Hill grabs Villeneuve's glory

Motor Racing
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A dream result died within five laps of the finish of a gripping Australian Grand Prix yesterday when Jacques Villeneuve's chances of becoming the first man to win his debut race from pole position succumbed to his Renault engine's fading oil pressure. But his victorious Williams team-mate Damon Hill, who inherited the lead, made a little history of his own by equalling the tally of 14 wins achieved by his father Graham, a double champion.

After a massive accident involving Martin Brundle's Jordan had caused the race to be stopped and restarted, the reigning champion, Michael Schumacher, took the fight to the two Williams-Renaults for the first 20 laps, but it soon became clear that Ferrari planned a two-stop refuelling strategy and Williams only one, and that the lighter fuel load had flattered Schumacher's performance. As Villeneuve and Hill sped away, the German began to detect the first signs of the rear-brake problem that would eventually stop him on the 33rd lap.

Even with their main challenger gone, neither Villeneuve nor Hill relaxed the pace and, their pit stops aside, they were never more than a second and a half apart. The high point of their fantastic duel came on the 32nd lap as Hill rejoined after his fuel stop. He just got to the first corner ahead of Villeneuve, who had stopped two laps earlier, and kept the aggressive young Canadian behind until, going into the third corner, the reigning IndyCar champion underlined the threat he will pose in the season ahead by regaining the initiative with a bold move to thrust ahead. It was very tight, but Hill was not upset afterwards. "Jacques and I got very close, but he just gave me enough room," he said.

Two laps later Villeneuve came within an ace of losing control as he slid on to the grass on the exit to the first corner, but he managed not only to get back on to the track, but to stay ahead. It was his one real error in the most impressive debut in recent history.

Hill continued to sit within striking distance, and the two were nose to tail as they crossed the finish line only half a second apart to complete the 53rd lap. But Villeneuve had received a pit signal on his radio with 12 laps to go, informing him of his oil problem, and on the 54th he slowed and let Hill slip by. Suddenly, and sadly, it was all over.

"I was very happy until then," Villeneuve said. "The car was running strong, though I wasn't very pleased with the second set of tyres as the car started to slide a lot. Damon was very quick and always in my mirrors. Any time I would get a small gap he would catch up again. There was a lot of pressure."

Hill's helmet and rear wing were covered in glue-like oil from Villeneuve's car. "I had a lot of Elf all over me," he said. "I even had it down my neck. I was a little worried that something might go bang and we'd both go off.

"When Jacques went off in the first corner I thought he'd lost it, and for one moment that he might catch me when he came back on. I was going one side of him, and then he started coming back across so I had to lift off, and when I got back on the power he was straight again. There were two or three other moments in the race. We got quite close, and that's what it should be like if it's going to be an exciting race. My car ran perfectly all the way through, but I got a stone down my back with 30 odd laps to go, and I was shifting about in the seat. Every time I moved it moved somewhere less comfortable. I don't like to think where it is now!"

There was consolation for Ferrari when Eddie Irvine took third place after a solid performance that gave the lie to expectations that the Italian car would not last the distance, while Gerhard Berger salvaged Benetton's honour with fourth place after his team-mate Jean Alesi had collided with Irvine while trying to pass him for fourth place on the 10th lap. In his first race since the accident in Adelaide last November that nearly killed him, Mika Hakkinen dispelled doubts about his fitness with fifth place for McLaren.

In the accident that stopped the first race, Brundle's Jordan-Peugeot was launched over the cars of Johnny Herbert and David Coulthard at more than 180mph (290kph) after his team-mate Rubens Barrichello had cut across Olivier Panis, forcing the Frenchman and Coulthard to brake hard. Brundle flew upside down into the gravel bed on the exit to the corner, but though his car was totally destroyed he was able to make the restart.

Unfortunately, his courageous demonstration ended when he tangled with the Brazilian driver Pedro Diniz at the very same corner.

Hill was a beneficiary of the restart, having been pushed down to fourth place by the Ferrari drivers just before the race was stopped. "I made a real pig's ear of the first start," he admitted. But this day the luck ran with him, and against the man whose easy confidence irresistibly reminds observers of his late father, Gilles Villeneuve.