for BAR Honda.
“He has done an excellent job for us in testing,” said Richards. “Takuma is regarded as a very fast driver and he has had a meteoric rise to Formula One.”
Richards also said he expects Sato’s presence to help further solidify the relationship between BAR and Honda.
“Honda is an integral part of the team,” said Richards. “And I’m hoping Takuma will help to further bridge the gap between BAR and Honda.”
Villeneuve never won a race for BAR although he did give the team its first podium finishes in 2001 when he was third in Spain and Germany, and finished seventh in the drivers’ standings. The following season, however, he was 12th.
He joined the team for its inaugural season in 1999, after winning the Formula One drivers’ championship with Williams.
In a statement released by BAR on Friday previewing the Japanese Grand Prix, Villeneuve said: “It has been a highly disappointing season with a lot of bad luck.”
“I’ve never worked as hard as the last couple of years,” he said before the U.S. Grand Prix on Sept. 28. “And also I’ve never had as little fun in racing as in the last two years.”
Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone says he tried to help Villeneuve to stay in Formula One next season but no team was interested.
“I did everything possible to talk teams into giving Jacques a drive for next season but the truth is no one wants him,” he said.
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