Villeneuve poised to capitalise

Derick Allsop says Williams' split with Damon Hill may have handed the initiative to his championship rival
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The Independent Online
Jacques Villeneuve could be excused an extra rush of adrenalin in the wake of the revelation that Damon Hill will be unloaded by Williams- Renault at the end of the season. Nothing personal, you understand, but business is business.

The Williams team-mates are the only remaining contenders for the Formula One World Championship, and although Hill has an apparently comfortable lead of 13 points with only three races remaining, he may not be feeling as secure as he might have.

At the height of summer and his confidence, Hill held a 25-point advantage and he was seemingly content for the newspapers to splash stories of his demands for a substantial pay rise. He radiated self-belief and the conviction that he had arrived as a champion.

Since those heady days, the script has gone somewhat awry for the 35- year-old Englishman. A series of poor starts have undermined his control of the races and his emotions. Suddenly the old flaws were exposed again and he could not resist criticising errors by a team mopping up a record eighth constructors' championship.

There was renewed speculation about his future, that his position for next season might not be safe. Williams was said to have extended their option on the services of Heinz-Harald Frentzen, the German driver long linked with them, and since Villeneuve was already under contract for 1997, it was clear where the threat hung.

All the time, too, Villeneuve was chipping away at his partner's lead. Hill's infamous dark countenance had returned.

Hill can push back the closing walls with victory in Sunday's Italian Grand Prix at Monza. He would become champion if, also, Villeneuve managed no better than fourth place. Hill says he is focussed on the championship, and Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's impresario, suggests recent events will have made him drive "harder and better" to achieve his goal.

But another driver takes the view, "Damon will be under so much pressure it could crack him. What's happened to him will be screwing his mind."

Villeneuve, by contrast, will doubtless be even more chirpy than usual. He must feel he has gained a little additional psychological leverage this past week, and will endeavour to exploit it. You sense that psychological pressures would wash over Villeneuve. He is a distinctly different animal to Hill, and pretty well different to the rest of the grand prix drivers.

This 25-year-old French-Canadian, in his first season of Formula One, has sent out a message that says: "I am me. If you don't like it, tough." There are those who suspect his quest to appear natural and individualistic betrays an entirely unnatural and hackneyed show; a yearning for effect and attention.

It could well be that his determination to be his own man, rather than the son of that much loved daredevil Gilles Villeneuve, has driven him to extreme measures. His unwillingness to be drawn into reverential reminiscences of his late father have offended some seasoned observers of the sport.

Others say that he had to be a tough cookie to make his own way in racing, and the world beyond, moving as he did to Japan on his own at the age of 18 to build his career. The rebel in him became evident in those formative years. He got up to boyish pranks, and was, in every sense, Jacques the lad.

He is still a boyish figure, in appearance and manner. He is short, bespectacled and, although rapidly thinning on top, his apparel is that of a student existing on the breadline rather than a millionaire celebrity.

He has an obsession for denim: jeans surgically restructured, jackets intended for giants, dungarees you can only surmise were purloined from the paint shop. "He certainly doesn't spend his money on clothes," one of his rivals dryly commented. That is precisely the image he wishes to project, of course. It also happens to be quite refreshing in the increasingly regimented world of Formula One, a bit of fun he is patently prepared to share.

Similarly novel and appreciated is his frankness. There is nothing pretentious or convoluted in his responses to straight questions. If he makes a mistake, he owns up to it. If the team makes a mistake, he does not turn it into a drama - another area where he has clawed back points from Hill.

None of this, however, has anything to do with racing. So how good is he behind the wheel of a Formula One car? The short answer is that we do not know. Partly because he is in the best Formula One car and partly because he is partnering Hill, and no one can be sure how good he is.

As Eddie Irvine, the Ulsterman partnering Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, recently said: "We'll not know how good Damon is until he gets into a bad car." That may come as soon as next season. Hill is still not highly rated among the other drivers. "Pretty good, but nothing special" just about sums up the general assessment.

