Body of evidence favours Villeneuve

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The Independent Online
Body language often speaks far louder than mere words in the introspective environs of the Formula One paddock, and on the victory rostrum it can scream when the drivers' adrenalin is still flowing faster than public relations notions of political correctness can pursue it.

Take Estoril, where Jacques Villeneuve laid his claim to the World Championship crown that once seemed Damon Hill's by right by beating him fair and square in the Portuguese Grand Prix. Villeneuve, stocky yet almost child-like in blue and white overalls at least a size too big for him, wore the satisfied smile of a man who knows he has just driven brilliantly, the mien that a particular kind of sportsman wears when he knows he has dug deep and reached his peak. Michael Schumacher, having wrestled his Ferrari home third, was as cheerful as ever, a grin elongating the already prognathous jaw.

But as they smirked and joked together and squirted the Moet, Hill stood dark and, for all the public occasion, alone, a troubled man pondering his own demons and pointedly ignored by his two rivals.

The weekend had already brought the first outward signs of the strain that has arisen between him and Villeneuve since their fight for the title became so intense. The self-confident Canadian had grabbed hold of Hill's sleeve after a practice session and hissed: "Thanks for screwing up my best lap!" after his team-mate had inadvertently got in his way.

Hill, not a man deliberately to indulge in such unsporting tactics, explained: "I really didn't see Jacques and certainly didn't mean to hurt his lap. I apologised to him. It was just one of those things. But you can't just not be there. There are some times when you can't just vanish into thin air from the circuit, no matter how much other people might wish that you could."

Schumacher could not resist adding his own contribution. Already there had been further salvos in the long-running but lukewarm war of words between himself and Hill after the Briton had suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that he had not realised until recently that Schumacher had a brother. At the time it seemed Hill might still drive at Jordan with Ralf Schumacher, and Michael was asked how long he thought it might take his younger sibling to beat Hill. He replied: "It's difficult to say. But Damon seems to have struggled with all his other team-mates so far."

An unfair comment, perhaps, but as he prepares to surrender his crown, Schumacher no doubt has his own reasons for wanting to add to Hill's growing psychological burden. And all is unfair in the love and war that is Formula One.

Schumacher respects Villeneuve - even more so after the remarkable overtaking manoeuvre that the Canadian pulled on him in the Senna corner at Estoril when he squeezed the Williams around the outside of the Ferrari.

And Villeneuve respects Schumacher, as they all do since he is their yardstick for self- judgement. But as Villeneuve clearly is beginning to feel that he has Hill's measure, the world champion already has his enthusiasm for his old rival under firm rein. He has never tried to conceal his belief that Hill's successes in the past four years have simply been a product of driving the best car. And he would like little better, one suspects, than to see Villeneuve, a man he regards as a worthy adversary, pip Hill at the last chequered flag of the season.

Now Hill faces the greatest test of his mettle. In Suzuka he must beat not one or even two men, but three: Jacques Villeneuve, Michael Schumacher - and himself.