Motor racing: Villeneuve plays down his brush with disaster

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EAU ROUGE. The greatest remaining challenge in motorsport. The Everest of a corner that separates the truly great drivers from mere pretenders. The place where both BAR cars of Jacques Villeneuve and Riccardo Zonta came to grief here yesterday in separate high-speed incidents.

"There's barely a high-speed corner now where you tell yourself that that was almost too fast, I couldn't make myself go quicker. It's very rare - maybe Eau Rouge and 130R corner at Suzuka, but that's it." The recent lament of Villeneuve himself, who prodded the tiger once too often yesterday and destroyed his car - but not his confidence - as he lost control.

Michael Schumacher, the acknowledged master of Eau Rouge, may not be here for today's Belgian Grand Prix, against the expectations of his countless fans, but in the coolness stakes Villeneuve makes a fair deputy. He's unflappable, the former champion, and laconic. He surprised listeners on Friday by suggesting that he'd had a lucky season, while shrugging off a front suspension failure at nearly 200 mph.

Lucky? "Sure. After all the wing and suspension failures I've walked away from, I'd call it lucky," he said dismissively. His response was simply to go faster on Saturday until, in qualifying, he tried to take Eau Rouge without lifting off the gas and had the accident that mirrored his shunt there last year. Yet, within 15 minutes, he was ready to do battle again in the spare car. The only thing that stopped him was his team-mate Zonta's similar accident. If Villeneuve's mind has a Concerns Department, it's been closed down for a long time.

The BAR crashes will inevitably raise questions again about the effectiveness of gravel traps on the outside of corners, after neither car was slowed noticeably before hitting the tyre walls, and twice interrupted McLaren's domination. Mika Hakkinen narrowly beat David Coulthard, while the Jordan- Mugen Hondas of Heinz Harald Frentzen and Damon Hill separated Eddie Irvine from his World Championship rival. To make matters worse for Irvine, who put a brave face on disappointment, Ralf Schumacher also squeezed his Williams-Supertec ahead of the Ferrari.

On paper, then, it should be a cakewalk for McLaren this afternoon. By some extraordinary feat of sensory perception, their hospitality manager Bob McMurray has accurately predicted the results of the past three grands prix. "In Austria I said that Mika would be taken out in a first-corner shunt and that Ferrari would win. In Hockenheim I said that Ferrari would be first and second. I have no idea why. Then initially in Hungary I didn't get any feeling either way, but on Saturday evening I said to a couple of the guys, 'It'll be all right. We're going to be first and second, and if the Ferrari finishes it's only going to be third.' You tell me what it means. It's spooky."

Having strangled the jinx that stymied Hakkinen for three consecutive races, the team built on their one-two in Hungary as the drivers fully exploited their advantages in engine power and aerodynamic efficiency. The tide of the championship may once again be turning in Hakkinen's favour after the gauntlet of embarrassing misfortune.

Irvine's manner of late has shown all the hallmarks of a man who is moving elsewhere next year - his imminent switch to Ford's soon-to-be renamed Jaguar team in 2000 is one of F1's worst kept secrets. That merely compounds Ferrari's dilemma since Schumacher wrote himself out of the script at Silverstone. They have thrown millions of dollars into the German star's quest for their first drivers' World Championship since Jody Scheckter's 20 years ago, and now their only real hope is the man headed elsewhere next year.

Last year Ferrari and Schumacher humbled McLaren in Hungary and were on course for a dominant win in the rain in Belgium. Then Schumacher ran controversially into the back of Coulthard's slowing McLaren, which he was about to lap, before later accusing the Scot of trying to kill him. But Schumacher has been forced to remain on the sub's bench for at least one more race, despite a dramatic return to the cockpit a week ago when he was quicker than Irvine during a test at the Mugello circuit in Italy.

Without Schumacher, who called off a return after suffering pain in his injured leg in the wake of the test, it is difficult to see Ferrari challenging McLaren here. But, though the weather forecast is benign for today, anyone rash enough to predict the outcome should cast their minds back to the first lap of 1998's rain-sodden race, when Coulthard spun on the exit to the La Source hairpin on the opening lap and triggered a carnage that littered the track with expensive insurance claims.