`Either I beat Damon or I lost the championship right there'

David Tremayne relives the overtaking manoeuvre that propelled a F1 rookie a little closer to the world championship
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The Independent Online
The Portuguese Grand Prix was jump-started from imminent cardiac arrest when Jacques Villeneuve pulled an overtaking move of stunning audacity on Michael Schumacher - of all people - on the 16th lap.

After a poor start, his situation looked grim by his own reckoning. But when Schumacher was momentarily balked by the tardy Italian rent-a-driver Giovanni Lavaggi, the Canadian slipped insouciantly round the outside of the Ferrari on one of the fastest corners.

"Michael was going slowly before the last turn hoping I would stay behind," Villeneuve said laconically, "but I just kept going round the outside. I think my previous experience on the oval tracks in IndyCar racing helped a little bit."

A throwaway remark in the warm afterglow of victory, it seemed, but it was far from the impromptu opportunism that it might have appeared. Already Jacques Villeneuve has established himself without question as the most impressive rookie driver to burst into Formula One. He may not have emulated the late Giancarlo Baghetti by winning his first race - a slide over the kerbs in Melbourne saw to that - but whereas Baghetti's star waned instantly, Villeneuve's burns brighter by the race.

He has four wins to his credit in his first season, an unprecedented feat, and his score rate has been outstanding. His style is more reminiscent of Alain Prost's than of his much-missed father, Gilles, Formula One's last great swashbuckling hero, and that bit of extraordinary daring had been rehearsed long before he pulled it off. "I'd told the team before the race that I was sure I could do it," he said. "They said they would come and pick me out of the guard rail if I tried. But there was nothing to lose. Either I beat Damon or I lost the championship right there. It was worth taking a big risk."

In that one move alone, he justified whatever luck he needs to take him towards the title many have long regarded as Hill's by destiny. Even Schumacher, a man not unaccustomed to staging some remarkable manoeuvres, was clearly impressed. You can be sure his own mental notebook will have many entries under "V".

"Obviously I was surprised," Schumacher said. "I knew that Jacques would probably overtake me on the straight, so I pulled over a bit. I looked in my mirror and I couldn't find him, then suddenly he was beside me.

"We had a bit of a scary moment because he had his two right-hand wheels either side of my left front wheel. I didn't have grip as good as he did in that corner and I was sliding towards him, but I couldn't back off the throttle otherwise I'd have lost even more grip and been into him."

The odds still favour Hill as his enigmatic form continues. "Nine points doesn't look good," Villeneuve conceded. "But anything can happen. Damon could make a mistake or break down; it could happen to me too. I think I can do it, and we'll fight for it. We're not gonna let go."

Gilles Villeneuve would have liked that, but he would have loved that overtaking move.

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