As Hill is banished to TWR Arrows, it was reported yesterday that his partner next season will be Pedro Diniz, the 26-year-old Brazilian currently driving for Ligier who is bringing a pounds 5m budget to the Oxfordshire team.
Villeneuve, who stays on at Williams for 1997, ended a damp day in fourth place with Hill right behind, but the only times that matter are those they set in qualifying in the afternoon, which will decide the starting grid for this crucial final encounter.
"I think it's a good start, and I'm quite happy with the car," Hill said, looking relaxed despite intermittent rain which left the track slippery throughout the day. "It was changing every lap, and there were certain parts of the track that were wetter than others. Although there was a dryish line the times were quite a long way from a full dry time. So it was half and half, really.
"At the end I elected to go out and do a longish run, so I've got a good feel what the car might be like if the race conditions are like this. I'm pleased with the way things went. It was a useful session from two points of view: we got some wet running and close to some dry running. We got a lot of information today."
Villeneuve, too, was buoyant, though less able than he had hoped to capitalise on his experience of the track from junior racing. "Portugal was better for me because we had done a lot of testing at Estoril," he said. "If it's going to rain here all weekend it's going to be very difficult to work on the car. I didn't do much to the set-up today because the track conditions were changing so much. This morning the track didn't feel quite the way I remembered it from the days it was wet when I used to race Formula Three here, but by the afternoon it was beginning to feel more familiar."
Gerhard Berger was the man in the strongest form, his good humour evident even at breakfast. "You know," he joked, "in my days in Formula Three all the sponsors wanted was television, so I had this guy follow me with a camera and keep asking me for an interview. I always gave him one even though there wasn't any film in the camera. The sponsors wanted to see television interest, so I gave it to them. I got more money and nobody ever seemed to realise that the film never came!"
Yesterday there was no need for subterfuge as the 37-year-old Austrian finished practice more than half a second faster than Mika Hakkinen's McLaren-Mercedes and almost a second ahead of Michael Schumacher's Ferrari. "We've solved a front suspension problem that hurt us in the last two races," Berger said, "and I hope that we can confirm this performance tomorrow."
"A couple of people are quick today but you can't tell on Friday exactly what the situation is," Hill said. "Quite often we find on Friday we are apparently not as competitive as others, but then on Saturday we put ourselves at the head of the field again, so I don't know quite what to say about today except that some of the people ahead of us may be there for other reasons."
His Williams-Renault looked twitchy at times, but Hill was as unconcerned about its behaviour as he was about the four drivers ahead of him. "I was pushing to find the limits and every now and then you'd hit a patch that would make the back end step out, but the car was very controllable so I'm quite encouraged by that."
The weather forecast is not good for the weekend, and Hill and Villeneuve would prefer a dry track. "Of course it's preferable to have a dry race," Hill said, "but I'm not too concerned either way. It's just a little more predictable when it's dry."
"I think we've got a better car in the dry," Villeneuve said, "and there is more chance of Damon or myself falling off if it's wet. And the wet will put the other teams closer to us as well. To win the championship I have to win, so I guess I'd rather have a dry track. The ball is in Damon's court, so all I can do is my best and win the race and then hope that Damon doesn't finish. But if you hope for something you get the opposite, and you'll regret it anyway." Regret, for sure, will engulf one of them on Sunday.
JAPANESE GRAND PRIX (Suzuka) First practice times: 1 G Berger (Aut) Benetton- Renault, 1min 42.350sec; (128.911mph); 2 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes, 1:42.954; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari, 1:43.321; 4 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault, 1:43.372; 5 D Hill (GB) Williams, 1:43.747; 6 M Brundle (GB) Jordan-Peugeot, 1:43.845; 7 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton, 1:43.860; 8 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari, 1:44.092; 9 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan, 1:44.441; 10 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford, 1:44.598; 11 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell Yamaha, 1:44.971; 12 J Herbert (GB) Sauber, 1:45.194; 13 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren, 1:45.471; 14 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell, 1:45.789; 15 O Panis (Fr) Ligier- Mugen-Honda, 1:45.893; 16 J Verstappen (Neth) Footwork-Hart, 1:46.105; 17 R Rosset (Bra) Footwork, 1:47.285; 18 P Lamy (Por) Minardi-Ford, 1:48.724; 19 G Lavaggi (It) Minardi, 1:50.227; 20 P Diniz (Bra) Ligier, 2:02.130.
Land of the rising son, page 26
HILL v VILLENEUVE
Pit stops apart, never more than two seconds ahead of Villeneuve
Led from start despite rainstorm to win by 17 seconds
Rebuilt lead after safety car introduced following Diniz-Badoer crash
Dropped from pole to fifth at start. Lost time in pits but recovered strongly
Pit stops decisive after lost early lead to Coulthard and Schumacher
Led comfortably until engine blew up at just over half distance
Slid off and returned behind Schumacher but spun off again in wet race
Held off Villeneuve at first corner. One pit-stop strategy proved decisive
Unchallenged throughout after Schumacher's engine blew on parade lap
After sluggish start spun out on 27th lap. Problem with front wheel locking
Took advantage of Berger's blown engine three laps from the finish
Nearly caught Villeneuve despite poor start and pit-stop confusion
Lost time after confusion over pit stop and finished a distant fifth
Took lead on first lap but hit tyre barrier on sixth lap and spun out
Led from pole position until caught by Villeneuve after Canadian's pit stop
Needs to finish sixth or better to win title even if Villeneuve wins
Overtook Hill but damaged car after sliding off track trying to defend lead
Lost control of car on 27th lap in tussle with Alesi's Benetton
Recovered well after poor start dropped him from third on grid to ninth
Led from the start and resisted intense pressure from Schumacher
Forced out of sixth place five laps from finish with suspension failure
Collision with Badoer (who was fined and suspended) ended his race
Stuck behind Alesi after pit stops and failed to regain second place
Stuck behind Alesi until 9th lap but unable to catch HIll
Never threatened Hill. Led for three laps between his and Hill's first pit stop
Took command early on and survived Benetton protest over front wing
Finished distant third, more than 30 seconds behind Hill
Established race-winning advantage as Hill toiled behind Alesi
Pushed Schumacher all the way to the chequered flag
Damaged car after collision with tyres and could finish only seventh
Stranded in fourth place early on but pulled away from Hill once ahead
Needs to win and hope Hill finishes out of the points to win title