Williams put on show of strength

Motor racing
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Michael Schumacher sat out the closing minutes of the practice session, monitoring the progress of the other drivers and found the picture had not changed that much after all.

The World Championship leader had suspected the likes of Jordan-Peugeot and Benetton-Renault might prove his biggest threats in tomorrow's Italian Grand Prix here, but it was Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jacques Villeneuve, of Williams-Renault, who were first and second on the time sheets.

A bent rear right suspension on his Ferrari had brought Schumacher's day's work to a premature end. He was left stranded in 13th place, five behind his No 2, Eddie Irvine.

Villeneuve trails Schumacher by 11 points and will be hugely relieved his team have regenerated their competitive momentum. He can scarcely afford to yield another race to the German. "We are better off than we thought," Villeneuve said.

Schumacher will doubtless put his own potential into perspective during practice and qualifying today, but any suggestion that Williams have been swallowed up by the pack appears to be wide of the mark.

Jean Alesi confirmed an upturn in form at Benetton- Renault with third place. David Coulthard was fourth after his McLaren- Mercedes took the well-worn trail into the gravel trap, and Giancarlo Fisichella was fifth for Jordan.

Fisichella, a splendid second behind Schumacher in Belgium a fortnight ago, is emerging as the biggest Formula One attraction in Italy after Ferrari. The 24-year-old Roman is the country's best prospect for a generation, perhaps even since the Fifties, and he believes he could be celebrating a maiden grand prix success here.

Eddie Jordan, his ebullient team owner, enthused: "Giancarlo is producing the performances we always felt he was capable of. I think the car is capable of a win, and Giancarlo is capable of a win. It could all come together for him and us here."

Little wonder Jordan is eager to retain Fisichella next season and is prepared to go to court next week to contest Benetton's claims on his services. The outcome of the case could have a bearing on Damon Hill's future. The world champion would be an obvious candidate for a vacancy at either team. However, the F1 rumour factory has come up with the story that Hill is on the verge of signing for Prost.

Hill had talks with the team earlier this week and apparently failed to agree terms. Peugeot, who link up with Jordan next season, are said to have joined forces with other sponsors to bridge the financial gap. Other sources indicate the Englishman may stay at Arrows.

Hill said yesterday: "Talks with Prost have not ceased and I have a very good idea where I'll be next year. All along I have been looking for circumstances and an environment which will provide me the opportunity to give of my best.

"There is always a danger you can fall between a number of stools because everyone in this business has nerves of steel. It's a bit like braking late into a corner. You just hope you don't end up in the gravel, but I'm optimistic I'll get through."

Hill was 16th yesterday and admitted he had little hope of making an impact on this high-speed circuit or the opposition in tomorrow's race.

BMW appears set to return to F1 motor racing by joining up with Williams in a five-year deal. Reports in Germany yesterday said that BMW, ending a 10-year absence from the sport, would announce on Monday they are to build a 10-cylinder engine for Williams by 2000.

ITALIAN GRAND PRIX (Monza) Unofficial practice times: 1 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Renault 1min 23.991sec; 2 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1:24.837; 3 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 1:24.847; 4 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:25.050; 5 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Peugeot 1:25.050; 6 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:25.096; 7 J Trulli (It) Prost-Mugen- Honda 1:25.317; 8 E Irvine (Irl) Ferrari 1:25.340; 9 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Peugeot 1:25.422; 10 J Magnussen (Den) Stewart-Ford 1:25.488; 11 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault 1:25.559; 12 J Herbert (GB) Sauber 1:25.845; 13 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:26.224; 14 P Diniz (Br) Arrows-Yamaha 1:26.246; 15 R Barrichello (Br) Stewart-Ford 1:26.421; 16 D Hill (GB) Arrows-Yamaha 1:26.502; 17 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford 1:26.608; 18 G Morbidelli (It) Sauber 1:26.696; 19 S Nakano (Japan) Prost-Mugen-Honda 1:26.727; 20 J Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell-Ford 1:26.755; 21 U Katayama (Japan) Minardi- Hart 1:26.891; 22 T Marques (Br) Minardi-Hart 1:28.388.