Technical itch for Frentzen

David Tremayne says the Williams No 2 is struggling to find the cutting edge of F1
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When Frank Williams signed Heinz-Harald Frentzen to replace Damon Hill, he did not have in mind the sort of race the young German drove last weekend in Brazil, where his team-mate Jacques Villeneuve dominated and he finished a woeful ninth. This, after all, was the man with the reputation for matching Michael Schumacher's legendary speed during their days as Mercedes-Benz sportscar team-mates.

Frentzen is admirably honest, and explained patiently that his car had a faulty damper during qualifying. Gerhard Berger agreed such a problem could have hurt his lap time; Hill did not. He explained that his race, too, was compromised by gearshift trouble. But Frentzen's principal problem stems from lack of familiarity with the most complex car in the pit lane. When Villeneuve climbed into one last year, fresh from IndyCars, Williams indulged him with 6,000km of testing before he went to Australia and started from pole position. Frentzen was expected to have amassed sufficient experience in his three years with Sauber. His winter testing with the new FW19 was compromised by development problems and the need to test new tyres. He says the first time he drove with a qualifying set-up was in Melbourne.

"I'm still not happy with it. I just couldn't get the handling right," he said in Interlagos. "I'm the new guy at Williams and my way of setting up the car at Sauber was different. The team is giving me advice and I'm still working out my point of view of setting up the car, and also Williams's. At the moment it's a mixed set-up of Damon Hill and myself, and I look forward to more testing."

Therein lies the rub, though, for there is no such opportunity before the weekend's Argentinian Grand Prix. The Williams is a difficult car to fine tune because it has more options than most others. It's a car you drive with your head as well as with the throttle. "Technically it is very advanced, so from a driver's point of view there is much more information which I have to sort out," Frentzen said, adding with typical self-deprecation: "The more information, the more things you can make wrong!"

Frank Williams says that it might take Frentzen half the season to match Villeneuve. But like Enzo Ferrari, Frank does not possess that sort of patience. Nor does his partner, the technical director Patrick Head, an immensely likeable bulldog of an Englishman with a penchant for understatement. Torn between public consideration for his driver's feelings and an engineer's desire to see his product fully utilised, he said in Brazil: "I wouldn't say either of his performances have been very exciting, but the season's got a lot of races in it. Obviously from our point of view we'd like him to step into the car and be on the pace straight away, but he's not and it's something he's got to work out. I could hardly imagine that he believes that was a particularly great performance."

Frentzen cancelled plans for a holiday after Brazil and headed last Friday for a meeting with Frank Williams. Both men will have made their viewpoints clear: Williams that such performances are unacceptable, Frentzen that they are a corollary of lack of meaningful testing. No doubt he will get on the pace before too long, for there is little doubt that on speed alone he can challenge most of the F1 field. But it remains to be seen whether the undertaker's son from Munchengladbach can play the sort of cerebral game for which Hill is now only just, in adversity, beginning to receive full credit.

There was once a time when it was feared that Everest had shrunk and no longer deserved to be recognised as the world's highest peak. But for Frentzen the reverse is true, for his mountain is now bigger. Williams are a team with a history of wrapping their drivers in hair shirts rather than mollycoddling them. And they have little tolerance when only one of their drivers is scoring points towards the coveted constructors' championship. Frentzen does not just need to come good, pretty damn quick, but to do something quite exceptional if he is to rebuild his credibility and extinguish the fires of self-doubt.