On Friday afternoon, shortly after the red cars of Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher had temporarily asserted themselves, Villeneuve enlivened the slow time when those drivers unlucky enough to be selected for the regular media conference often have trouble staying awake. The World Championship leader warmed to his favourite theme of candid comment, and to hear a racing driver speak his mind and abandon politically correct soundbites was, to say the least, unusual.
"It was a joke, basically," he informed a rapt audience as he outlined a recent test run on the grooved tyres that will become mandatory next season in yet a further effort to slow cars down. "You cannot do much, because you don't have a clue where the car is going. I think it's ridiculous to drive race cars like that." Next year the regulations also call for narrower cars, a move that only the Ferrari team appears to welcome. "I'm positive that keeping the regulations the way they are for as long as possible is going to bring the teams closer together," Villeneuve continued. "If you keep changing them then the top teams can react more quickly and the medium and lower teams won't react and it's just going to make the gap bigger."
As if this was not an embarrassing enough situation for the sport's governing body, the French-Canadian did not exactly defuse suggestions that he might be moved to quit the category in which he is the favourite to follow his former partner Damon Hill as world champion. "If it becomes boring to drive, the best racing will probably end up being IndyCars, and it could have a big influence on my decisions. I enjoy the racing and if that's taken away, just the money side isn't going to be enough to keep me for a long time."
Villeneuve had little time for the FIA's view that it is too soon to draw conclusions. "Too early? I mean, it's pure logic and it's fairly simple. I think the best ones to ask are the drivers because we're sitting in the cars and know how they react. But if nobody does that, then you are just going to take decisions and find out two years later that it was a big mistake."
Having recently expressed the view that F1 risks emasculating itself, Villeneuve also said: "It's frustrating because we are the ones risking our lives out there." And he held little hope of discussion with the FIA president, Max Mosley, adding trenchantly: "Talking is one thing, but listening is another."
Whether speaking or driving, Villeneuve remained flat-out yesterday afternoon as qualifying began with a fight for fastest time between the Jordan- Peugeot drivers Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella, who are waging their own cold war after the former pushed the latter out of third place in Argentina. Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher soon traded the lead position before Frentzen took over. With half an hour to go, the Ferrari split the Williams pair again, and Ralf momentarily got in on the act, but in reality it was always going to be a battle between the blue-and-white cars.
Villeneuve improved his time to go quickest with 27 minutes left, but this time Frentzen's response fell just short. It was still Frentzen's most convincing performance since joining Williams.
For the first time he was using a differential setting that has been available to him all season, and found the handling of his Williams-Renault much more to his liking. "This is the first time since I started driving this car that I have felt comfortable in it," he said. It showed. Villeneuve and Frentzen were later given a suspended one-race ban after failing to observe a yellow hazard flag. If either of the two transgress in the next two races, then the ban will be imposed.
Speed comes at a price, and at Imola this afternoon it will demand payment in brakes and tyres. Whoever maintains the best speed, while preserving these components, will pose the strongest threat. For once this may not necessarily be a Williams-Renault driver. With Olivier Panis in the Bridgestone- tyred Prost lurking alongside Schumacher's Ferrari and the Jordans on row three, this race is not a foregone conclusion.Reuse content