Motor racing: Fault lines begin to show at Williams

David Tremayne says the Formula One team now look vulnerable
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The Independent Online
After seven races in the 1996 Formula One World Championship Damon Hill had scored one more point than Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz- Harald Frentzen have garnered between them in 1997.

This time last year Williams-Renault had 70 points from a possible 112; this year they have 43, and are eight behind Ferrari, whose upswing has been one of the most notable aspects of the season. Last year Michael Schumacher had 26 points after seven races, the same as Villeneuve; this year two victories and 37 points have put him at the top of the table, seven points ahead.

Much of this was lost on Villeneuve as he climbed from his damaged Williams at the end of the second lap of Sunday's Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, and as he walked back to the pits with the embarrassment of a driver who knows he has screwed up in front of his countrymen. But that points deficit will have registered strongly, and no doubt he heard an echo of his own comments the previous week when he said: "It will be my fault and the Williams team's if we don't win the World Championship this season. It won't be served on a platter, but if I and the car perform, it's there for me. If we fail, then it's a case of us losing, not someone else winning."

Yet in Canada Michael Schumacher not only beat him to pole position, but was already stretching a lead when Villeneuve made his error. The irony will not have been lost on Frank Williams, who said at the end of 1996: "I do not know what to expect next year, but it is quite possible that we may not win a race."

Though such a scenario was always going to be unlikely, there is no doubt that the gaps have closed in recent races. We may be at the start of a period of prolonged pressure not just from Ferrari, but from McLaren- Mercedes too, which could probe some of the cracks which have been evident this season in Williams' frequently impenetrable armour. David Coulthard's clear course for victory in Canada, until his unfortunate pit stop saw a clutch problem stall his car's engine, was indeed food for thought which Williams will have found indigestible. In recent races it has become increasingly clear that there is little wrong with the Ferrari, while Mercedes-Benz's latest V10 engine has helped McLaren to turn a difficult corner.

Then there is the manner in which Frentzen has failed to rise to the occasion. Nobody could have envisaged at the start of the season that he would take but one win and a fourth place in the first seven events, least of all the bewildered man himself.

Villeneuve may console himself that the Williams' aerodynamic advantage was always going to be reduced at a stop-go circuit such as Montreal, and Magny-Cours in France next week should suit it better, but the challenge is gathering momentum. "I was just following Michael from far away as he was eating up his tyres, I was taking it easy, not pushing," he said of the Canadian debacle. "This is going to be a hard one to swallow. There is no point to stop eating or lose sleep over it, but it's going to be difficult to accept."

Frank Williams has already confirmed that he will keep Villeneuve in 1998, but more than ever he is casting covetous eyes at Schumacher, who increasingly seems poised to justify all Williams' pre-season anxieties by taking Ferrari back to the top.