Frentzen all geared up for title tilt; NEW FACES FOR '97

Derick Allsop on the driver who is filling Damon Hill's seat at Williams
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The Independent Online
It is quite normal for racing drivers to wait deep into their careers for a chance to drive a competitive Formula One car and, even then, some of the more gifted wait in vain and in frustration. Only the obviously sublime, the likes of Senna and Schumacher, are trusted to bridge the timespan.

So it was that Nigel Mansell became world champion at the age of 39, and Damon Hill at 36.

By comparison, Heinz- Harald Frentzen is a fledgling, and yet, four months away from his thirties, he scarcely represents the stereotype of an emerging sports star. This coming season, however, he has the opportunity to rise from near obscurity to the world championship in one step.

He could have jumped the queue almost three years ago, when Williams- Renault, who provided Mansell and Hill with the machinery and expertise to fulfil their ambitions, first offered him a job following the death of Senna. The German decided he should stay loyal to the Sauber team that had brought him into Formula One, and many observers would argue he has given scant justification for his eventual appointment in preference to Hill.

Williams have doubtless taken comfort - and guidance - from those who remember Frentzen when he had the equipment to take on, and beat, his peers; when he was a demon in karts, and in the lower formulae of single- seater cars, and sports cars; when he was "faster than Schumacher''.

That he was almost two years older than his compatriot would have been a considerable advantage at that stage in their careers, but Frentzen's accomplishments were prodigious.

He became his country's junior karting champion and, in 1988, won the Opel Lotus Challenge.

He was recruited along with Schumacher and Karl Wendlinger to the Mercedes "junior" team scheme in 1990 but felt Formula 3000 rather than sports cars pointed the way to Formula One and, after an ill-starred stint with Eddie Jordan's team, headed for Japan. Schumacher, meanwhile, was presenting himself as the most exciting talent in grand prix racing since Senna.

Their contrasting fortunes were, according to Schumacher, no accident. The world champion of 1994 and 1995 maintains his former partner was not serious enough to fulfil himself. While Schumacher was redefining the word "committed" Frentzen was embracing a world and life outside motor racing.

"I believe it is important to divide sport and success from your private life," Frentzen said. "I am focused on the job when I have to be, but on the other side have some fun, because if you concentrate only on one thing, you are going to lose the nicest things in life. I like to keep a balance."

Frentzen has inherited from his Spanish mother a healthy appetite for Latin food though not, he insists, a Latin temperament. "I am more German in that way," stresses this dedicated follower of Borussia Monchengladbach.

He is not, however, overtly Teutonic, self-assured or assertive in the way Schumacher is. Frentzen appears reserved, almost shy, yet with a whimsical sense of humour. The supercharged Schumacher might well have accepted Williams' initial invitation to switch from Sauber since he did, after all, join Benetton from Jordan after only one race. Perhaps, also, that illustrated a significant difference between them. Frentzen explained: "Peter Sauber was quite clear in his decision to take me from Japan. People around him were saying it wasn't a good idea. I felt the pressure also and it was good to prove Peter made the right choice. It was like he lost a stone from his heart, as we say in Germany. That is why I stayed with him after Ayrton died."

Williams remained in touch with Frentzen and, despite his erratic form in 1996, employed him to partner a familiar figure, Canada's Jacques Villeneuve. "We were together in Japan for a little while before he went to the States and we had good fun with people like Roland Ratzenberger, Mika Salo and Eddie Irvine. It is different with Jacques now, because we are competitors, strong competitors within the team, but so far it is OK."

The job, and perhaps life, will become more different for Frentzen from now on. So far he has a best position of third in a grand prix car. This season he is expected to win races, possibly the championship. His mission is to beat Schumacher's Ferrari and all Germany is eagerly anticipating their confrontation. That Mrs Schumacher was once Frentzen's girlfriend adds that vital "human interest" ingredient.

Frentzen, who is taking English lessons and renting a winter home within inspirational distance of Oxford as well as Williams' factory, at Grove, said: "Perhaps it was my destiny to come here. I am aware that I probably can win the world championship, and at least win races, and that is a totally new situation for me.

"At Sauber I knew every single piece and screw of the car, and now I have to understand everything about the Williams' team and the car as quickly as possible. At Williams they have so much more potential. It's exciting because it is a new challenge for me.

"I feel I can still be quicker than Michael, otherwise I wouldn't be here. When we raced together in the early days we were always looking at each other and our target was to be better than the other one. The target in Formula One now is Michael, and I am optimistic I can beat him again.

"But I also have to beat Jacques and the pressure has to be on him because this is his second year at Williams. He knows the team and the car. Also, Benetton are looking stronger and the McLaren, too, could be strong.

"I am expecting a very tight championship. If it was my destiny to join Williams, the perfect end to the story would be for me to win the championship."