Hill fears the power punch

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The Independent Online
By David Tremayne

in Barcelona

Damon Hill's 15th pole position yesterday signalled yet again the speed of the Williams-Renault package. But while things appeared fine on the surface with his team-mate Jacques Villeneuve joining him on the front row, the Englishman's engine failure while leading in Monaco recently has created an underlying concern over reliability in the team that has dominated so far this season.

The balance of engine power has been changing subtly. Peugeot is now generally acknowledged to have the most power, while Ferrari's new V10 hasn't been too shabby either. But before Monaco, Renault was reckoned to have the best package of power, driveability and reliability - until that fateful 41st lap when Hill's dream of emulating his father's success in the Principality was consumed in a haze of oil smoke.

The problem was quite simple: temperatures beneath the Williams-Renault's engine cover rose above the range of the adhesive that secured a nut on the oil pump, and with it went one of the easiest 10 points the Championship leader has ever had on offer.

Even more worrying for the Williams-Renault camp was the serious engine failure which stopped Jacques Villeneuve just after he had set the then fastest time in practice yesterday.

"I'm not happy with the engines, I have to say," Hill said evenly. "It's a problem that we are very well aware of and Renault are working very hard to solve. We need two things: we need reliability, which is something Renault have been famed for, but we also need some performance. It's something that has kind of been bothering us all since the start of the season."

Hill nevertheless had just cause to be pleased with his pole position because two punctures, one on Friday and one yesterday, ate into his allocation of 28 tyres for the weekend and obliged him to make his first qualifying attempt on a mixed set. Having set the quickest time, he improved that on fresh rubber, but aborted a subsequent, even quicker lap, fearing it was about to be compromised by traffic. With two minutes remaining, his final run with another set of fresh tyres pushed pole position beyond the reach of nearest rivals Villeneuve and Schumacher.

"The engine failure this morning was pretty annoying," Villeneuve said, "because I had just started to go quick and we didn't get the 20 laps to really set the car up." He, too, hit traffic just when it mattered.

The Canadian also shrugged off a fine yesterday when he exceeded the mandatory 80kmh speed limit in the pit lane. It was a fair cop, but the $5,000 penalty was enough to give motorway miscreants heart failure.

The disappointment of qualifying was Schumacher's Ferrari. Some time ago the World Champion suggested that the sinuous Barcelona track would provide a true picture of the prancing horse's ability to gallop, and he pulled no punches as he explained his third place.

"Just in general, we are not competitive enough. This circuit is not the ideal place for us. We could survive at Monte Carlo and Imola and work around the problems, but here we can't. We are just too slow."

Slow or not, he comfortably outpaced his old Benetton team, which continues to struggle in his absence, and his team-mate Eddie Irvine finished sixth ahead of Rubens Barrichello and the Monaco winner Olivier Panis.

Hill and Villeneuve know that this afternoon they can cope with the long corners which punish their front tyres. But reliability is beyond their control; the province of the Renault engineers. And, just occasionally, the gods. There are 65 laps to complete, but for every one of them a subconscious compartment in Hill's mind will be occupied worrying whether the capricious game the gods played on him at Monaco has sated their taste for halting his progress towards a first World Championship.