Anguish of a slow Hill start

Arrows of misfortune for the world champion as Formula One show gets on the road; David Tremayne in Melbourne says Britain's top driver faces testing times
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Ten minutes was all it took Jacques Villeneuve and the Williams- Renault team to bring the lofty dreams of their rivals crashing to earth in Melbourne yesterday.

Everyone knew that the times from Friday's free practice session could not be taken as too serious a guide, and that only qualifying would really tell the truth. But false hope is as common as greed in Formula One and as Michael Schumacher in the Ferrari edged out Williams' newcomer, Heinz- Harald Frentzen, that day there rose the sliver of hope that the season might at last see a variety of potential winners. Yet within those 10 minutes of qualifying on Saturday afternoon Villeneuve destroyed all such hopes with a crushing display. In doing so he redefined a target which still appears beyond the range of the rest of the pit lane, despite a winter of intensive development.

David Coulthard had just upstaged his McLaren-Mercedes partner Mika Hakkinen to establish the fastest time with a lap of 1min 31.531sec, when Villeneuve stopped the clocks at 1:30.505, and in that moment the vision that rivals and spectators had dreaded became reality.

Yet for all Villeneuve's dominance, this was a gripping hour of high- speed roulette, for the very speed of the French- Canadian threatened to inflict absolute indignity on Damon Hill, the man to whom he lost the world championship. Hill's TWR Arrows-Yamaha has had a troubled gestation and suffered ignominiously this weekend from its blighted development. At one stage, whisper it, it seemed that the Briton might even suffer the embarrassment of failing to qualify under the ruling that all grid times must be within 107 per cent of the fastest man's. The quicker Villeneuve went - and ultimately he drew a majestic 1.7sec clear of the field with a lap of 1:29.369 - the faster Hill had to push his recalcitrant machine to make the grade. After transmission problems in the morning, he was obliged to wrestle with an ill-handling spare car, and there was a poignancy in the way in which his talents were betrayed by its slithering ineptitude. Subsequently, back in his race car, he worked diligently down to a time that left him 20th of the 21 cars on the grid.

For all his troubles, a philosophical Hill has been in good form this weekend, scoring an amusing psychological victory over Schumacher on Thursday. In a general discussion over the possibility that the pair might become better friends now that the intensity of their rivalry has been diluted, Schumacher said: "It might be better to turn it round and say that we are not enemies," whereupon Hill interjected, tongue-in-cheek: "But I've always hated your guts."

The humour was initially lost on Schumacher, though of the two he certainly had more to laugh about after pushing his Ferrari to third place. He was the sole leading runner to opt for Goodyear's harder compound tyres, on which he would subsequently race. After all the recent criticism, it was some vindication of the designer John Barnard's latest creation. Schumacher pushed Coulthard down to fourth place ahead of Eddie Irvine in the second red car, Hakkinen, and the impressive Johnny Herbert in the Ferrari-powered Sauber.

If Villeneuve threatened Hill with elimination, at least his old partner had the excuse of weaker machinery. Frentzen could not lay similar claim after putting in the least convincing performance by a Williams driver for many years.

"I felt a bit nervous in a new car and having different people around me," he admitted, "and I would say that Jacques is one of the world title contenders because he has the experience; he knows the team and the people. He knows the car very well, and he's very sharp. He's also very motivated and very clever. He will go for it." But it was clear that Frentzen had surrendered psychological points within the team, which might put him on the back foot in the coming battle with Villeneuve for a title that already seems destined to fall to one or other of them.

Frank Williams was loyal to his new driver: "I'm very happy with the way Heinz-Harald is going, but I think it will take him the first half of the season before he is really settled in, just as it took Jacques a similar time last year. These days there is a lot more to it than just driving the car. You have to know how a team works, and how to get the best out of that situation."

It said everything, however, that though Frentzen was that embarrassing 1.7sec slower than Villeneuve, he still joined him on the front row of the starting grid. Already, the rest were running for second place.