Jan.2 (GMM) The meteoric return to form of his old title-winning team Williams last year surprised 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve.
In 2013, amid the Grove team’s slump, the French Canadian told the Portuguese language magazine Revista Warmup that “When a team is reduced to hiring pay-drivers, it’s over”.
At the time, he was referring to Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas.
Maldonado has since switched to Lotus, but although Finn Bottas is backed by some sponsors and managed by team co-owner Toto Wolff, he emerged in 2014 as a true rising star of F1.
Indeed, Mercedes team boss Wolff has now named Bottas as next in line behind Fernando Alonso should a vacancy arise at the dominant works team.
And Bottas, 25, has also been linked with a future move to Ferrari.
“They (Ferrari) do not have a lot of options when the contract of Raikkonen expires,” Wolff told Italy’s La Gazzetta dello Sport on Thursday.
“From my side, there are certain conditions in the event that his (Bottas’) future sits outside of Mercedes.”
Villeneuve, once outspoken about Bottas, agrees that the situation at Williams has now changed.
“Bottas is a young driver, not really a pay-driver,” he told the latest edition of Revista Warmup. “Even with Felipe Massa they got some money from Brazil.
“But he is also a professional driver with a past, a career, and they (Williams) knew well how to use the money,” said Villeneuve.
He admitted that Williams’ customer Mercedes engine deal also helped the beleaguered Grove team to revolutionise its fortunes in 2014, as it powered to third place in the constructors’ championship.
Wolff is now singling out Williams as perhaps the ‘most dangerous’ rival to Mercedes for 2015.
“Williams does not have a big budget,” said Villeneuve, “yet they managed to turn the tide. But it is not completed yet.
“This (2014) was the first season that they went well so we will have to see if it continues the same way.”
The 43-year-old, who won seven grands prix for Williams en route to the 1997 title, said he expected Williams to put in an improved performance in 2014, “but not that good”.
“I expected them to be better,” said Villeneuve, “but they exceeded expectations.”