In the season-ending Grand Prix of Europe at Jerez, Spain, on Sunday, Jacques Villeneuve showed rough-driving Michael Schumacher that winning the Formula One world driving championship by knockout—as Schumacher did in 1994—isn't nearly as easy against a veteran of the CART circuit, where contact between cars is more common than in F/1.
On the 48th of 69 laps, Schumacher was leading the race when Villeneuve, who won the CART season championship in '95 before moving to F/1 last year, closed suddenly at the end of the straight. As they entered the hard righthand corner called Dry Sack, Villeneuve darted to the inside—"I was actually in the grass," he said later—and pulled alongside Schumacher, who veered his Ferrari's right front wheel hard into the left side of Villeneuve's Williams- Renault. "Jacques braked so late that he would have gone off if I hadn't turned into him," Schumacher said afterward, with a straight face. "Neither of us would have made the corner braking so late."
Schumacher nailed Damon Hill in much the same fashion during the '94 season-ender in Australia to guarantee himself the championship. But this time Villeneuve, accustomed to jolts to the sidepods, held his inside line. Schumacher bounced off and slid into a gravel runoff area, finished for the day. "I wasn't really surprised when he finally decided to turn in on me," said Villeneuve. "I knew I was taking a big risk. I really thought I'd broken the car. He hit me really, really hard. For the rest of the race, the [car's] rear end, mostly on righthanders, didn't feel very stable."
Villeneuve hung on to the lead until the final lap, when he allowed Finland's Mika Hakkinen and Scotland's David Coulthard to dart past and finish one-two in a pair of McLaren-Mercedes. Had Villeneuve slugged it out with the McLarens, he would have risked failing to finish. That would have given the driving title to Schumacher, the 28-year-old German who had gone to Jerez with a one-point lead over Villeneuve in the standings, courtesy of F/1's rule makers. They had stripped Villeneuve of two points he earned in the Grand Prix of Japan on Oct. 12 because he had ignored a yellow flag during a practice session—his fourth such violation of the season.
Nevertheless, Villeneuve, a 26-year-old Canadian, became the first North American to win the F/1 driving championship since Mario Andretti in 1978. Villeneuve is used to overcoming difficulties. In winning the Indianapolis 500 in '95, he made up a two-lap penalty—some observers thought it was a questionable call—for passing the pace car during a caution.
Get a Grip
Don't be surprised if the pole sitter for the Winston Cup season finale, the NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Nov. 16, cracks 194 mph—almost 8 mph faster than Robby Gordon ran in winning the pole for the Primestar 500 there in March. The 1.54-mile track was reconfigured and repaved over the summer, and the result has been much faster lap times. The speeds reached in testing at Atlanta last week (more than 200 mph on the straights, with lap averages in the low 190s) were so fast that drivers and crew chiefs alike were unnerved. "Some of the guys who like to be known as the bravest drivers have been the first to tell me it's too fast," says Robert Yates, owner of the Fords driven by Ernie Irvan and Dale Jarrett, who turned a 191-mph lap.
Such speeds had been unheard of at Atlanta. "The track radius is tight at Atlanta, so there's less margin for error," said Jeff Gordon's crew chief, Ray Evernham. "If anybody makes even one little mistake, he's going to pay a big price."
The changes in the configuration of the track—what was the backstraight is now the frontstraight, with a dogleg that gives cars a straighter line into Turn 1 and out of Turn 4—allow drivers to maintain higher speeds. "We've never pushed tires and chassis as hard as we're pushing here," said Yates. He added that unless NASCAR mandates that teams stop running with tire pressures lower than what Goodyear recommends for Atlanta, tires could easily tear off rims in turns.