Only practice is free in Formula One

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The Independent Online
Motor racing

Another Friday, another yawn. Formula One's designated competition-free zone is seriously undermining an already flimsy show.

Bad enough that the world championship is a cruise for Williams-Renault and that only one of their drivers, Damon Hill, appears capable of extracting anything remotely close to the car's potential. Jacques Villeneuve, the much trumpeted import from IndyCars, has frankly been a disappointment so far and David Coulthard is doubtless steaming inside the cockpit of his McLaren- Mercedes.

However, to add insult for the spectators, qualifying has been taken off the schedule of the first day's practice. The teams, not unreasonably, are more intent on preparing for the race than pushing for meaningless times, so the tension and spectacle have all but evaporated and the opening free practice here before tomorrow's French Grand Prix followed the now familiar routine.

The authorities, supported by many drivers and teams, took the decision to confine qualifying to Saturday this season for the specific purpose of ensuring a full and committed turnout in the final hour. Even if it rains, the drivers have to go and earn their grid positions.

Officials still maintain it is a policy worth persisting with, but around the paddock and along the pit lane, opinion is changing. The view from the grandstand is clear: transforming Friday practice into a non-event is too high a price to pay.

The punter is anxiously counting the escalating cost of Formula One. On top of astronomical admission prices, the travelling fan is also encountering an organised rip-off at his or her hotel here. Rooms usually priced at less than pounds 20 are now more than pounds 70. Four star hotels are charging pounds 300 a night.

Formula One has long been associated with a greed mentality, yet the current trend is exceeding all previous outrages. Value for money is apparently an abandoned cause.

Hill, of course, will be perfectly content for the second half of the season to continue along its undramatic course. He heads Villeneuve by 21 points and Michael Schumacher by 27, and they are evidently the only drivers who may present any semblance of a threat, providing they can start well.

Hill put paid to Villeneuve's plans last time out by cutting off the Canadian's launch from the grid in Montreal and went on to secure his fifth win of the season.

Villeneuve says he is now forearmed to counter that tactic should Hill employ it tomorrow and the feelings within the Williams camp tend to suggest they again expect to occupy the front row of the grid. For the record, Hill was sixth yesterday, Villeneuve seventh. Mika Hakkinen, in the McLaren, was first, followed by Olivier Panis, enjoying the advantage of driving on Ligier- Mugen-Honda's home track.

Hill had an uncomfortable start to the day, his car bucking over a kerb and giving him an anxious moment before the four wheels made contact with the ground again. Immediately he took it to the garage to have it checked out.

"When you give the car heavy treatment like that it's best to get it checked straight away," Hill said. "There are quite a few things we're working on to improve for qualifying.

"I think this is a good track. It has some quick corners but there are good run-off areas, fortunately. So it is safe as well as interesting."

He insisted the competition was hotting up. "People have got a grip on things at this stage of the season. It's looking closer right now and I don't think we're as good as we can be."

Schumacher, fifth in his Ferrari, was even less assured. He said: "We have to come up with some new ideas, and it won't be easy."

Martin Brundle, in a Jordan-Peugeot, was 11th and Johnny Herbert, of Sauber-Ford, 19th.

FRENCH GRAND PRIX (Magny-Cours) Lap times after opening free practice session: 1 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1min 17.673sec; 2 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1:18.205; 3 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault 1:18.284; 4 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton 1:18.526; 5 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:18.545; 6 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:18.598; 7 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams- Renault 1:18.992; 8 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:18.994; 9 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:19.098; 10 P Diniz (Bra) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1:19.104; 11 M Brundle (GB) Jordan-Peugeot 1:19.479; 12 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan- Hart 1:19.676; 13 J Verstappen (Neth) Footwork-Hart 1:19.693; 14 R Rosset (Bra) Footwork-Hart 1:20.195; 15 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:20.215; 16 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford1:20.231; 17 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:20.455; 18 P Lamy (Por) Minardi-Ford 1:20.678; 19 J Herbert (GB) Sauber- Ford 1:21.189; 20 G Fisichella (It) Minardi-Ford 1:21.291; 21 L Badoer (It) Forti-Ford 1:21.360; 22 A Montermini (It) Forti-Ford 1:23.002.