Villeneuve overcomes boredom

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The Independent Online
Ronaldo managed to generate more public enthusiasm on his stroll through the paddock, but Jacques Villeneuve will not be too disconcerted. He found his way back to the top of the podium and the Formula One World Championship here yesterday. His victory in a tedious Spanish Grand Prix lifted him three points above Michael Schumacher, a modest fourth in the race behind Olivier Panis and Jean Alesi.

Villeneuve and Williams-Renault were hugely relieved after the shambles of Monaco and the weather forecast that went wrong, although Heinz-Harald Frentzen, in the team's other car, was never in touch and finished a distant eighth.

The drives of Panis and Alesi were commendable, producing personal bests for the season, while Johnny Herbert and David Coulthard took the final points-scoring places and Damon Hill at least had a little fun before his customary retirement in the Arrows-Yamaha.

But at a time when Formula One is embarking on a pounds 2bn flotation and its ring master Bernie Ecclestone is issuing warnings that new tobacco legislation could drive the show out of Britain and other European countries, this was an appalling, almost insulting, offering.

The interminable trail of traffic in and out of the pits rendered this an exercise for the mechanics rather than a sporting spectacle. The paying customers might as well have pitched up at their local Tesco filling station for the afternoon. Come to think of it, that might have been more entertaining.

Villeneuve opted for two stops instead of three and was able to collect his 10 points with a minimum of fuss and anxiety. He said: "I think three stops is a gamble. You have to push like a maniac. It's very pleasing to win again, especially after the stupidity of Monaco. There will be a lot of pressure on me in Montreal because it is my home race and the most important for me personally. I didn't win last year, and it would be good to go one better this year."

Villeneuve held the advantage of pole position into the first corner and was briefly hounded by Schumacher. But, as the German predicted, his Ferrari was no match for the Williams, which unerringly pulled away and settled into its stride.

Tyre wear was the curse of many others, not least Coulthard, whose McLaren- Mercedes initially battled with the Ferrari only to slip out of contention and ultimately lose fifth place to Herbert's Sauber-Petronas.

Congestion in the later stages raised the prospect of a lusty scrap for the places behind Villeneuve. However, Eddie Irvine, a lap down in the other Ferrari, frustrated both Panis, in a Prost-Mugen, and Alesi, in his Benetton-Renault, before receiving a 10-second stop and go penalty for blocking.

Panis made no attempt to imply Irvine had denied him the chance of a win, but he and Alesi gave vent to their annoyance. The latter had already done so on the circuit, gesturing to officials to take action against Irvine.

Panis, now third in the championship, said: "I was behind Eddie for six or seven laps - too long. I think he saw the blue flag to move over but maybe he has a problem with his eyes."

Alesi was of like mind: "I was signalling to the Clerk of the Course to wake up and do something about Irvine. I knew Olivier would find it difficult with him. He does stupid things. I was more worried about Irvine than Michael behind me because he is a strange driver."

Neither Frenchman suggested a Ferrari plot to assist Schumacher, although Irvine revealed he eventually moved over on the instructions of his team.

Irvine, who has had his share of controversy and served a three-race ban after an incident in Brazil, insisted he had not deliberately held up Panis and Alesi. He said: "I didn't know the blue flags were for me. I'd been fighting Panis early in the race and didn't realise he'd gone a lap up on me. All the pit stops confuse things. There was a train of five of us and I assumed the blue flags were for someone else. When the team told me, I moved over."

Irvine finished 12th, still a lap down, but even such an insignificant classification remains an elusive target for Hill. With the help of pit stops, he was able to manoeuvre to the dizzy heights of fifth place before his engine blew. With splendid irony, he parked the stricken machine in front of the Williams camp. Perhaps he whispered: "Let me have it back when you've made a racing car of it."

For public consumption, he said: "I could have been in the points. I had a blinding start, took lots of cars at the first corner and the car was running like a train. I wanted to finish for the team."