Villeneuve signals a new era

Hill upstaged as his new running-mate makes pole position in first grand prix while Irvine squeezes out Schumacher
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WHEN Jacques Villeneuve beat Damon Hill to pole position for his maiden grand prix, and Eddie Irvine pushed his Ferrari ahead of his team- mate Michael Schumacher on their debut for the Prancing Horse, a breath of fresh air blew through Albert Park to usher in the new season.

A rise in temperature rendered the Melbourne track very slippery, and it looked horribly as if the much-touted new single, hour-long qualifying shoot-out might fire only blanks. Two full days in which none of the lap times had counted for the grid had raised expectations for the new format, and fortunately the battle between the Williams-Renault drivers, and Irvine's late run, averted an anti-climax.

Villeneuve, the reigning IndyCar champion, looked confident and utterly convincing all weekend, and a gracious Hill was the first to congratulate him. "I'm not surprised," he said. "I have been watching Jacques in testing and he's obviously very competent, as his pole position proves. He's done a terrific job. It was a good, thrilling qualifying session, and hats off to him."

Hill is astute enough to appreciate that one pole position lost need not mean championship hopes dashed, but Villeneuve undoubtedly struck a remarkable psychological blow.

"Once you are in the car you don't care what series you are in," the Canadian said of the change of category. "If you are used to going fast and being on the edge, whichever car you are in once you are adjusted, it's the same. I'm very satisfied. But I still have lots to learn for the race."

For Hill there was comfort when Irvine upstaged the world champion, Schumacher, to place his Ferrari third on the grid, itself a quite remarkable performance. "I'm very pleased, obviously," the Ulsterman said. "We made a major change this morning, and Michael and I went a lot quicker. But in my first run this afternoon it didn't want to turn in at all. I was two seconds off Michael and I thought 'Jeez, I'm gonna struggle here, he's turned the wick up again.' But then I just improved the car. That lap was good, but I wouldn't say it was a mega one by any stretch of the imagination."

Irvine, fast becoming a media favourite with his laconic delivery and laid-back manner, refused to answer questions about the nature of the changes. "That's secret squirrel," he said, provoking gales of laughter.

All three went to the start of today's race concerned about the funnel effect of the first corner, and a new starting procedure in which a series of red lights are extinguished sequentially, and the traditional green for go has been dropped. "When the lights go out, we just go," Hill said. "But what happens if there's a power cut?"

There was concern, too, over the limited visibility with the new high cockpit sides. Ron Dennis of McLaren controversially suggested that the Williams and Jordan teams had bypassed the spirit of the rule with their interpretation of the measurement which determines the height of the sides, and reduced driver safety while conferring a small aerodynamic advantage. Each team claimed that their cars give the drivers better visibility, and pointed out that they had satisfied the scrutineers.

"The problem I foresee," Villeneuve said, "is that you lose some peripheral vision and your mirror view with the higher cockpit sides. If someone just pops his wheel next to you, you'll probably just turn in and you won't even know the guy is there until you touch him."

Meanwhile, the weekend's other cause celebre appeared to have died a death as threats of disruptive protests by the Save Albert Park campaigners fell into their true perspective. Their organiser Jenni Chandler spoke warmly of the effect of their "International Incident', which she believed had called world-wide attention to the alleged plight of the park (which has been heavily revamped for the occasion). This was little more than a weak demonstration when four spectators hung a large banner in a grandstand. They were evicted and refused re-entry, and the Supreme Court failed to uphold their complaint.

"To finish my first F1 race, if I can do it fighting and be on the podium, would already be great," said Villeneuve, whose father, Gilles, won six races for Ferrari. "Of course, it would be better to win it . . ."

At Watkins Glen in 1968, a rookie Mario Andretti started from pole; in 1972, Carlos Reutemann repeated the feat in Argentina. Yet neither won. At Rheims in 1961, Giancarlo Baghetti won in his first grand prix, for Ferrari. But starting from pole and winning would be a special achievement, one that appeared by no means beyond Formula One's latest star.