Villeneuve relishes the challenge

Motor racing
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The Independent Online
Damon Hill was still fending off queries about his future, Michael Schumacher was admitting that driving his Ferrari on his home circuit was equally unamusing. The contented expression here yesterday was worn by Jacques Villeneuve, relishing as he was the prospect of mounting a challenge for the world drivers' championship.

Villeneuve, who reduced the title lead of his Williams-Renault team-mate, Hill, to 15 points with victory at Silverstone a fortnight ago, embarks upon what he considers the critical phase of the season in tomorrow's German Grand Prix.

The 25-year-old French Canadian, on his first visit to this high-speed track, was only 11th fastest at the end of yesterday's unofficial practice sessions, but then, as we are constantly told, Friday's times have dubious meaning. For Villeneuve it was a day of learning, just as it had been at Nurburgring, earlier this season. There, he won the race. Here, he believes, he can win again.

Villeneuve said: "This is a simple track to learn. The corners aren't that fast. There are only two corners of average speed, but the rest are very slow. I don't know Hungary or Spa, the next two tracks, and they are not so easy to learn. So this is a crucial one for me in the championship.

"I picked up 10 points on Damon at the last race and now we are fighting hard for the rest of the season. In a straight fight, I believe I can beat him. I am more confident after winning at Silverstone."

Hill was eighth, just behind Schumacher, and they are likely to be competing with Villeneuve for pole position this afternoon, even if Gerhard Berger was quickest yesterday, in a Benetton-Renault. David Coulthard, in a McLaren-Mercedes, was second and Eddie Irvine, in the other Ferrari, third. For Hill, the two hours out on the track brought welcome respite from the conjecture that he could be replaced at Williams next season by Germany's Heinz-Harald Frentzen, currently driving for Sauber- Ford.

It is understood Williams have an option on Frentzen's services for next year and have extended it pending negotiations with other drivers, including Hill, not an uncommon or unacceptable practice in Formula One.

The Englishman is unhappy about suggestions that his position is in jeopardy, but then Williams, having the best car in grand prix racing, may be using a little extra leverage to make Hill understand they do not deem it necessary to give him a huge pay rise. Indeed, they might remind him that Niki Lauda's retainer at McLaren was reduced in 1985, the year after he won his third championship.

Hill was again reluctant yesterday to be drawn into a public airing of his views on the matter. It is safe to say he was keeping his options open and expected some development in the coming weeks. He also said he might go and play golf. It was delivered as a joke but, as they repeatedly say in this game, anything is possible in Formula One.

Schumacher sidestepped an invitation to assess how Frentzen's performance in a Williams would compare with Hill's, preferring merely to acknowledge his former sportscar partner as "one of the quickest Formula One drivers."

Asked for his opinion on how the speculation swirling around Hill might affect him, the champion, a mite mischievously, said: "There are always rumours around and Damon has to cope with them quite often, being criticised by his team and not getting a contract and so on. But fortunately I have not had that situation so I cannot know." Martin Brundle, in a Jordan- Peugeot, was sixth fastest and Johnny Herbert, in the other Sauber, was 14th just behind Frentzen.

GERMAN GRAND PRIX (Hockenheim) Leading times after yesterday's opening practice session: 1 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault) 1min 46.145sec (average speed 143.797mph); 2 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:46.184; 3 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:46.198; 4 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 1:46.294; 5 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:46.384; 6 M Brundle (GB) Jordan-Peugeot 1:46.487; 7 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:46.959; 8 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:46.998; 9 R Barrichello (Br) Jordan-Peugeot 1:47.110; 10 P Diniz (Br) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1:47.534; 11 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1:47.586; 12 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1:47.668.