Villeneuve verve inspires moral victory

David Tremayne studies the factors behind a remarkable Formula One debut analyses `arguably the most impressive F1 debut of them all'
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The Independent Online
THE LATE Giancarlo Baghetti can rest easy. Following the loss of oil pressure that jeopardised Jacques Villeneuve's Renault V10 engine in last week's dramatic Australian Grand Prix, and obliged him to surrender the race to his team-mate, Damon Hill, Baghetti remains the only man to win a grand prix at the first try.

Baghetti won the French Grand Prix at Reims in 1961 after faster drivers had fallen by the wayside, while those who had preceded Villeneuve in starting their maiden F1 outings from pole position - Mario Andretti in America in 1968 and Carlos Reutemann in Argentina four years later - each met with trouble in their races. It is not new for a driver to score points first time out; Jackie Stewart did it for BRM in 1965, Clay Regazzoni and Ignazio Giunti for Ferrari in 1970, Alain Prost for McLaren in 1980, and Martin Brundle for Tyrrell in 1984, for example. But it is rare indeed for a driver to find himself in such a strong position to impress in the first place, and then to exploit it as heartily as Villeneuve did in Melbourne. The Williams package notwithstanding, it was arguably the most impressive debut of them all.

The team admit that they will never be absolutely sure what caused an oil pipe to fracture on the 24-year-old Canadian's car, but the indications are that his excursion over the kerb on the exit to the first corner on the 35th lap dented the carbon fibre undertray of his car sufficiently to damage the adjacent pipe.

While their performances were very similar, Villeneuve and Hill prefer very different chassis set-ups which reflect their contrasting driving styles. Where Hill is happy to run his car in the time-honoured manner, with essentially neutral handling that is a function of equal levels of grip front and rear, tending to understeer in extremis, Villeneuve prefers the rear end to slide more.

Jock Clear, Villeneuve's race engineer, sums up their preferences: "Their set-ups are as different as they could be, chalk and cheese. Jacques is more of the Schumacher/Hakkinen school, which likes oversteer. In effecthe says, `Get the front end to turn in really well for me, and I'll catch the back end before it comes round'. Each probably couldn't drive the other's set-up, but for Jacques his own approach seems to be bearing fruit."

It is a measure of Williams's confidence in Villeneuve that it allowed him to stray from its established chassis set-ups during the 7,000km of testing that he amassed before his F1 race debut, for this is an essentially conservative team that prefers tried and tested methods.

"It is quite unusual," Clear agreed, "but if we imposed more stringent control over his set-up he might go a second quicker. There again, while he's going fast enough to qualify on pole, why risk something that might make him go a second slower? He says he feels less confident with our established set-ups, and so long as we don't have any complaints about his level of competitiveness, why change the situation?"

Though Villeneuve drew the praise, Hill nevertheless drove beautifully all afternoon, and his relentless pressure ultimately provoked the mistake that cost Villeneuve his place in history. "Damon is much stronger mentally and physically than he was in 1995," Clear said. "And the things that fazed him then don't even cut the surface any more."

Hill dealt very intelligently with the two tight situations he found himself in with his team-mate, especially on lap 35 where he was obliged to lift off to avoid an accident as the Canadian blocked him coming out of the first corner following his off-course incident. And it was notable that whenever the gap stretched to 1.5 seconds - the most it was all afternoon - Hill was always able to close again. He looked like a man in control of his pace. Whether he would have found the edge to overtake in the final five laps will remain one of those great unknowns, but Australia clearly won't be their only fight this season.

If Hill made any mistake it was to show how much a question got to him in the press conference, when it was suggested he had been lucky. The thick eyebrows arched into one across the forehead, and he looked fleetingly the unsettled, haunted figure he had been last year. What he should have done, of course, was what his father did at Indianapolis in 1966, when he took a disputed triumph over Jim Clark and celebrated in traditional style afterwards. When the Scot sidled up later on and suggested that perhaps he, Clark, really had won after all, Hill simply beamed and said: "No way mate, I drank the milk!"

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