Hill keeps Williams in front of the pack

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Motor racing


reports from Buenos Aires

Can anyone stop the Williams-Renault steamroller? Apart from the numerous bumps on the Parc Almirante Brown circuit for tomorrow's Argentine Grand Prix, that is the underlying concern in Formula One circles following Damon Hill's runaway successes in Australia and Brazil. On current form, Williams are going to have to lose before anyone else can win.

As usual, yesterday's unofficial practice session was a game of bluff, with Damon Hill biding his time and Jacques Villeneuve learning the circuit, which lies just outside the sprawl of Buenos Aires. Hill was content to follow his own agenda, shrugging off two spins and then setting the fastest time right at the end to displace Michael Schumacher, Jean Alesi and Mika Hakkinen.

The moods in the individual garages are enlightening. Benetton are quietly optimistic that they will have their straight-line speed problem rectified in time for the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring at the end of the month. Ferrari are buoyed by Schumacher's speed thus far this weekend, but are not kidding themselves. His third place in Brazil owed more to the driver than to the car, and he was not amused to be lapped by Hill in the closing stages. Ferrari are working on a redesign of the car's aerodynamic package: Schumacher's on-the-limit driving has been glorious to watch, but reeks of frustration.

The German is also unhappy about the state of the track. "This morning it was very dirty, which you would expect on the first day," he said. "But the bumps are very, very bad too. This is not how it should be." At McLaren, Mika Hakkinen's speed has come as a profound relief, particuarly in view of the performance of Hakkinen's Finnish rival, Mika Salo, in a Tyrrell whose running budget would barely pay McLaren's air fares.

The greatest threat to Williams and Benetton may well come from Jordan in races to come, but thus far the British team have struggled to set up their cars for this twisting track. They nevertheless have the stability of their second season of collaboration with Peugeot and recently welcomed a cash injection from Benson & Hedges, which may finally enable them to expand the established top four into a top five.

Benetton, Ferrari and McLaren ultimately believe that their cars have greater development potential than the Williams, which is effectively an updated version of the 1995 car. However, even if this proves to be the case any crossover point may come too late to prevent the Didcot team from converting their dominance into yet more Championship success.

"As I predicted, it's pretty competitive," Hill said. "This circuit just requires a good balance to go fast and as today proved there are several cars here capable of doing that."

ARGENTINE GRAND PRIX (Buenos Aires, tomorrow) Leading times in yesterday's free practice session: 1 D Hill (GB, Williams) 1min 29.694sec; 2 M Schumacher (Ger, Ferrari) 1:29.799; 3 J Alesi (Fr, Benetton) 1:30.019; 4 M Hakkinen (Fin, McLaren) 1:30.033; 5 M Salo (Fin, Tyrrell) 1:30.140; 6 H-H Frentzen (Ger, Sauber) 1:30.497; 7 R Barrichello (Bra, Jordan) 1:30.766; 8 D Coulthard (GB, McLaren) 1:30.770; 9 G Berger (Aut, Benetton) 1:30.890; 10 O Panis (Fr, Ligier) 1:31.013.