Villeneuve coup takes title to last race

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The Independent Online
They are forever telling us it is a marathon, not a sprint, and right now Damon Hill is evoking eerie images of Jim Peters, staggering towards an elusive finishing line. The racing driver, also, is in danger of failing to make it.

A world championship that had seemed under Hill's control mid-distance is still unresolved going into the last round. Jacques Villeneuve prolonged the torment for his Williams-Renault team-mate with an inspired victory in the Portuguese Grand Prix here yesterday.

The mathematics reaffirm Hill's position as overwhelming favourite to claim the title in Japan on 13 October. Even if Villeneuve wins at Suzuka, one point will suffice for the Englishman. "I'm still absolutely confident I'll be world champion," Hill said. "The odds are better for me than they were before this race."

True. And yet his stride has become erratic in the past few races and, privately, he must fear the gods are conspiring against him. A mechanical failure, a solitary mistake by him or another driver, and he could be taken out of the field, powerless to secure that sixth place.

Villeneuve, by contrast, has the free spirit and momentum of a challenger coming from behind, with nothing to lose. This was no contest decided on the whim of fate, crucial though the drivers' final pit stops were. Villeneuve returned to the track just ahead and stretched away with soul- destroying ease. Hill could muster no response, his self-belief draining by the lap. A clutch problem compounded his anxiety, but he held on to clutch second place, 20 seconds behind the Canadian.

Suzuka two years ago was the scene of Hill's greatest drive, a heroic defeat of Michael Schumacher in torrential rain. Last year it marked the lowest point of his Formula One career, his ultimate spin-off leaving him to wish "the ground had opened and swallowed me up".

This time? As Villeneuve observed: "Anything can happen. It doesn't look very good for me but we just have to keep going to the last lap."

If psychology comes into play then Hill may be as groggy as Peters was back in those 1954 Commonwealth Games at Vancouver. Villeneuve stunned him with his pace, reversing the trend of the season in the most emphatic manner, and Hill will require gentle massaging of his morale over the next three weeks.

Hill conceded: "Jacques drove a great race and had me beaten. To come from fourth and win here is no mean feat. I couldn't stay with him and the alarm bells were ringing loudly when I then had clutch problems, so I slowed down because I wanted to finish.

"Before the race I couldn't help think I was within one hour and 45 minutes of the championship, but I've had to wait for it all season and I can bear to wait another three weeks."

The moment seemed to beckon for Hill when he made an aggressive start from pole, fighting off Villeneuve and then Jean Alesi, in a Benetton- Renault, to command the first corner and build up what might have been a decisive advantage.

Villeneuve was stranded in fourth place, behind Schumacher's Ferrari, and would stay there for six frustrating laps. Then Villeneuve caught the outgoing champion unawares, hurling the Williams outside him at the fast, sweeping final bend, his experience of oval racing serving him well. He still appeared to be blocked by a back-marker but instead used the car for a tow and shot in front of the Ferrari. "I had nothing to lose and it was worth taking a big risk," Villeneuve said.

The manoeuvre, reminiscent of Nigel Mansell's against Gerhard Berger in the 1990 Monaco Grand Prix, propelled him on to an unstoppable course.

Alesi's first pit stop promoted Villeneuve to second and the championship battle was on. Hill retained his lead after their second stops and he felt he had enough in hand as Villeneuve went in for the third and last time.

Hill said: "I saw a car coming out of the pits as I came down the straight and thought it was a Tyrrell and hoped it wouldn't hold me up, and I was pretty shocked when I saw Rothmans on the rear wing and realised it was Jacques."

He was to realise he could not match his partner's speed and soon that tell-tale sign was disappearing from his view. His vision of the championship was still there, but suddenly, exasperatingly, it was blurred.

Schumacher and Alesi were left to their own scrap for third place in the race and the championship. The German ran into the back of the Frenchman at one point but both survived and the Ferrari driver came away from their final pit stops with a lead he held to the flag.

Eddie Irvine, in the other Ferrari, was fifth, Berger, in the other Benetton, sixth. Johnny Herbert, who has a new two-year contract with Sauber, steered his Ford-powered car to eighth place and Martin Brundle, facing the prospect of losing his place at Jordan-Peugeot to Hill, was ninth. David Coulthard was an infuriated 13th after being shunted by his McLaren-Mercedes team- mate, Mika Hakkinen. Their boss, Ron Dennis, said: "The incident is unacceptable, but I am comfortable that it will not happen again."

Hill had hoped to tie up the championship before determining his plans for the future, but he said he may now be prepared to commit himself before the issue is settled. Jordan have competition from the new Stewart- Ford team for his services.

Details from Estoril

1 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1hr 40min 22.915sec (70 laps, 192miles)

2 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault +19.966

3 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari +53.765

4 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault +55.109

5 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari +1min 27.389

6 G Berger (Aus) Benetton-Renault +1min 33.141

7 H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford +1 lap

8 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Ford +1

9 M Brundle (GB) Jordan-Peugeot +1

10 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda +1

11 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha +1 lap

12 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha +2

13 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes +2

14 R Rosset (Bra) Footwork-Hart +3

15 G Lavaggi (It) Minardi-Ford +5

16 P Lamy (Por) Minardi-Ford +5

Did not finish (not classified): 17 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +62 laps completed; 18 J Verstappen (Neth) Footwork-Hart +57; 19 P Diniz (Br) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 46; 20 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot 41. Fastest lap: Villeneuve 1:22.873 (118.374mph).

Drivers' championship (after 15 races): 1 D Hill (GB) 87pts; 2 J Villeneuve (Can) 78; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) 53; 4 J Alesi (Fr) 47; 5 M Hakkinen (Fin) 27; 6 D Coulthard (GB) 18; 6 G Berger (Aus) 18; 8 R Barrichello (Br) 14; 9 O Panis (Fr) 13; 10 E Irvine (GB) 11; 11 H Frentzen (Ger) 6; 11 M Brundle (GB) 6; 13 M Salo (Fin) 5; 14 J Herbert (GB) 4; 15 P Diniz (Bra) 2; 16 J Verstappen (Neth) 1.

Constructors' championship: 1 Williams 165 pts; 2 Benetton 65; 3 Ferrari 64; 4 McLaren 45; 5 Jordan 20; 6 Ligier 15; 7 Sauber 10; 8 Tyrrell 5; 9 Footwork 1.