Motor Racing: Villeneuve slams show of emotion

Jacques Villeneuve, the self-styled white tornado, left Formula One reverberating to another of his verbal storms here yesterday.

The World Championship favourite, sporting bleached hair, a la Gazza, matched the impact of his arrival for tomorrow's French Grand Prix with a characteristically forthright opinion on his colleagues' reaction to Olivier Panis's accident in Canada a fortnight ago.

The other drivers stood shoulder to shoulder in a public declaration and demonstration of their grief after Panis sustained double fractures of both legs. Villeneuve, already on a yellow card after his excessive condemnation of Formula One's safety strategy, effectively dismissed their show of compassion as phoney.

He said: "I'm disappointed how politically correct Formula One has become. When someone has an accident everyone acts as if they are sad, but they do not really care - the drivers, everybody. As a driver, you take risks every time you go out. If you can't accept them you shouldn't be out there. If I ever had the big one, I'd expect the race to go on. I'm not against safety. I'm not saying it should be more dangerous.

"If you think about it, two broken legs is not that bad. That sort of thing happens to everyone in their lifetime. But how many skiers hurt themselves in winter? Olivier was having a great season and it's terrible for him it should happen when he is going forward in big leaps with his career. But he will be able to come back in a racing car. If he was a skier he would be off a long time."

Even Villeneuve's aides cringed as the Canadian delivered his latest address and the sport's governing body, FIA, who at a hearing in Paris earlier this month reprimanded him and warned him to choose his words more carefully, may have to consider whether he has overstepped the mark this time.

The drivers are patently unimpressed by what they deem a slur. David Coulthard, Villeneuve's kindred spirit in many things, including the pursuit of outlandish hairstyles, was at odds with his Monaco neighbour. "He is entitled to his opinion but I was concerned for Olivier," Coulthard said: "The last time we saw a driver laid out on the side of the track like that it was Ayrton [Senna]. I think the drivers are sincere in their concern. I am equally sure they would be sincerely concerned if they saw Jacques laid on the track."

Michael Schumacher, the world championship leader, was the instigator- in-chief of the solemn podium ceremony at Montreal. "You are not human if that sort of accident doesn't affect you," he said yesterday. "None of us are really close - I don't know Olivier very well. But we are all part of this sport and we have to look after each other. It's our job to try and make the sport as safe as possible."

Jackie Stewart, however, sided with Villeneuve. "Jacques has a point," he said. "In my day we lost drivers regularly. The reaction in Montreal was a bit over the top. Safety is a concern for all of us, but we have to keep things in context."

Villeneuve, meanwhile, was shrugging off Schumacher's insistence that he would not be able to maintain his advantage in the championship. Schumacher contends he will be hard-pressed to score points here and at Silverstone in a fortnight.

Schumacher's Ferrari was fastest by some distance on a drying track in practice yesterday, and Villeneuve said: "He is in better shape than he expected but he downplays his chances because if he wins then he seems an even bigger hero.

"We've made mistakes, they've made fewer mistakes. We've thrown away races this year. That's not the Williams way. He's going to be fierce opposition to the end of the season. He's a great driver. He drives the hell out of the Ferrari."

Schumacher drove the Ferrari a second and a half quicker than the second- placed car yesterday, Giancarlo Fisichella's Jordan-Peugeot. Villeneuve was fifth, 1.886sec down.

FRENCH GRAND PRIX (Magny-Cours, 2.64-mile circuit) Opening practice times: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1min 18.339sec 121.382mph (195.305kph); 2 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Peugeot 1:19.838; 3 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren- Mercedes 1:20.014; 4 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Peugeot 1:20.020; 5 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1:20.225; 6 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Renault 1:20.469; 7 J Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell-Ford 1:21.512; 8 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 1:21.742; 9 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Ford 1:22.206; 10 R Barrichello (Br) Stewart-Ford 1:23.232; 11 U Katayama (Japan) Minardi- Hart 1:23.469; 12 S Nakano (Japan) Prost-Mugen-Honda 1:23.839; 13 D Hill (GB) Arrows-Yamaha 1:24.494; 14 T Margues (Br) Minardi-Hart 1:24.535; 15 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford 1:25.449; 16 P Diniz (Br) Arrows-Yamaha 1:26.108; 17 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:27.460; 18 N Fontana (Arg) Sauber- Petronas 1:27.905; 19 J Trulli (It) Prost-Mugen-Honda 1:29.600; 20 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:31.193.

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