Motor racing: Williams out to resume slick control after storm

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Weather permitting, Williams-Renault should be back in business here this weekend, and they are not the only organisation needing to ride out a storm.

While Michael Schumacher and Ferrari go into Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix leading the drivers' and constructors' championships, Williams head a posse of teams hoping to be more sure-footed at the Circuit de Catalunya.

Williams will again have their man from the Met Office on board and although he got it wrong in Monaco, their drivers, Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz- Harald Frentzen, will know they ought to have realised, as Schumacher did, that starting on slick tyres was a mistake. They can at least be comforted in the knowledge that they should have the best car here, even if they are not taken in by Schumacher's dismissal of his own prospects.

McLaren-Mercedes, after winning the first race, have slipped back into the pack and were also told to expect a drying track in Monaco. (Other teams draw their weather information from the Internet.) Unlike Williams, however, McLaren have failed to sustain their level of performance and their season is in danger of sliding into all too familiar mediocrity.

Already in that area are Benetton-Renault, who lost direction after the departure of Schumacher and have so far been unable to rediscover it. This week, they maintain, the signs of recovery should emerge. Their lack of tyre grip has been traced to a problem in the electronic brake balance system. From now on, according to Flavio Briatore, their managing director, their performance can be expected to improve dramatically.

All of which may be too late to save Jean Alesi's job at Benetton. Sources close to the team suggest that he has already been told his contract is not to be renewed at the end of the year and, although Briatore denies having made any such decision for 1998, the Frenchman's departure would come as no surprise. Even by his own erratic standards, he has under-achieved since switching from Ferrari, scarcely endearing himself to the troops with his temperamental outbursts.

Alesi's uneasy alliance with the team was further unsettled when a reported comment after the first day's practice in Monaco got back to them: "I dislike my car so much I have even begun to hate its colour," was the quote that had Benetton hopping.

A vacancy at Benetton would inevitably be linked to Damon Hill, who is already said to be attracting the attention of McLaren, Prost and Sauber. What is clear is that Arrows-Yamaha have much to accomplish here and in the subsequent two or three races to convince Hill he should stick with them for next year. Five races with the team have failed to produce a finish.

In the meantime, Jordan-Peugeot and Stewart-Ford, teams Hill rejected, have made splendid progress, the former regularly competing with the front runners, the latter plundering a spectacular second place, courtesy of the Brazilian driver, Rubens Barrichello, in Monaco.

Barrichello, like Schumacher, would doubtless not mind if the heavens opened again on Sunday. The German, who demonstrated his incomparable skills in the wet here last year, maintains that in normal conditions he would be content with third place. "To be honest, I would prefer to cancel Spain because it is not a circuit which suits our car," he said.

Consistency has been Schumacher's bedrock this year and, with developments due to improve the Ferrari from Canada onwards, his challenge for the title is a very real threat to the Williams pair.