Unofficial practice had sunk to a new level of tedium on Friday but the threat of rain produced an electrifying start to qualifying as pole position traded hands 11 times before the session was stopped when Villeneuve, chasing to improve on sixth fastest time, ran wide while exiting the 140mph Estoril corner.
His Williams-Renault skipped along the edge of the gravel trap as he tried vainly to correct its trajectory before finally colliding heavily with the tyre wall. Both left-hand wheels were torn off before it spun to a halt in the middle of the track where David Coulthard, committed to his best qualifying lap, missed the wreckage by inches.
Michael Schumacher had already edged to the fore in a Ferrari that he said was good just for one quick lap at a time while Damon Hill's best effort was just under two-tenths of a second slower. By the time qualifying resumed half an hour later, Hill pushed very hard and for three laps was quicker than Schumacher at the two intermediate measurement points, but each time lost out in the last segment. The world champion's 13th pole position was safe, but his team-mate Eddie Irvine's times were disallowed when his Ferrari was found to have aerodynamic side panels that breached the regulation height just behind its front wheels. He will start from the back of the grid.
Patrick Head, Williams' technical director, had pointed out discrepancies on both Ferraris the previous day, but Ferrari vehemently denied that Schumacher's vehicle was also illegal. Head was wryly amused when the German's car failed to match its previous pace after being shut into its garage for undisclosed work.
"I'm sure it was just an oversight," Head said. "If it were something where somebody deliberately contravened the regulations to gain an advantage, obviously one would get more excited about it. But pole is less important here because of the wide run to the first corner."
Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger took the second row for Benetton-Renault while Mika Hakkinen counted fifth place a substantial improvement for McLaren-Mercedes. Coulthard remained behind Villeneuve in the line-up alongside Martin Brundle, who outqualified his Jordan-Peugeot team-mate Rubens Barrichello for the second consecutive race.
Renault produced a shock last week by announcing they would pull out of the sport at the end of 1997. Williams and Benetton at present enjoy the powerful and reliable fruits of Renault's technical labours and must therefore look elsewhere for powerplants. This decision, long-term, is undoubtedly good news for Schumacher and Ferrari, whose new V10 engine is already the next best thing in the package after the world champion himself.
But it could portend ill for teams such as Jordan. The Silverstone-based outfit have forged a strong alliance with Peugeot, whose V10 is now widely regarded as the most powerful engine but has yet to deliver the results it promised. Ron Dennis once welcomed a new team to Formula One with the words "Welcome to the Piranha Club" and, be assured, this is a sport where sentiment (like spectators) is increasingly distanced. The big guns will seek alternatives and, though there is speculation that Frank Williams agreed terms for 1998 with Honda as much as six months ago, Benetton's future likewise depends upon maintaining links with a top runner. In French circles, especially since Monaco, there is continuing pressure for a government- funded Ligier operation powered by Peugeot and run by Alain Prost.
Dennis, Prost's boss at McLaren where the strength of the link with Mercedes- Benz has also been questioned recently, said only a week ago at Goodwood: "Between the times when the lights go on at the start of a race and the flag drops to end it, this is a sport. The rest of the time it's business."
Renault's scheduled withdrawal may be even more worrying. As one driver remarked: "Renault may just have opened a window that other manufacturers might like to jump out of."
The British Grand Prix at Silverstone in a fortnight is virtually a sell- out, indicating the level of Formula One's popularity with its public, but in the inner circle these are uneasy times.Reuse content