Frentzen overtakes pit-lane politics: Motor Racing

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Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jacques Villeneuve pushed their way to the head of the queue in yesterday's free practice session for the Brazilian Grand Prix, but as they kept something in hand for this afternoon's official qualifying session, so Frank Williams, the team owner, was playing his own hand close to his chest.

Though the Williams' supremacy was clear cut on the track, in the pit garage things were less certain, for Williams, together with McLaren and Tyrrell, remain in conflict with the Formula One powerbroker, Bernie Ecclestone.

The three renegade teams have refused to sign the new Concorde Agreement, by which Formula One is governed, after expressing concern over its provisions for the sport's management as and when Ecclestone retires.

They have rejected several olive branches extended by Ecclestone, who is not just the vice-president of marketing for the governing body, FIA, but president of FOCA TV, which has negotiated a lucrative new share for the teams of television income. Williams, McLaren and Tyrrell do not qualify for this, while their rivals do.

There was a meeting on Thursday afternoon between Ecclestone and representatives of the signatories to the agreement - Ferrari, Benetton, Jordan, Prost, Arrows, Sauber and Minardi - in an effort to reach the unanimity necessary to allow the renegades to rejoin the fold. These seven teams signed the agreement last August and are refusing to sanction any reconciliation, since it would reduce their own share. The meeting broke up without the deadlock being resolved.

When the new Concorde Agreement, which is effective for the next five years, was drawn up last year, Frank Williams initially signed, but rescinded his signature when, together with Ron Dennis of McLaren and Ken Tyrrell of Tyrrell, he objected to clauses which, he claimed, had not been present in the original document that he signed.

The signatory teams' share of the television income is calculated on a complex formula thought to take into account factors such as a team's heritage, on-track success and the amount of television coverage it received in the preceding season. The mechanics remain undefined, but one team owner likened it to having "a sponsor who doesn't want any stickers on the car".

Max Mosley, the FIA president, calculated the value of the recently enlarged television income at " pounds 8m or pounds 9m to a team such as Minardi, give or take a million." To Williams, this figure could rise to more than pounds 30m, a very sizeable sum taking account of Benetton's recent disclosure that their budget for 1997 is pounds 33m.

As the signatory teams continued to play hardball, Williams, McLaren and Tyrrell continue to threaten the ultimate sanction of legal action to enforce their claims to what they see as their rightful share. Ordinarily, this is the sort of storm in a teacup that blows up from time to time, but it has added impetus at a time when Ecclestone is putting the final touches to his plans to float Formula One Administration on the London and New York stock markets later this year. The disharmony may be something that he ultimately can ill afford, given its potential to destabilise share buyers' confidence.

"There has been a serious misunderstanding and quite a lot of ill feeling," Williams reiterated. "It's all part of business. I can cope with it. We don't want to go to court, but we will do just that if necessary."

For two hours yesterday the polemics took a back seat as Frentzen and Villeneuve headed Jean Alesi and Johnny Herbert and Ralf Schumacher upstaged his brother Michael with the sixth fastest time. Damon Hill's day in an Arrows, which features a revised air intake to enhance the engine's breathing and power, modified weight distribution and aerodynamic changes, began badly when the throttle stuck open, but he ended the day an encouraging ninth, despite a spin.

For the British Lola team all of this was of academic interest only, following its withdrawal earlier in the week when its sponsorship deal with Mastercard collapsed.

BRAZILIAN GRAND PRIX Leading opening practice times: 1 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Renault 1min 17.506sec; 2 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1:17.829; 3 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 1:18.000; 4 J Herbert (GB) Sauber- Petronas 1:18.261; 5 G Berger (Auta) Benetton-Renault 1:18.437; 6 R Schumacher (Germany) Jordan-Peugeot 1:18.479; 7 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:18.488; 8 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:18.818; 9 D Hill (GB) Arrows-Yamaha 1:18.978; 10 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:19.271; 11 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Peugeot 1:19.326; 12 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Mugen-Honda 1:19.408.