That being the case, it does not say much for Villeneuve. It may well be his debut season after arriving from Indycars, but most of the tracks are new to him and there is no doubt he will be all the better for the experience next year.

But you would have to conclude that since he has been consistently outpaced by Hill, he, too, has to be "nothing special". Certainly not another Schumacher. Many reckon Frentzen was quicker than Schumacher earlier in their careers and, if there is a grain of truth in that, then we should be able to gauge Villeneuve's ability next season when he works alongside the "other" German.

In the meantime, Villeneuve and Hill have a little business to attend to in Italy, and possibly in Portugal and Japan, before the end of this season. Nothing personal, mind.

Five first-season wonders

of Formula One

Jacques Villeneuve

Year: 1996

Team: Williams-Renault

Position in debut race: 2nd

Finishes in top six so far: Three wins; five 2nd places; two 3rd places

Finishing position in championship: 1st or 2nd

Like Damon Hill the son of a famous father, Jacques

Villeneuve impressed instantly on his F1 debut in

Melbourne, leading from pole position until he damaged

an oil pipe after sliding over a kerb. With three victories,

five second places and two thirds to his credit so far this

season, his is without question the most impressive debut year of any driver since the World championship was

inaugurated in 1950, but against that must be balanced

the 7,000km of pre-season testing that he undertook and the utterly dominant nature of the Williams-Renault in an era when technology rules.

Emerson Fittipaldi

Year: 1970

Team: Lotus

Position in debut race: 8th

Finishes in top six: One win; one 4th place

Finishing position in championship: 10th

Fittipaldi had only just graduated to Formula Two in 1970 when the Lotus chief Colin Chapman gave him his Formula One debut in Britain, where he brought an ageing Type 49 to eighth place. He was fourth next time out in Germany, then had leadership of the team thrust upon him when the World Champion-elect Jochen Rindt was killed. When Lotus regrouped for the American GP, Fittipaldi swept to a fortunate victory in the highly competitive Lotus 72.

Gianclaudio Regazzoni

Year: 1970

Team: Ferrari

Position in debut race: 4th

Finishes in top six: One win; three 2nd places; two 4th places

Finishing position in championship: 3rd

Blessed with the perfect name for a racing driver, this Swiss charger was very fast in sportscars and Formula Two, but had a wild streak. When Enzo Ferrari gave him a trial at the Dutch GP in 1970, Regazzoni surprised everyone with a restrained drive to fourth place. In the highly competitive car he three times finished second to his team-mate Jacky Ickx, but the crowning point was a finely judged victory in the tactical slipstream epic at Monza, to the delight of Ferrari's fans.

Jackie Stewart

Year: 1965

Team: BRM

Position in debut race: 6th

Finishes in top six: One win; three 2nd places; one 3rd place; one 5th place; one 6th place

Finishing position in championship: 3rd

When Stewart brought his BRM home sixth on his Grand Prix debut in South Africa in 1965 it was clear that Scotland had another potential champion to challenge the great Jim Clark. As team-mate to Graham Hill, Formula Three graduate Stewart went on to finish second to Clark in Belgium, France and the Netherlands and third at Monaco. Better still, he beat Hill at Monza to win his first of 27 Grands Prix, a record upon his retirement in 1973.

Giancarlo Baghetti

Year of debut: 1961

Team: Ferrari

Position in debut race: 1st

Finishes in top six: One win

Finishing position in championship: 9th

After graduating from sportscars to Formula Junior single seaters by 1960, this son of a wealthy Milanese industrialist was signed to drive in F1 Ferrari for the Italian Fisa team in 1961. Baghetti distinguished himself by winning not just his two maiden non-championship races, but his first grand prix, the French, too. This feat has never been matched. It was a victory achieved in the best car after faster team-mates had failed, and thereafter the gentle Italian's career faded. After such a meteoric start, the only way to go was down.