Motor racing: Drivers praise new circuit

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Motor racing

Environmentalists may have voiced their displeasure about it, but leading Formula One drivers are happy with Melbourne's redeveloped Albert Park circuit, venue for opening grand prix of the new season.

Stirling Moss, who won the 1956 race there in a Maserati, praised its beauty. "It really is fantastic," he said. "It is the finest conventional road circuit I've seen, by miles. There is nothing else to compare with it."

Apart from its setting, there is little comparison between the circuit he won on and today's. After lying idle for 40 years, the 3.2-mile track, which has undergone pounds 12.74m-worth of redevelopment, is expected to be one of the fastest in the world, with average speeds of 125mph and top speeds over 185mph.

Michael Schumacher, the world champion who makes his first grand prix appearance for Ferrari in the race, considered it fast and exciting.

Jacques Villeneuve, the Canadian who won the IndyCar championship last season, said he had seen six potential overtaking places and praised the circuit for its high-speed nature and the challenge of its corners. "It looks great," said Villeneuve, who will be making his Formula One debut with the Williams team.

Villeneuve is intent on avoiding the fate suffered by Michael Andretti, one of his predecessors who made the switch from IndyCar to Formula One. Andretti, like Villeneuve, arrived in Formula One as the reigning IndyCar champion in 1993 but his reputation was in tatters as he retreated to the United States six months later having scored just one podium finish.

"I have spoken to Michael a lot since the end of last season," said Villeneuve, the new team-mate of Damon Hill at Williams. "He was not very positive about his experiences - understandably so. But our preparations for the season are much different. Michael came straight into a race situation and he was not based in Europe.

"Michael just did not have the time to get ready. I have already done several thousand miles of testing and have lived in Monaco for a few years now."

Nevertheless, he thought the season would be "a huge challenge."