OCTOBER 13, 1997

Villeneuve in trouble

JACQUES VILLENEUVE may have blown his chances of winning the Formula 1 World Championship.

JACQUES VILLENEUVE may have blown his chances of winning the Formula 1 World Championship. The French-Canadian arrived in Japan with a nine point advantage in the title race over Ferrari's Michael Schumacher. In free practice on Saturday morning at Suzuka, however, Jacques fell foul of the FIA stewards by ignoring a waved yellow flag on two consecutive laps. This is his fourth such incident this year and at Monza the stewards gave him a one-race ban, suspended for eight races. If he committed another yellow flag offense he would be excluded from one event.

The problems began when Jos Verstappen's Tyrrell ran out of fuel and stopped just after Spoon Curve. The Dutchman drove onto the strip of grass on the left of the track and climbed out. As the cars are traveling very fast at that point it was decided that the car had to be moved. A marshal climbed in while others pushed. The man steering was obviously a little over-excited and somehow managed to steer into the barrier in such a way that the car could not be moved by hand. While all this was going on there was a stationary yellow flag.

A caterpillar tractor was sent in to drag the car out of the way and so a stationary white flag was shown to indicate that there was a service vehicle present. When the Tyrrell was attached to the caterpillar the racing car snagged the barrier again and as it was pulled backwards it swung round and the tail end of the car ended up on the race track. The marshals had to come on to the track to try to sort this out and so yellow flags were waved. Villeneuve passed these flags twice and on each consecutive lap he set his fastest sector time of the session.

Jacques was not the only offender - Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Johnny Herbert, Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher and Ukyo Katayama were all sanctioned for ignoring the flag but as Villeneuve was under a suspended ban he had no real defense and was duly excluded from the event. The Williams team had the right to appeal and chose to do so. The FIA International Court of Appeal is expected to meet in the week before the European GP at Jerez on October 26 and Villeneuve is likely to be stripped of his fifth place result at Suzuka, which will mean that he will have 77 points to Michael Schumacher'sÊ78.

There may also be wider political issues involved as the incident will probably result in some horse-trading in the ongoing dispute between Williams and the FIA over the Concorde Agreement. Pressure could be brought to bear on Frank Williams to back down and agree to the terms of the 1998-2008 Concorde Agreement.

In theory Williams could decide to withdraw the appeal but this is likely to upset the FIA as Villeneuve would not have been able to race without the appeal. Such action would likely result in punitive action from the FIA World Motor Sport Council. Benetton withdrew an appeal in September 1995 but in this case the penalty was imposed AFTER the race rather than beforehand. An appeal is a dangerous move as the FIA International Court of Appeal has the right to increase punishments if it considers an appeal to be frivolous but in the circumstances - with the World Championship now finely balanced for Jerez - the most likely punishment will be the loss of the two points Jacques scored in Suzuka and, possibly, a financial penalty as well.