Motor-racing: The duel for Damon's domain

When the Formula One season slips into gear in Melbourne on Sunday, the world champion has no hope of mounting a successful defence
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The Independent Online
If Damon Hill was universally adjudged to be a deserving world champion in 1996, then his former partner in the Williams-Renault camp Jacques Villeneuve is saying all the right things to earn the 1997 crown.

On the track the 25 year-old French-Canadian's style is far less flamboyant than that of his late father, the Ferrari legend Gilles. But thankfully Villeneuve Jnr displays all of his father's detestation of political correctness out of the cockpit. Gilles was an open man who called a spade a spade, and his son has clearly inherited the genes.

While other drivers wallow in a morass of so-called safety considerations, Villeneuve has been telling it like it really is, and elevated himself to pole position in many pundits' affections when he said recently of further proposed changes to the cars: "When you look at all the changes that are being made to the rules and the tyres, it's becoming scary to see how low F1 could go just to make it spectacular. But it's a false, manipulated way of making it more spectacular. It would become more a circus than a sport. F1 doesn't feel fast enough already, so I don't see the point in making it slower."

Villeneuve earned his right to such trenchant opinions not just through four victories last year in his debut F1 season, but also by winning the 1995 Indianapolis 500 race, where his average speed was more than 150mph, and qualifying laps were the wrong side of 225.

In testing he has also been doing all the right things, and even without their star engineer Adrian Newey, who helped guide the Grove team to last year's triumphs in the Drivers' and Constructors' Championships, the FW19 (in which he had a design hand) has been setting the pace. So far, too, Villeneuve has kept himself tantalisingly out of reach of his new team- mate, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, the 29-year-old German who replaced Hill.

But these are early days in every respect, for few of the front runners have really strutted their stuff on the same day, in the same conditions, on the same circuit. Traditionally, this is the time of year when anything seems possible, and with the eternal wellspring of hope alive and well in every bosom, Williams' rivals firmly believe that this season it will all be different.

For sure, Formula One has donned a new cloak for the 1997 ball, and a fresh mantle of respectability with the active return of Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost as team owners. The Scot, a former triple world champion, is starting from scratch but using the Ford V10 engine run unsuccessfully last year by Sauber, the established ability of Rubens Barrichello, and the potential brilliance of Jan Magnussen, of whom wee Jackie once remarked: "He is the most talented driver I have seen in F3 since Ayrton Senna."

Prost, the quadruple champion, meanwhile has finally completed his long- awaited takeover deal of the old French Ligier team, which strides forward with head now held high. Both share the same "secret weapon": Bridgestone tyres.

Goodyear's leading runners have not been standing still. Williams have dominated. Benetton have regrouped around Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi, in a car designed by Rory Byrne (now with Ferrari) and Nick Wirth. McLaren relied on the miming Spice Girls to launch their newly silvered challenger for David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen recently, and like the Benetton it has been very quick.

Ferrari and Michael Schumacher have started backtracking on early season predictions of championship honours and are now frantically honing the car that John Barnard drew before he made way for Byrne and headed, it is rumoured, for Prost's equipe. After all the noise he made, Eddie Jordan swallowed his pride following rejection by Hill and Mansell and opted for two promising newboys. And Sauber gratefully forged a deal to use Ferrari engines.

Meanwhile, the smaller teams have embraced the new tyre war between the established dominators Goodyear and the newcomers Bridgestone with open arms and high expectations. Indeed, the Japanese tyres are a cornerstone of Damon Hill's hopes in a TWR Arrows Yamaha that increasingly appears to require patient massaging before it is capable of Williams pace.

Add a Tyrrell team revitalised by a switch from Yamaha to customer Ford engines, Minardi likewise relieved to swap customer Fords for bespoke Harts, and Lola joining in for yet another bash at the only category in which real success has eluded it, and there are indeed a number of ingredients for potential change. So many, in fact, that overloaded pundits share opposed views. Some suspect that Williams have been sandbagging to lull their opposition into a false sense of security, others that the rest really have closed the gap.

Schumacher believes that several drivers will win races this season, and one can only hope that his predictions are as pin-sharp as his driving. If nothing else, Melbourne, scene of Sunday's curtain-raiser, will place things in some sort of initial perspective, and may help to unravel the tangled conundrums thrown up in off-season testing, not the least baffling of which runs: Frentzen is as quick as Schumacher, who is quicker than Hill, who is as quick as Villeneuve; so why then is Villeneuve quicker than Frentzen?

Now that the regulations have benefited from welcome stability, other aspects of F1 remain clouded. 1997 marks the start of a fresh Concorde Agreement, by which teams are bound in the running of the sport, but still Williams, McLaren and Tyrrell remain exiled beyond its pale after refusing to sign the agreement last September. Against expectation, this matter has not yet been settled, and talk of legal action gathers pace. Last week's landmark legal ruling by Mrs Justice Ebsworth, which paved the way for sportsmen to challenge the rulings of governing bodies, may strike almost as much chill into hearts as did the Senna trial which opened in Italy last week.

Both Frank Williams and Ron Dennis say they refused to sign the agreement on a matter of principle, while Ken Tyrrell's reasons are less clear. But when even small teams such as Minardi stand to benefit by what the FIA president, Max Mosley, estimates as "around pounds 9m a year, give or take a million", under the new agreement with the ITV television network, the scale of the disagreement becomes apparent. Both Peter Collins, formerly of Lotus, and Wirth, formerly of Simtek, said: "If that kind of deal had been around, our team would never have gone under."

Though predictions aren't easy, one thing is certain. Just last week Hill spelled it out once and for all when he admitted: "I am not going to be fighting for the world championship this year." But that's not the same as saying that he isn't going to be fighting.