Suzuka's pressure cooker

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The Independent Online

By David Tremayne at Suzuka

By David Tremayne at Suzuka

31 October 1999

The Fall-out from the FIA court of appeal hearing in Paris settled like a red blanket on the Suzuka paddock this weekend, and Ferrari's weary rivals acknowledged the team's remarkable escape. "Who," one sage commented, "would ever have predicted that there would never have been a crime in the first place?"

Grown sportsmen who suddenly become bird-mouthed when faced with controversy have become an all too familiar irritation in the modern milieu, but thankfully Jacques Villeneuve was at his outspoken best. Villeneuve has had his run-ins with authority before, notably here in 1997 when he raced under appeal after failing to slow down for a yellow caution flag in practice.

It was his fourth indiscretion of the season, but many regarded the ensuing penalty as an unsubtle ploy by the FIA to prevent him tying up the championship until the finale at Jerez. Villeneuve finished fifth here on that occasion, lost the points when his appeal failed, but had the last laugh when Schumacher made his rash attempt to push him off the terrain in Spain. Mika Hakkinen, no doubt, went into the race hoping for similar retribution.

"You know," Villeneuve said of the latest edict from Paris, "you grow up and you dream, and you dream about racing, and racing being a sport. F1 being a sport. And then one day the dream stops.

"I wouldn't want to be in Mika's shoes," he continued, even though the Finn qualified his McLaren on the front row despite a last lap mix-up with Jean Alesi. "In his mind he'd won it, you know, and then he found he'd dropped back in the World Championship. That is a very, very difficult situation for him to be in. Suddenly the weight on his shoulders will be very heavy. He's bound to feel that he's been had, and Eddie's laughing."

Damon Hill agreed. "Mika has had a lot of pressure through no fault of his own. He had to race his team-mate at Spa when he didn't need to, and he might have liked those points now. His team could have helped him there and they didn't. Eddie is in this position because everyone keeps dropping the ball. So he is laughing, yes."

Well, not really. As the circus gathered for what after all was its final sell-out show of the season, albeit minus its ringmasters, who stayed at home, resignation had replaced incredulity as Ferrari made the most of their shock reprieve and Michael Schumacher once again galloped away in qualifying. Under pressure Irv the Swerve wobbled and crashed, temporarily halting qualifying. Fifth place on the grid, behind not only Schumacher and Hakkinen but Coulthard and Frentzen, was his worst nightmare realised.

Three years ago Hill and Villeneuve faced the same pressure as Hakkinen and Irvine, fighting their own inter-team battle for the title at Williams. But for Hill, Suzuka was the last hurrah. "Being a grand prix driver is a very special thing and it's a very rare achievement just to be one," he said. "I was very fortunate to be in one of Frank's fantastic cars for a long time and to win a lot of races. But I don't have any strong emotion about this being my last race."

Like Hill, who qualified a disappointed 12th alongside him, Villeneuve has endured the season from hell after quitting Williams to join the new British American Racing team. But with the return of Honda a brighter future beckons. "The expectations are very high," he admitted, "but the season has been so disastrous this year that anything will be very good."

This feisty little racer has been the most under-utilised driver of the season, but has inherited his late father's ignorance of how to give up. Allegedly he turned down a McLaren drive to go to BAR, but he refuses to accept that his bold move was a false step.

"The team is being built up, and you can't just look at something and wait until the performance comes up," he said. "More than anything we need a car that is reliable. Our reliability has been pathetic this year. We were almost competitive early in the season but then we were never able to do much testing because the car kept breaking down at race weekends and all the development was going into making it reliable. Next year the car is going to be bulletproof."

Despite BAR's failure to score a single point before Suzuka, Villeneuve remains philosophical. "Every weekend is a new weekend and you always believe that when you get into this type of work. You have to give so much of yourself. You can't do it halfway. First it's dangerous, so you want to be driving well, then there's so many people counting on you. Being at the back this year has brought back memories of when I started racing, because you don't start off at the front. Probably you end up taking more risks."

At Spa this year Villeneuve showed how much he enjoys that by repeatedly pushing his BAR beyond its limits at the infamous Eau Rouge corner, until he repeated the accident he had there last year. "This was better though," he said. "I got a roll in, too." As long as there's a risk to ride, he'll put the spurs to it.

Villeneuve agreed when the McLaren chief Ron Dennis said: "Whatever the outcome of the race, it won't change the result of the World Championship in my mind. And I think there are a lot of other people who think that way."