Motor racing: Luxembourg GP - Villeneuve focused on making a good start

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The Independent Online
Jacques Villeneuve has a problem with his clutch while world champion Michael Schumacher went go-karting yesterday. Derick Allsop reports from the Nurburgring on contrasting build-ups for the key drivers in tomorrow's grand prix.

The pressure may not show, but it is evidently having its effect on the defiantly phlegmatic Jacques Villeneuve. He and his Williams-Renault team are sparing no effort in their endeavours to tilt the balance of the Formula One world championship.

The Canadian driver, only one point behind Michael Schumacher going into tomorrow's Luxembourg Grand Prix here, the first of three remaining races, delayed his arrival to try and eradicate one of his weaknesses, his starts. The German, meanwhile, was playing around at his karting track with some of his colleagues from Ferrari.

Villeneuve has also intensified his training regime to match the renowned physical prowess of his rival. Frank Williams was moved to say: "I have never seen Jacques so focused."

Villeneuve said: "Basically we don't want to leave anything to chance. We went to Silverstone on Thursday to work on my starts. It's really down to the driver, but I have had three bad starts this season and each time it was because the clutch was slipping.

"I thought it was wheelspin, but it is the clutch, which is very small now and difficult to feel. I did a few bad starts at Silverstone but most went well."

Villeneuve recovered from another tardy getaway in last week's Austrian Grand Prix to win the race and close up on Schumacher, yet fears the next time may be more costly.

Despite the fact that the pair have dominated most of the season, they have rarely confronted each other head to head on the track and yesterday's practice session suggested others may again cloud the issue. Villeneuve was 12th, Schumacher eighth.

Villeneuve said: "We're not going to force a battle, but my primary concern will obviously be to finish ahead of Michael. We had three or four battles last year and there may be a battle between us before the end of this season. If there is, it will be fierce. There is only one point between us and the competition is high."

Schumacher may have home advantage, but Villeneuve won here last year and believes that could be a greater psychological force. He does not, however, anticipate a repeat of the mind and verbal games that characterised Schumacher's contest with Damon Hill in 1994-95.

Villeneuve said: "There is enough pressure without playing the stupid games that happened in the past. Michael and I don't spend time together away from the track, when you have little time to spare anyway. But every time we are together it's good. We get on well."

Schumacher is assured of the support of his team-mate, Eddie Irvine, should he require it, while Villeneuve admits that he is unsure if his partner, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, would be inclined to forfeit his own cause here. Villeneuve said: "I'm fighting for the championship, he isn't, but he is racing in his home country, so it is difficult to tell him to slow down. You want to be quick yourself, anyway."

Quickest yesterday was Mika Hakkinen in a McLaren- Mercedes. The Finn has yet to convert that potency into a victory and this race may present him with another opportunity.

His team-mate, David Coulthard, has made more of his chances in racing, first and second places from the last two outings, lifting him to within one point of Frentzen, who is third in the drivers' standings. Now the Scot is intent on achieving his championship target.

Coulthard said: "My goal is to finish in the top three. It's looking very good and I'm confident I can do that. We should be strong at all the remaining races."

Another man with a mission here is Olivier Panis, making his return to Formula One after suffering double fractures of both legs in Canada, three months ago. The Prost-Mugen driver was 11th at the end of practice.

He said: "I never thought my career would be finished. Three months is not that long and I'm fine. It's great to be back."

Hill was 10th in the Arrows-Yamaha, Irvine 13th and Johnny Herbert a disappointed 16th in his Sauber-Petronas.

Overlooking the Benetton-Renault operation for the first time was David Richards, taking over from Flavio Briatore.

LUXEMBOURG GRAND PRIX (Nurburgring, Ger): Leading times after yesterday's opening practice sessions for tomorrow's race: 1 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren- Mercedes 1:17.998 (average 210.282kph (130.651mph); 2 R Barrichello (Br) Stewart-Ford 1:18.339; 3 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault 1:18.434; 4 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Peugeot 1:18.713; 5 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-REnault 1:18.794; 6 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:18.912; 7 H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Renault 1:18.926; 8 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:18.954; 9 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Peugeot 1:19.034; 10 D Hill (GB) Arrows-Hart 1:19.091; 11 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Mugen-Honda 1:19.412; 12 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams- Renault 1:19.640; 13 E Irvine (Irl) Ferrari 1:19.708; 14 P Diniz (Br) Arrows-Hart 1:19.750; 15 S Nakano (Japan) Prost-Mugen-Honda 1:20.073; 16 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Petronas 1:20.373; 17 J Magnussen (Den) Stewart- Ford 1:20.592; 18 J Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell-Ford 1:20.947; 19 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford 1:21.118; 20 G Morbidelli (It) Sauber-Petronas 1:21.387; 21 T Marques (Br) Minardi-Hart 1:21.424; 22 U Katayama (Japan) Minardi- Hart 1:38.344.