Villeneuve holds off the challengers

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Something old, something new, and Formula One had something to flaunt again in the world of sport yesterday.

Damon Hill's carefully prepared game-plan went wrong from the start of the Grand Prix of Europe and instead it was his Williams-Renault team- mate Jacques Villeneuve who led all the way to the flag.

This, however, was no mere procession, but a victory earned under intense pressure from the incomparable Michael Schumacher, who somehow coaxed and cajoled his Ferrari to within eight-tenths of a second of his maiden success with the Italian team. The Ferrari is still no match for the Williams, and yet with the German at the wheel almost all things are possible.

Villeneuve, the 25-year-old French-Canadian in his fourth Formula One race, remained unperturbed, calmly resisted not only the champion but also the will of two entire nations. Only seven drivers have won earlier in their Grand Prix careers.

For the third man on the podium, too, this was a hugely satisfying day, David Coulthard fending off Hill to relieve some of the anxiety at McLaren and, significantly here, Mercedes.

Hill, the winner of the opening three races, had to settle for three points from fourth place, ahead of the Jordan-Peugeot pair of Rubens Barrichello and Martin Brundle, and Johnny Herbert's Sauber-Ford.

Although Hill's lead over Villeneuve in the championship has been reduced to 11 points, he is unlikely to be distressed. He reminded the rest that he and Williams remain the quickest combination and, providing he starts cleanly and steers clear of trouble, the title should still be his.

But what must concern him is that he has apparently not shed the tendency to attract problems when the script is torn up. His sluggish, wheel-spinning start relegated him from pole to fifth place and then he thought he sensed a puncture or something amiss at the back of the car.

A lengthy pit-stop revealed no obvious malfunction and he resumed in 11th place only to demonstrate his vulnerability in traffic when he tangled with Pedro Diniz. Hill was fortunate to stay in the race, but was resigned to a damage-limitation exercise.

Villeneuve encountered no such complications. His acceleration from the line was just good enough to defy the seemingly supersonic Coulthard, and for the next hour and 33 minutes his was essentially an examination in concentration. That test became more severe as Schumacher closed in before the second set of pit-stops and again in the final sector of the race.

The Ferrari twitched crazily and twice slewed over the kerbs as Schumacher strained every sinew, the crowd working themselves into a frenzy of expectation.

Villeneuve never got close to Hill's fastest lap, but he had sufficient straight-line speed to stay ahead of the Ferrari and, secure in that knowledge, he gave no hint of losing his nerve, or the race.

Out of the car and suitably showered in champagne, he was as cool as he had been all afternoon, phlegmatically delivering his own version of events. If the reigning Indycars champion was over the moon, he was not about to show it.

Villeneuve said: "It's a great feeling to win my first race in Formula One, but as soon as I wake up tomorrow the race will be far behind me and another will be coming up at Imola next week. It's no good sitting back after one race. We've got to work to continue making progress and win more races.

"There were just a couple of times when Michael was too close to be comfortable, but it was fun. As long as I can stay ahead it was, anyway. If he got by it wouldn't have been."

Schumacher presented Ferrari's onlooking president, Luca di Montezemolo, with further evidence the millions invested in him was money well spent. Di Montezemolo had earlier denied any dissatisfaction with the team's English designer, John Barnard, insisting Formula One was no longer a stand for one- man bands. Schumacher's performance, and the shambles he has left behind at Benetton, suggest this one man can make music like the angels.

Schumacher said: "I didn't expect to be as close after qualifying, and I was thinking of last year, when I came through to win here, but it didn't happen this time. The car was too slow at top speed to go for it and Jacques made no mistake. It is still a good result for the team and for me in front of my home crowd."

Coulthard was similarly gratified. Having left the near perfection of Williams for the tribulations of McLaren, he catapulted from sixth to second at the start and produced the same determination in the later stages to beat his former team-mate.

He said: "It was a good battle and I didn't think I'd last. I had to block him a little. I was making my car so wide you could not have got a motorbike past it. The only way he was going to get past was over the top."

Hill said: "I messed up the start and I had a good race with David Coulthard. Fortunately, it didn't end in tears. This race has been a setback but these things happen. I'm confident for Imola."

Coulthard's current team- mate, Mika Hakkinen was at his most eccentric, twice having 10-second penalties for speeding in the pit lane and finishing eighth. The two Tyrrells were excluded for infringements.

European Grand Prix

1 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1hr 33min 26.473sec (ave 117.604 mph) 10pts

2 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:33:27.235 6

3 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:33:59.307 4

4 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:33:59.984. 3

5 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot 1:34:00.186. 2

6 M Brundle (GB) Jordan-Peugeot 1:34:22.040. 1

7 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Ford 1:34:44.500 8 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:34:44.911

9 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault 1:34:47.534 10 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha +1 lap 11 P Diniz (Bra) Ligier-Mugen-Honda +1 12 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha +2 13 R Rosset (Bra) Footwork-Hart +2 14 P Lamy (Port), Minardi-Ford +2 15 G Fisichella (It) Minardi-Ford +2

Not Classified

H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford 59 laps


J Verstappen (Neth) Footwork-Hart 38 laps O Panis,(Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 6 laps E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 6 laps J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 1 lap

Fastest Lap: Hill 1min, 21.363sec on lap 55, 201.585 kph (120.951 mph).

Drivers' championship

1 D Hill 33pts

2 J Villeneuve 22

3 J Alesi 10

4 M Schumacher 10; 5 E Irvine 6; 6 R Barrichello 5; 7 D Coulthard 4; 8 G Berger, M Salo 3; 10 O Panis, J Verstappen, M Brundle 1. Constructors' championship 1 Williams 55pts 2 Ferrari 16 3 Benetton 13 4 McLaren 9 5 Jordan 6; 6 Tyrrell 3; 7 Ligier, Footwork 1.