Villeneuve has the edge

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The Independent Online
Jacques Villeneuve took no time at all to learn Formula One's greatest circuit, but then he has always liked very quick tracks, and after the sustained 220mph-plus speeds of the Indianapolis and Michigan ovals on which he used to race IndyCars, he can be forgiven for feeling that anything else - even this circuit - is a trifle tame. As he celebrated the second pole position of his Formula One career, he revealed how he had gained an edge before he even got to Belgium.

"It sounds childish and stupid, but I checked out a new video game, where the track is pretty accurate." He paused and laughed. "But I only qualified 18th!" Damon Hill would have been quite happy for the Canadian to repeat that in reality, but instead the only man who can now deny him the world championship got in a perfect run just before Spa's fickle weather intervened with a rain shower.

Villeneuve took the early pole before Hill annexed it seconds later. Then the Canadian retrieved it from an intervening Gerhard Berger in the Benetton, before Hill stole it back again. But in their third attempts, Hill was less happy with his car's set-up, and he was just warming up for a final push when the rain swept in.

"I was really looking forward to Spa, it's one of the last few real tracks remaining," Villeneuve said. "To have discovered it, and found the limit, is really pleasing. And Eau Rouge is a great, but strange, corner. You're going downhill and there's a wall coming at you that goes uphill. The car gets pretty heavy and you can't see the exit. But you can always go faster, that's the odd thing, and the G-force there is like it was on the ovals."

Hill, whose starts have been the subject of laborious post-mortems in the past three races, was philosophical as he put a brave face on things while sticking with the foot-operated clutch he prefers.

He knows the uphill start will favour his team-mate, who uses a hand- held clutch which allows him to keep his left foot on the brake pedal to stabilise the car before take-off. "Have you ever tried writing with your left hand when you're right-handed?" he asked. "I like braking with my right foot, the left isn't sensitive enough. So I have to use the conventional three-pedal set-up."

Michael Schumacher shrugged off a sizeable accident on Friday to take third place. The German driver lost control of his Ferrari on a 100mph downhill section and crashed backwards into a tyre barrier. He was retained in the medical centre for 30 minutes, and did not drive again that day.

"It's more of a problem walking and going to the toilet than driving the car," he said on Saturday. "But the only pain I feel is when I get into and out of it. I've had a lot of physiotherapy, but there is not a lot that can be done. I'm OK when I'm driving."

In the past he has shown an awesome ability to shrug off similar upsets, and yesterday he reminded onlookers of that by lining up behind the Williams duo, and later being fastest after the rain had left the track surface treacherously damp in places.

Fourth and sixth places for David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen, either side of Berger, brought a measure of relief for McLaren, which along with Williams and Tyrrell faces possible exclusion from the 1997 championship after refusing to sign the new Concorde Agreement by which F1 will be governed over the next five years.

Although the overriding feeling was one of frustration that the weather should deny a proper outcome to the battle for pole, Villeneuve's impressive performance holds the promise of a serious challenge for the title in the remaining four races.

One man all too familiar with the capricious nature of the weather at Spa is Jackie Stewart, soon to return to F1 as a team chief. Thirty years ago to the race, he had the one major accident of his career, when he lost control of his BRM in a sudden downpour on the opening lap of the Belgian Grand Prix and crash-landed in the basement of a farmhouse.

"I'm tempted to go and see if the same people are still there this year," he remarked. A case of the last time we saw you here Mr Stewart, you were still wearing your car...