Motor racing: Villeneuve hoping for quick start

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Williams' launch of their new car yesterday was relatively brief, simple and understated, yet carried an ominous message to all those who aspire to their world championships this season.

Patrick Head, the team's technical director, talked quietly of the evolution of the FW17 and 18 to the latest offering, the FW19. He described more compact components and improved aerodynamics. What is more, Williams have the security of Renault engines for a further two seasons. There seems little doubt that the Williams will again be the car to beat from 9 March.

Michael Schumacher and Ferrari loom threatening on the horizon, but Jacques Villeneuve is the title favourite and his new partner, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, cannot be discounted. Frentzen admitted that Damon Hill's championship success last season represented a difficult act to follow, then posed for a few photographs before disappearing by helicopter.

Villeneuve was in less of a hurry, but intends to change all that once he lines up for the opening grand prix in Melbourne. He accepts the burden of expectation on his shoulders and seeks the kind of explosive lift-off which gave Hill a decisive advantage last time round.

The Canadian said: "I can understand people saying that I am the favourite for the championship and certainly I have nothing to learn now that I'm in my second season in Formula One and with Williams. Knowing the tracks will be especially important.

"There will be a different pressure on me this year, a more positive pressure. Last year, people in the States were expecting me to fall on my face and now, this year, I've got to prove them right when they expect me to win the championship.

"The first races are going to be the most important because when you have got points in the bag you can have a strategy. Damon had that advantage last year and although I made up ground, he still won by 19 points. This year my situation is reversed. Heinz is the newcomer to the team. You can always have four or five great races and make up ground, but the chances are you'll then have a bad one and fall back again. It's always so difficult to catch up."

Villeneuve anticipates a more open championship with mixed feelings. "I prefer closer racing from the fun point of view, but it will be better for my career if I won easily. I don't see that, though. I think Ferrari will take a step forward and also Benetton and McLaren. Heinz is also very quick and although it is a different car for him, he knows Formula One."

The "fun", he explained, will determine how long this former IndyCars champion will stay in Formula One.

Villeneuve said: "There are not many places to go after Formula One, so this place is where I'm likely to stay longer than in the past, but it depends how things work out. It depends how much fun I'm getting out of my racing.

"I can understand people wanting to make Formula One safer, but the cars don't feel fast enough. I'd like them to be faster. Formula One is 20 times safer than it was, and I think it's more than safe enough. If no one had died, we wouldn't have had all this done."

The death of Ayrton Senna, at Imola, almost three years ago, was a subject the team were reluctant to discuss at length yesterday. However, Frank Williams maintained his forthcoming trial over the Brazilian's fatal crash would not undermine the team's challenge this year.

Williams said: "This is a very serious matter and of course we are concerned. But the event in February will have no influence on our approach to the season."