reports from Melbourne
Jacques Villeneuve yesterday landed the first blows in what promises to be an ongoing psychological war with his Williams team-mate Damon Hill, when he emerged a comfortable fastest after the first day of unofficial testing for Sunday's Australian Grand Prix.
The 25-year-old Canadian oozed confidence as he lapped a full second quicker than his more experienced partner. Benetton's Jean Alesi was third, ahead of Michael Schumacher and the relatively inexperienced but impressive Jos Verstappen in the Footwork.
Schumacher had a frustrating day in the radical new Ferrari. The world champion recorded the day's fourth fastest time but could manage only ninth in the afternoon session - behind his team-mate Eddie Irvine.
Schumacher said: "It is to be expected that we are struggling, as our car was later appearing than most of our rivals. We must be patient, and work hard."
Though Villeneuve's performance got his Formula One career off to a brilliant start, the controversial track that runs around Melbourne's Albert Park will offer greater grip, and therefore greater speeds, as the weekend progresses. "Jacques did an excellent job today," said Williams designer Adrian Newey. "But Damon didn't really get a good crack at it. Don't write him off."
Villeneuve's immediate pace, however, will be the last thing Hill wants to see in the year in which he is favourite for his first world championship. It signals trouble ahead. "I was not expecting to be up there with such an advantage," Villeneuve said. "It is a surprise, but it feels great."
Though the circuit continues to prove highly unpopular with local protesters, who remain steadfast in their plans to stage a demonstration on Sunday, it met with universal praise from the drivers. "It is a fun track," Hill said. "It is actually much better now, having driven on it, than I thought it was going to be yesterday."
Martin Brundle, 14th fastest in a Jordan, agreed: "It's good fun, and quick. It's a bit bumpy in places under braking, so you need to be careful not to lock up the wheels, but it flows well.
"There are four places to overtake, with a fifth if you're really brave - or desperate!"
The only cloud over Williams' day was the news that they are the only team yet to agree to the terms of the super-licences issued by the governing body, the FIA, following prolonged disagreements over insurance clauses. This is traditionally the time of year when drivers and governing body clash over such matters but by the end of the day Bernie Ecclestone, the FIA's vice president of marketing, had stepped in to smooth over the situation, and Hill and Villeneuve were expected to fall into line by this morning.
AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX (Melbourne) Leading practice times: 1 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1min, 33.401sec; 2 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:34.392; 3 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 1:34.664; 4 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:35.018; 5 J Verstappen (Neth) Footwork-Hart 1:35.057; 6 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot 1:35.115; 7 E Irvine, (GB) Ferrari 1:35.349; 8 G Berger (Aut) Benetton- Renault 1:35.362; 9 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1:35.780; 10 H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford 1:36.135; 11 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:36.253; 12 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:36.330; 13 J Herbert (GB) Sauber- Ford, 1:36.253; 14 M Brundle (GB) Jordan-Peugeot. 1:37.051.
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