Motor racing: Villeneuve's superior finish

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The Independent Online
After qualifying in Melbourne three weeks ago, the gap between the dominant Williams-Renault drivers Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen - first and second on the grid - had been 1.7sec. But as an indication of the rate of progress in Formula One, that figure covered the first 14 cars during a hectic morning practice run yesterday which saw Villeneuve regain the fastest lap from Mika Hakkinen's McLaren-Mercedes as the hour and a half long session ended.

There were too many variables to draw definite conclusions, since some drivers were still running more fuel than others and experimenting with chassis set-up and the choice between soft or hard tyre compounds, a decision that, once made, must endure for both qualifying and the race. But it was sufficient to suggest that Williams' superiority might be challenged more significantly on a circuit whose bumpy surface permits a more telling inference to be drawn regarding form for the rest of the season.

In racing the first man you want to beat is your team-mate, and Frentzen has been more upbeat this weekend after his difficult baptism to the Williams way of life in Australia. "I would say that I'm pretty motivated. But I can't say here and now whether I am going to be quicker than Jacques, or whether the gap will be reduced," he said initially. It was typical F1 talk - saying something, without saying anything. But on Friday the German did the talking with his hands and feet as he guided his Williams- Renault to fastest time, shading Villeneuve by three tenths of a second and boosting his confidence. In an interesting little vignette, Villeneuve stepped from his car and reflected: "I think that I've just made my team- mate feel cocky."

He corrected the anomaly on Saturday morning, when Frentzen was still six tenths of a second shy of his pace, but it was a close-run session with Hakkinen, the Benetton-Renaults of Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi, Michael Schumacher in the Ferrari and Hakkinen's team-mate, the Melbourne winner David Coulthard, all lapping below 1min 17sec and far faster than Damon Hill's 1996 pole time.

When the chips were down in official qualifying yesterday afternoon, however, Villeneuve, looking ever more a champion elect, simply heaped confusion upon Frentzen's bowed head, relieving Schumacher of pole position with a lap of 1min 16.342sec, then shaving that to 1min 16.004sec as Schumacher's improvement to 1min 16.594sec placed him second ahead of Berger, Hakkinen, the Bridgestone interloper Olivier Panis in the Prost Mugen-Honda, and Alesi. Even the Jordan rookie, Giancarlo Fisichella, pushed ahead of the German, although a heavy accident late in the session brought out the red flag as the Italian was helped away unhurt.

Worse still, Frentzen, eighth, was mere fractions ahead of Damon Hill, whose lap of 1min 17.090sec underlined his ability and confirmed the progress the Arrows camp has made following a lot of much-needed test running after the debacle in Melbourne. The World Champion remained philosophical on Friday after his throttle had stuck open - "A problem you don't want to encounter for any reason" - and duly finished ninth fastest in a car whose Yamaha engine now breathes better and develops more power, and in which revised weight distribution and chassis set-up had enhanced handling.

His performance in edging the car so high put Ralf Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello, Coulthard and Johnny Herbert in the shade, and raised further questions about Frank Williams' wisdom in signing the German as his replacement.

Speculation in the paddock is rife that Williams, McLaren and Tyrrell, the three renegade teams who had refused to sign the Concorde Agreement which governs the running of F1 and distribution of income from television rights, were about to score a dramatic victory. They have obliged F1 powerbroker Bernie Ecclestone to renegotiate virtual parity of television income share with the seven other teams who signed the agreement as long ago as August last year. Ferrari, Benetton, Jordan, Prost, Sauber, Arrows and Minardi had blocked reconciliation, but Frank Williams, Ron Dennis and Ken Tyrrell had threatened to take the case to court, a potential embarrassment as Ecclestone plans to float Formula One Adminstration on the London and New York stock markets.