Motor Racing: Downhill day for Villeneuve

World Championship leader is upbraided by authority and downgraded on the track
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The Independent Online
PATRICK TAMBAY, the former Ferrari driver who was instrumental in helping the son of his friend Gilles Villeneuve in the early stages of his career, drew a parallel with Jacques' recognised prowess on skis and the demands of Monaco. "If Monaco was a ski course it would be a slalom and Jacques is a downhill racer," Tambay said. He may well have applied hammer to nail accurately.

The World Championship leader has been under attack on all sides this weekend, on and off the track, with his Williams- Renault team-mate Heinz- Harald Frentzen and Michael Schumacher keeping him from the front row of the grid, and the governing body president, Max Mosley, responding trenchantly to his recent outspoken remarks about next year's regulations.

Mosley reiterated why next year's F1 cars will be narrower and will run on grooved tyres, as if the FIA had been surprised by the dramatic increase in cornering speeds brought about this year by Bridgestone's challenge to Goodyear's previous monopoly. But anyone who hoped to hear him say anything about limiting the other reason for speed - the wings that breed aerodynamic efficiency - were forgetting that harnessing airflow is never more important than in Prince Rainier's playground. It is the circuit that, together with the Hungaroring, demands the most downforce.

It is also where the sport's commercial investors come to pat themselves on the back for the wisdom of their multi-million-dollar investment. It is where they come to wine and dine customers and clients, to see and to be seen and to show off the logos that festoon the cars' all- important billboard wings. This is, after all, where they drill for the oil that lubricates F1's wheels.

Villeneuve said recently, after trying some grooved tyres: "It was a joke, basically. It takes all the precision out of the driving. You can brake almost as hard at the end of the straight, but just before you get into the corner you lose all the feel of the braking and as soon as you turn the wheel then you just have to wait until the corner is over."

Back in 1994 Mosley had predictably chosen the Monaco stage to unveil his proposals to modify F1 in the aftermath not just of the Ratzenberger and Senna fatalities at San Marino a fortnight earlier, but also the low- speed accident which had befallen the Austrian driver Karl Wendlinger on the circuit only two days before.

Now, as then, Mosley is not in a mood to accommodate the divergent views of others and, while recognising Villeneuve's right to an opinion, he said, with a smoothness that would be the envy of many a politician: "Jacques' campaign doesn't really concern me. Nor do veiled threats for drivers to go to America instead. The only reason a driver would go there is that he doesn't get paid enough in F1 or he can't get a drive. And neither of those things appears to apply to Jacques.

"He is a very, very good racing driver and I am completely on his side in that everything he is saying, he should say. A racing driver always wants more grip, more power and more downforce. He shouldn't be particularly concerned about safety. My responsibility is to be concerned about safety so that, if I'm still around when he is 50, maybe he'll come up and say `You were right, because I'm still around'." Touche.

"It's all very well this romantic thing about living at the limit," Mosley deprecated. "Until somebody actually gets killed. And then I think it is unacceptable. We can't make Formula One safe, in the ordinary sense of the word, but what we must do is make it as safe as we can." Job satisfaction, he inferred, is not a driver's right.

Out on the track Schumacher's brilliance shone with beacon clarity as he recorded a breathtaking lap of 1min 18.235sec on his first run of qualifying. That remained fastest until Frentzen, on his third try, beat it by nineteen- thousandths of a second.

Schumacher began his counter-attack with just four seconds remaining before the chequered flag came out. He was a mite slower, but his previous best left him in second place, ahead of an overshadowed Villeneuve and the impressive Italian Giancarlo Fisichella, in the Jordan-Peugeot. Further back, late improvement saw David Coulthard push his McLaren-Mercedes into fifth place ahead of Ralf Schumacher in the other Jordan, and Johnny Herbert's Sauber-Petronas, which had been fastest in Thursday's practice.

"We made a change to the car just before my last run to get more front- end grip," Frentzen said. "It was all a bit frantic, but in the end it paid off." It was his first pole position, and the first time he has outqualified Villeneuve. For him, at any rate, job satisfaction was guaranteed.