Motor racing: Villeneuve the smoothest over bumpy surface

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The Independent Online
Jacques Villeneuve put aside his dislike of Argentina's Autodromo Oscar Galvez, and gave himself a late birthday present by comprehensively outclassing his opposition yesterday. Earlier, Villeneuve's Williams-Renault partner, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, had shaken off a head cold and his much-publicised new boy at Williams blues, to set fastest time, but Villeneuve, who turned 26 on Wednesday, shaded him by almost a second and a half once he got his car working to his satisfaction. Later, as others also dialled in their cars, the German fell to an eventual seventh place.

This preliminary practice session highlighted the "Mickey Mouse" nature of the circuit, and despite resurfacing work carried out since last year's race, all of the drivers were still critical of its bumpiness. Frentzen summarised the feelings of many when he said: "The bump at the back of the circuit is still so bad that I could hardly hang on to the wheel."

The track surface was also dusty from lack of use, but while that at least should change in time for official qualifying this afternoon, when more rubber is laid, there is nothing the drivers can do about the bumps but grin and bear them, and try to minimise their effect on their cars. Villeneuve achieved the best set-up on his car, while Rubens Barrichello brought joy to the Stewart-Ford camp with second fastest time ahead of Olivier Panis's Prost-Mugen Honda, Gerhard Berger's Benetton-Renault, Michael Schumacher's Ferrari and Giancarlo Fisichella's Jordan-Peugeot.

Villeneuve's performance followed recent outspoken comments on the dearth of challenge in Formula One circuits. The Canadian, the winner of the Brazilian GP a fortnight ago, voiced the belief that safety levels and circuit changes, in the wake of the accidents at the San Marino GP at Imola in 1994 which took the lives of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, have stifled a driver's ability to capitalise on his courage as opposed to his car's inherent technical strengths. And here in Argentina his cause has been taken up by no less a figure than Bernie Ecclestone, the vice president of marketing of the FIA, who threw his hat into the ring with a very direct comment.

"Villeneuve isn't saying that motor racing should be dangerous, he just says we want more challenging circuits. I agree with him 100 per cent," Ecclestone said. "Since the accident at Imola, I think the FIA panicked a little under pressure from the media and went a bit over the top with chicanes all over the place. Which was proved at Barcelona, the next race, where we had chicanes all over the place, which is completely wrong and unnecessary."

Ecclestone, who is also the president of Foca, the constructors' association, spoke against the FIA's plans to modify the cars again for the 1998 season, by making them narrower, and said: "If we had the regulations from five years ago, the grid would be closer, because the have-nots would have caught up," he said. "Every time we change something, the guys with the money say, 'No problem, let's change' and the other guys are struggling. So I think you'll find after 1998 there will be no need, from a safety aspect, to do anything and I think you'll find the regulations will be fixed for a longer period."

Yesterday the Williams team announced that its sponsorship agreement with Rothmans will continue for the 1998 season. But Craig Pollock, Villeneuve's manager, absolutely denied the accompanying rumours that the joint World Championship leader has already re-signed for the British team. Such a move would indeed appear to be precipitate in a season in which Villeneuve is a clear favourite to take the crown won last year by Damon Hill, who was only 13th fastest yesterday. And at a time when the rumour mill has linked him with the possibility of a drive for McLaren-Mercedes in a car penned by the former Williams chief designer, Adrian Newey, who is currently estranged from the Didcot team and with whom Villeneuve established a working relationship last season.

"Those suggestions are absolute bullshit," Pollock said trenchantly. However, other sources within Williams say that, mindful of the flow of the driver market and given the current problems of new signing Frentzen, Frank Williams has already firmly indicated his intention to take up the option that he has on Villeneuve's services for 1998.