Motor racing: Villeneuve keeps weather eye on meteorological prediction s

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Jacques Villeneuve had the air of a man intent on making up lost ground here yesterday. He began by declaring he would not be taking any notice of his team's weather expert in his preparations for tomorrow's Spanish Grand Prix.

Williams-Renault have been the butt of paddock jokes since they, like McLaren-Mercedes were told by their Met Office man that the drizzle at the start of the Monaco Grand Prix would cease. Villeneuve and his partner, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, duly lined up on slick tyres and slithered out of contention as Michael Schumacher, on wets, steered a steady course to victory and the head of the championship. Villeneuve was patently not amused and after recording the second-fastest time in yesterday's practice session, was adamant: "I will not be happy to be guided by the weatherman this weekend. They get it wrong on TV, as well!"

That said, he addressed the prospect of confronting Schumacher and his Ferrari on another wet circuit. In normal conditions, the Williams remains the class act of Formula One engineering, but local reports warn rain is possible tomorrow.

The German also mastered the conditions and the opposition in the wet here last year and the general view in the sport is that he is untouchable in such elements, which effectively produce a level playing field.

Villeneuve's competitiveness surfaces at any mention of Schumacher's accepted superiority. According to Patrick Head, Williams' technical director, he "scowls" when he hears such talk.

Here yesterday, Villeneuve, trailing Schumacher by four points in the championship, insisted he had no fears about racing him in the wet. The Canadian said "I'm confident if we don't start a wet race on slick tyres and dry settings.

"I would prefer it to be dry because our car is good in the dry and our problem is we didn't do a lot of winter testing in the wet. We don't have the experience in the wet. But I don't have a hang-up about driving in the rain.

"Schumacher was very fast at Monaco but he is not unbeatable in the wet. I didn't see too many people in Monaco with two cars in the pit lane - one for the dry and one for the wet. They had a very good strategy and that's why they won. Good for them.

"Michael is a good driver. He would have a psychological advantage if people let themselves be beaten psychologically. But that is not the case for everyone," he added pointedly.

Another driver on an urgent mission is Jean Alesi, the Frenchman said to be on his way out of Benetton-Renault. He had a productive test here last week and followed up yesterday by setting the best time in practice.

These are difficult days for Benetton and even a podium place would boost morale. Rumours about the camp abound, however. Not only Alesi, but also the managing director, Flavio Briatore, according to some, could leave at the end of the year.

Two seasons ago Benetton were world champions, now they are fourth and under pressure from the likes of Prost-Mugen-Honda and Jordan-Peugeot. Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella ensured the viper's nose remained prominent with third and fourth places yesterday. Gerhard Berger, in the other Benetton, was fifth.

Not that Friday's times are necessarily significant, of course, and Michael Schumacher was not too dismayed with seventh position. He still contends that, if the track is dry, and Williams' cars are reliable, he can aspire to nothing better than third in the race. Even that, he says, could prove beyond him. His partner, Eddie Irvine, third in the championship, was 10th.

David Coulthard, winner of this season's opening race but without a point since, gleaned scant encouragement from his sixth place in the McLaren.

Johnny Herbert was eighth in his Sauber-Petronas, while his new team- mate, Gianni Morbidelli, crashed and finished a contrite 19th. That was still a place better than Damon Hill, who endured another ignominious day in his Arrows-Yamaha. Adding insult to injury, Hill was told a lap would be deducted from his allocation today because he had one lap too many yesterday.

SPANISH GRAND PRIX (Barcelona, 2.937 mile circuit) practice times: 1 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 1min 19.566sec 132.95mph/213. 92kph); 2 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1:19.766; 3 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan- Peugeot 1:120.198; 4 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Peugeot 1:20.537; 5 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault 1:20.933; 6 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:21.312; 7 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:21.319; 8 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Petronas 1:21.379; 9 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:21.421; 10 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:21.423; 11 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Mugen-Honda 1:21.636; 12 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Renault 1:21.887; 13 J Magnussen (Den) Stewart-Ford 1:22.839; 14 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford 1:22.849; 15 U Katayama (Japan) Minardi-Hart 1:22.892; 16 S Nakano (Japan) Prost-Mugen-Honda,1:23.191; 17 J Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell-Ford 1:23.209; 18 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford 1:23.246; 19 G Morbidelli (It) Sauber-Petronas 1:23.451; 20 D Hill (GB) Arrows-Yamaha 1:23.592; 21 P Diniz (Bra) Arrows-Yamaha 1:25.049; 22 J Trulli (It) Minardi- Hart 1:25.064.

Fresh setback for Ecclestone, page 23