Motor racing: Villeneuve's limitations are exposed by Schumacher

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The Independent Online
Someone asked Craig Pollock, manager of Jacques Villeneuve, where his protege might be. "I would think he's gone home with his tail between his legs," came the sardonic reply.

In fact, the pre-season championship favourite was fending off another barrage of questions about his latest inauspicious performance which had yielded only fourth place in the French Grand Prix.

The Canadian was endeavouring to put on a brave face (which you would need to beneath that hair), but evident differences of opinion with his bosses on technical matters had again undermined their cause and exposed limitations that characterised all those who venture to take on Michael Schumacher.

The German's third win in four races had given him a 14-point advantage at the top of the drivers' standings and confirmed what he is now at last prepared to acknowledge - that this year's title could be his.

The first public acceptance of that prospect will be another psychological blow for Villeneuve and his beleaguered camp. Schumacher said: "During the race, for the first time this year I began to think about the championship. If I carry on racing the way I am, then I've got a chance.

"There's a couple of circuits after Silverstone which suit our car better. Ferrari have made a big step forward and we'll know more after Silverstone."

Schumacher will be at the Northamptonshire circuit tomorrow and Thursday, testing before the British Grand Prix on Sunday week. A previous test there provided him with scant cause for optimism, but then he experienced similar anxieties in the build-up to the race here. Only a convincing recovery by Villeneuve on Williams' home ground will be good enough to check the shift of power.

Villeneuve maintains that will happen. "I'm not happy about this race," he said.

"We've had two bad races. But we are going to get it right. When we tested here we were two seconds a lap quicker than Michael. Now they are two seconds a lap quicker."

"We had the wrong set-up for this race. We thought it was going to rain more than it did. We underperformed as a team. In perfect conditions Williams are still ahead. Definitely."

Villeneuve's preferences in setting up his car have been at odds with Williams' calculations more than once and have revealed a chink not apparent in Schumacher's armour. He and Ferrari are as united as he and Benetton were.

Patrick Head, Williams' technical director, said: "We were outperformed by Ferrari here. I don't know if that is because of the car or the set- up, but we will be going to Silverstone hoping for some improvements.

"Jacques has his own ideas on set-ups but there are no limitations on his choosing the set-up he wishes. However, he can be a little over-optimistic. It's going to be a great struggle and a good battle to the end of the season."

Villeneuve was comprehensively beaten on Sunday not only by Schumacher but also by Williams' other driver, Heinz- Harald Frentzen, and the German will believe he might yet emerge as the main challenger to Schumacher.

Within Formula One, however, there is a growing feeling that neither of the Williams protagonists will be capable of denying Ferrari their first drivers' title since 1979, and Eddie Irvine's third place consolidated their lead in the constructors' championship.

David Coulthard, of McLaren-Mercedes, echoed familiar sentiments here when he said: "It will be good for the sport if Ferrari win the championship and I think Michael can do it. You have to say the luck is with them at the moment but perhaps they deserve their luck. They were lucky in Canada but they certainly deserved this one."