Frentzen bump-starts revival

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Until allegations of John Barnard's negotiations with Tom Walkinshaw's Arrows team provided a welcome, if momentary, distraction, it seemed unlikely that any other topic would succeed in dislodging an obsession with the bumpiness of the Autodromo Oscar Galvez from the forefront of F1 minds. The matter of an all-Williams front row for today's Argentine Grand Prix was hardly startling.

Barnard, 50, is widely regarded as a genius in F1 circles. Together with the late Lotus chief Colin Chapman he was responsible for the introduction of carbon fibre as a chassis material on the McLarens he designed in the early Eighties, and it was these cars which laid the foundation for the Woking company's domination under the new management of Ron Dennis.

His subsequent Ferraris introduced the semi-automatic transmission which, like carbon fibre, is now universal. Following a spell with Benetton he rejoined Ferrari in August 1992 on a five-year contract, working from Ferrari Design and Development, the satellite company that he and Ferrari established in Guildford because of his reluctance to work in Italy. Barnard has now agreed terms to acquire FDD from Ferrari, and it has been alleged that he will sell it to TWR and relocate to their opulent headquarters in Leafield, close to Oxford.

Fast footwork has been Walkinshaw's trademark since he came into F1 with Benetton in 1991, the year in which he was instrumental in capturing Michael Schumacher after his debut race for Jordan; last year the Scot pounced on Damon Hill's services at a time when Eddie Jordan believed a deal with the World Champion-elect to be mere formality. Another leading designer remarked yesterday, with a note of respect: "Tom does seem to be able to move very quickly when it comes to making decisions."

But yesterday in Buenos Aires Walkinshaw was playing his usual canny game and said: "I have nothing to say. There is no contract between us and John Barnard, but we have both said that we are talking. That's no secret and there is nothing of substance that you guys didn't already know. Whether our talks lead to anything, who knows?"

Back on the track, it was perhaps inevitable that Jacques Villeneuve found the best overall compromise in his Williams-Renault, but like Schumacher the Canadian earned every tenth of a second that he saved, for his preference is for a stiffly set-up car that tends to dart from bump to bump, rather than utilising suspension travel to absorb them.

On Friday his beleaguered team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen, labouring under the additional handicap of a head cold and later requiring a whiff of oxygen, momentarily rose to the top of the timesheets, only to have Villeneuve comprehensively demolish both his lap time and his fragile confidence by slapping on a fresh set of tyres and conjuring up a time almost a second and a half faster. Questioned about his partner's problems, he replied dismissively: "It is not of my concern. I don't spend my time worrying if he has a problem." At this level no quarter is asked - or given.

Yesterday the first qualifying run fell to Villeneuve by almost a second, as he dislodged Michael Schumacher from his initial premier slot, and after Olivier Panis in the Prost Mugen Honda had closed to within two- tenths of a second, Villeneuve chopped another full second off his time. Frentzen, too, got his act together to pull up to second place, setting the two fastest section times after making an error early in the lap.

Villeneuve later improved again, but though Frentzen's challenge was blunted a little when he had to pass the newcomer Jarno Trulli, his performance was markedly more convincing than it had been in Australia and Brazil. It was Villeneuve's turn to make a mistake on his final effort, as he slid wide in the last corner, but he had already done enough to claim his third pole position of the season.

"The car's set-up is pretty good," Villeneuve said nonchalantly, while a happier Frentzen admitted: "I've slept a lot this weekend, but this makes me feel a lot better."

The speed of Panis, and the Brazilian driver Rubens Barrichello in the Stewart-Ford, third and fifth respectively on their Bridgestone tyres either side of Schumacher's Ferrari, boosted the Japanese manufacturer's hope of a strong result.

"It's not a surprise to me to see the Bridgestone cars up there in the midst of things," Gerhard Berger said. "It hurts a little bit, but we will see more of them this year and we will have to push hard. This is particularly true on this kind of slippery circuit." The Austrian was a troubled 12th, a place behind team-mate Jean Alesi as the Benetton team joined McLaren, and Damon Hill in his Arrows, in a fruitless struggle to find elusive grip. All of them were upstaged as Ralf Schumacher, who spun on his first lap, later made amends with a strong sixth place.

An all-Williams front row promises much, while the presence of Eddie Irvine and Johnny Herbert on row four offers the possibility of a repeat of their first-corner collisions of the past two events. But the danger man may well be Panis, nicely poised and fresh from a very strong third place in Brazil. The prospects of Alain Prost's 52nd career victory - and his first as team owner - cannot be ruled out, especially if the weather allows him to exploit Bridgestone's advantage in the wet.