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Villeneuve is World Champion

IN Jerez on Sunday, Jacques Villeneuve became the first North American driver to win the Formula 1 World Championship for 19 years, the last being Mario Andretti who took the title in September 1978. Villeneuve started the Grand Prix of Europe a point behind Michael Schumacher in the title race and the German made a great start to lead the race. But Villeneuve fought back and challenged the Ferrari driver for the lead on lap 48 of the 69 lap event. The two collided and Schumacher went off into a gravel trap and was unable to rejoin. The majority of F1 observers agreed that Schumacher deliberately tried to drive Villeneuve off the track when he realized that Jacques had caught him out.

Schumacher justified his move by saying that: "Jacques braked so late that he would have gone off if I hadn't turned into him. Neither of us would have made the corner braking so late."

The FIA stewards deemed the incident to have been "a racing accident" and decided to take no action, despite grave warnings to the drivers before the race that there would be swinging penalties if such driving occurred.

But even F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone reckoned that Schumacher was to blame. "Michael shouldn't have let that happen," he said. "He still had a chance. You never know what is going to happen until the chequered flag comes out."

Villeneuve is only the fourth man to have won both the Formula 1 World Championship and the Indycar World Series in the United States, following in the footsteps of Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell.

Jacques is Canada's first Formula 1 World Champion, although his father Gilles Villeneuve finished second in the 1979 World Championship. He was later killed driving a Ferrari in qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix. Villeneuve's victory sent Canada into celebration with the country's Prime Minister, in Europe for the Commonwealth Summit, declaring that "it is a great act of Canadian-British co-operation - a Canadian driver and a British car".

Villeneuve says that he now intends to try to repeat the achievement next year but Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo underlined that Ferrari is aiming for the title again in 1998.

"From tomorrow we will start work again to achieve next year what we failed to achieve today."

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