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When the inaugural Chinese grand prix was announced at the start of the season, all 20 Formula One drivers were enthusiastic about racing at the new circuit in Shanghai this month. But of the original 20, only 17 will be in action there this Sunday, the rest have fallen victim to the astonishing attrition rate among F1 drivers.
By any standards, the last 10 days have been a time of sweeping change in the sport, with a number of drivers being traded between teams and Ford deciding to fold Jaguar Racing at the end of the season.
Shortly after the last grand prix in Italy, Renault announced that it was parting company with Jarno Trulli, who currently lies fourth in the world championship and who won the Monaco grand prix in May. Trulli was due to switch to Toyota at the end of the season anyway, but after a lacklustre showing in Monza, he was summarily dropped.
Jacques Villeneuve is Trulli's replacement at Renault for the final three races of the season. The 1997 world champion has been on the sidelines this season after being acrimoniously axed by BAR Honda last year. But no sooner had Villeneuve turned in his first laps in testing for Renault last week than Sauber announced that he would race for them full time in 2005 and 2006.
Villeneuve did 450 miles of testing at Silverstone and is now ready for some real action. His lap times were good and the team has worked hard to make him comfortable in the car. The 33-year-old Canadian is extremely demanding when it comes to his cockpit environment. He likes to pad out the seat and the grips of his steering wheel with Blu-tack and tape to fit snugly around his back and his hands, making him feel that he is part of the car.
Ironically his mission in the last three races will be to help Renault to beat his former team to second place in the constructors' championship. The gap is currently just three points.
“The team and I share a common goal: to beat BAR,” says Villeneuve. “I am here to enjoy myself as well, but the priority is to contribute to Renault's fight in the championship. It will be tough, but sometimes you have to take the plunge.” Renault started the season brightly but the Trulli affair has cost them points in the past two months. Trulli was castigated by the team after losing third place to Rubens Barrichello on the final corner at the French grand prix in July. A few weeks later it was announced that he would be replaced in 2005 by Giancarlo Fisichella.
Since France, Trulli has not scored a single point, although he took a stunning pole in Spa. The Italian has implied that his car is not performing as well as before, but it is not clear why Renault would slow him down with so much at stake in the championship. It will be interesting to see how Villeneuve adapts to this situation. Renault will want him to play his part, but will not want him to beat their other driver, Fernando Alonso.
Freed from his Renault contract, Trulli tested last week for Toyota and is expected to race for them in the final two grands prix, in Japan and Brazil. Toyota have already dropped Cristiano da Matta and replaced him with test driver Riccardo Zonta, who is expected to make way for Trulli.
At Jordan, Giorgio Pantano has made way in China for the team's third driver, 22-year-old Timo Glock.
Meanwhile, no buyer has emerged yet for Jaguar Racing nor Ford's Cosworth Racing engine business. This could have huge consequences for the sport as both the Jordan and Minardi teams use Cosworth engines. Plenty for the Chinese to digest as they get their first taste of F1 this weekend.
James Allen is ITV Sport's lead F1 commentator
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