Motor Racing: Villeneuve sets up fascinating finale

Jacques Villeneuve has closed the gap in the drivers' championship to one point. His team believes he can do it, but the man he is chasing is Michael Schumacher. Derick Allsop reports from Zeltweg, Austria.
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The sideshow has been closed, all other distractions removed, and now Formula One has the prospect of a championship finale to concentrate the mind and lift the soul.

A couple of races back it seemed Michael Schumacher's course to a third title was irresistible, the challenge of Jacques Villeneuve and his Williams- Renault rendered almost impotent.

However, the Austrian Grand Prix here has changed the complexion of the season, Villeneuve's victory and Schumacher's stop-go penalty reducing the gap between them to a mere one point, with three rounds remaining.

The German is undeniably the outstanding talent among these travelling troubadours, but he has to produce his most inspired performances to counter the rejuvenated Villeneuve-Williams double act, and even then it might not be enough to offset the obvious inferiority of the Ferrari.

They barely have time to draw breath before stepping out on the stage again in Sunday's Luxembourg Grand Prix, a convenient label for an event at the Nurburgring, in Schumacher's home country. Whether he will enjoy home advantage in his 100th F1 appearance is another matter.

Villeneuve won there last year and confidently anticipates a similar superiority this time. His team expect him to remain in the ascendancy also at Suzuka and Jerez.

"We should be strong in these last three races," Frank Williams said. "We look to be in pretty good shape now."

Williams are gratified they have sharpened their competitive edge - they now have a 12-point lead over Ferrari in the constructors' championship - and that Villeneuve has apparently recovered his combative zeal after a number of lacklustre offerings.

Patrick Head, Williams' technical director, said: "We are reasonably confident of winning the constructors' championship, but I would say the drivers' championship is going to be a fight. We started with everyone telling us how good our car was, but then came a period when it maybe wasn't so good and Hockenheim was the nadir, when we thought we had serious problems.

"We had to get focused and get sorted out and have now got ourselves back in a fighting position, but I still regard it as tough. One point is enough to be behind Michael Schumacher because he never gives up, however difficult his car might be. So we still regard it as a bit of a struggle between now and the end of the season.

"Even if we qualify in front of him we can't afford to take anything for granted because in races his lap times are very competitive. In this race, for instance, had it not been for the yellow flag he would have been maybe second. He is a formidable opponent."

Schumacher demonstrated not only his familiar speed and car control here, but also the basic instincts of a fighter in the face of adversity. Head believes that in Villeneuve Williams have a man out of the same mould.

"Every team needs to be led by a fighter and Jacques has proved he is equal to the task," Head said. "In qualifying he was a fair way back, then pulled off pole position. He put the hammer down and got the job done. He has a lot of spirit and fight. He will not give anything up easily."

Schumacher's team-mate, Eddie Irvine, suggests Villeneuve should make the most of his opportunity this season. "The Ferrari will be better next season," Irvine said, "and no one will be able to touch Michael then."

REMAINING GRANDS PRIX: Luxembourg (Nurburgring, Ger, 28 September); Japan (Suzuka, 12 October); Europe (Jerez, Sp, 26 October).