Motor-racing: Williams bank on Head way

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FOR THE past three years, since the Grand Prix returned to Argentina, it has been a Williams-Renault benefit. In 1995 and 1996 Damon Hill ruled supreme. Last year it was Jacques Villeneuve's turn as the champion-to- be overcame illness to hang on for a narrow victory over Eddie Irvine which completed the corporate hat-trick. But you would get long odds this weekend on either Villeneuve or his team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen making it four in a row for the British team unless weather conditions intervene.

As McLaren rule the roost at present, these are troubled times for the team who have dominated since 1991. Villeneuve, the reigning champion, has only two points on the board from the opening two races, in which he experienced the indignity of being lapped by the series leader, Mika Hakkinen. On Friday morning, for the second race running, Villeneuve left the track, though this time his Williams did not sustain damage. A transmission problem then prevented him running in the afternoon session.

Meanwhile, Frentzen blotted his own copybook after lunch when he unaccountably drove into the back of the Minardi driven by the local hero, Esteban Tuero. Fortunately for the hapless German, Williams' technical director, Patrick Head, was not due to arrive in Argentina until Saturday morning, and was able to bring out more of the revised front suspension components that both drivers felt had worked in conjunction with Goodyear's new, wider front tyres to improve the handling of their cars.

It remains to be seen how quickly the modifications might help Williams to regain lost ground. At the end of the 1996 season, in which his team had won 12 races, the team owner Frank Williams looked ahead to 1997 and raised smiles when he said: "You never know what the future may hold. We may not even win a race next year."

Of course, his cars passed the chequered flag ahead of the opposition on eight occasions as Villeneuve headed for his title. But while it is fanciful to suggest that Williams' pessimistic remark might have greater foundation in 1998, the first victory of the year will not come without a great deal of effort. Head has been in the game long enough not to be driven into panic when faced with adverse situations, but was at pains to put Williams' present plight into a true perspective.

"Don't forget that we had some pretty dreadful races in the middle of last year when we lost the plot a little, but we pulled ourselves together," said Head. "You shouldn't focus too much attention on a couple of disappointing races. What you have to bear in mind about 1998 is that as late as February this year we did not have a front tyre that wasn't prone to shredding itself. But Goodyear are working flat out to make up that ground."

Head believes that the wider front tyres will allow teams to run softer compounds which give greater grip, though he is not sure that Goodyear will be in a position to challenge Bridgestone just yet. Williams' position is not being helped by Villeneuve's apparent inability to rise to the occasion and help the team to get the best from their new car. In Brazil the world champion annoyed the management by insisting on running his favourite super-stiff suspension set-up on a track whose numerous bumps favoured softer settings, and it was not until he drove Frentzen's spare car in qualifying, after crashing his own badly in the morning, that he came to appreciate how much more forgiving the car was with greater suspension compliance.

Frentzen redeemed himself here on Saturday morning when he timed things best on a wet but drying track to set the fastest time initially, but Villeneuve continued to struggle. The champion refused to be daunted however: "The tyres are pretty quick compared to the Bridgestones," he said. "That's what matters at this point - to be competitive and to push."

Head believes that tyre performance is fundamental: "The whole car is an interactive entity between suspension dynamics and aerodynamics, as well as the tyres, so if you get a tyre that behaves very differently you often have to set the car up very differently. You are looking at well over 50 per cent of the performance equation coming from the tyres.

"Back at the factory in Grove, Williams has a simulation programme for every circuit on which the World Championship is run. If we took the Australian race and put in a five per cent improvement in tyre performance, we improved by roughly one and a half seconds per lap," Head said. "If we put in a five per cent improvement in engine performance, we improve by only three- tenths of a second a lap."

Goodyear's hopes were realised in qualifying but it was Ferrari not Williams who posed McLaren's greatest challenge. Michael Schumacher began by throwing in a lap 0.8sec faster than anyone else, and as Hakkinen struggled it was Coulthard who upheld McLaren honour with a lap 0.05sec slower. Schumacher's later efforts fell short of improvement, but Coulthard's third run gave him pole position for a race he desperately needs to win. Hakkinen vaulted up to third ahead of Irvine, leaving Williams to fight the Jordans for fifth. McLaren may have pole position but, after narrowing their advantage, Ferrari go into the race with real optimism.