Motor racing: Villeneuve survives 180mph accident

THEY ALL talk of their relish for this circuit's unique thrill and challenge, and now Jacques Villeneuve has the compelling evidence. The world champion was fortunate to walk away unscathed after losing control of his Williams at almost 180mph and plunging into a barrier yesterday.

Villeneuve has renewed vigour after two consecutive podium finishes and has every prospect of running at the sharp end in tomorrow's Belgian Grand Prix.

Michael Schumacher, the horse for this course, was fastest in practice yesterday, his Ferrari narrowly edging out the McLaren-Mercedes of Mika Hakkinen, who leads him by seven points in the championship standings. However, Villeneuve was in touch with them and still sixth at the end of what was for him a truncated session.

Villeneuve was undaunted by his encounter with Eau Rouge, the most feared corner in Formula One. He lost control coming out of the left-right valley but his impact was cushioned by the tyre barrier even though little of his speed seemed to have been scrubbed off.

"That has to be my best shunt in Formula One," said Villeneuve. "It was down to me. You can take that corner flat, or just about, if you get it right. I'm sure we will do in qualifying. This time I didn't get it right.

"As I went into the barrier I thought: `Ooh, this is going to hurt.' But I'm OK. The good thing is we've got a lot more to come from the car. We're definitely on the up."

He may have to resume business with a new car but clearly Williams are out of their slump. So are Jordan, as Damon Hill, fourth in Hungary a fortnight ago, underlined with the same placing yesterday.

Hill doubts it is now possible to take Eau Rouge flat. "Jacques tried it and you saw what happened to him," he said. "He's a lucky boy. I knew he'd be proud of that.

"You have to take this track by the throat and it's difficult because these cars are sliding around so much. I'm cautious by nature, but this time suggests another opportunity of getting a good result. We have a strong chance of a top-six qualifying position and running strong in the race. Those in front are fighting for the championship and not hanging about, and we're right up there."

Hakkinen spun off during the morning, although his car came to a softer landing. In the afternoon he was just a hundredth of a second outside Schumacher's time, this on Formula One's longest circuit. David Coulthard, in the other McLaren, was third fastest.

"I didn't go out at the beginning of the session this morning as the track was drying very quickly and we decided to wait," said Hakkinen. "I was running quite well until the end of the session when I touched a wet section on the kerb and spun off. The team did a fantastic job to repair the car for the afternoon.

Schumacher said: "Conditions were tricky in the morning because the track was slippery and Jacques' accident proved that safety standards have increased a great deal. We are quite competitive but I'm not sure if we can make the front row. Even so, we should be very strong in the race."

Eddie Irvine, in the other Ferrari, was seventh and Johnny Herbert, of Sauber, was 10th. Stewart-Ford's Rubens Barrichello and Joss Verstappen were 13th and 16th respectively on a day when the team's owner was denying suggestions he could be pulling out. Ford are said to be growing impatient for more progress, but Jackie Stewart maintains he has no intention of walking away and no knowledge of any attempt to force him out.

"There is no drama," said Stewart. "I am here to stay. We are having more involvement with Ford and some of their people are working with us but that's the way it should be. I'm building up a business here and we have made a long-term commitment."

Stewart are in the middle of an exclusive five-year contract with Ford, but the motor company admit they may consider a change of policy in the future. Martin Whittacker, head of Ford's European motor sport operation, said: "The leadership at Stewart Grand Prix knows well enough what it has to do. They need to push themselves. I believe there are advantages having two teams with our best engines because internal competition is good. But right now we don't have that intention."