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Schumacher, Villeneuve to the Wire

October 24, 1997

JEREZ, Spain (AP) _ After 16 races and seven months of competing around the world, Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve will settle the world drivers’ championship in this dry, dusty corner of southern Spain.

Schumacher is regarded as the sport’s best driver. If he claims his third world title Sunday, he’ll become only the eighth driver to win that many, joining Jackie Stewart and the late Ayrton Senna.

A win by the popular German would bring battered Ferrari its first world title since 1979.

Villeneuve, the rebellious French-Canadian, is on the spot. He was the favorite when the season started _ driving for Williams Renault, the sport’s top stable. He’s won seven of 16 races this season and could have clinched his first world title two weeks ago in Japan.

But he was disqualified after failing to slow for a yellow warning flag during practice. Schumacher went on to win in Japan and goes into Sunday’s race with 78 points _ one point ahead of Villeneuve.

Defending world champion Damon Hill thinks Villeneuve, his former understudy at Williams Renualt, may have blown his chance.

``I would like to see Jacques win it,″ said Hill, who beat Villeneuve for the title last season. ``It’s good for the sport when you have different world champions.

``But I would not want to be in Jacques’ shoes this weekend. He has frittered away too many points this season and is going to be under a tremendous amount of pressure.

``The real test of a Formula One driver is whether he can handle a championship showdown.″

Villeneuve had the third-quickest time in Friday’s free practice leading up to Saturday’s qualifying. Schumacher was ninth. But tests such as the one Friday seldom yield clues to how the cars will perform Sunday.

``Today’s position means nothing, as I used only one set of tires,″ Schumacher said. ``I am fairly optimistic for Saturday and hope I can get on the front.″

Villeneuve, battling a cold, was upbeat after Friday’s practice.

``(I feel) very good because normally we’re slow on Fridays and today it worked very well, so I’m very confident,″ Villeneuve said.

Villeneuve said it was important to do well in Saturday’s qualifying and get the pole position on the curvy Jerez track.

``It is very important to be at the front of the starting grid on this circuit,″ Villeneuve said. ``It’s a very difficult circuit on which to overtake.″

Jerez was chosen only a few months ago for the finale after the Estoril circuit in Portugal was ruled unsafe. Villeneuve never has raced here _ though he’s practiced on the circuit.

Schumacher, who has 27 victories in 101 races, won the last Grand Prix run here in 1994. If he has a weakness, it is that Ferrari is considered less reliable than Williams.

With the drivers’ championship at stake in Sunday’s race, the sport’s governing body, FIA, warned the drivers to race cleanly, and not intentionally knock a competitor out of the race in a crash.

Suspicions remain that Schumacher crashed into Hill, driving with Williams Renault, three years ago in Australia during the final race of the season, allowing the German to keep his one-point lead over Hill in the drivers’ standings and win the championship.

After the Japanese Grand Prix, Williams Renault technical director Patrick Head accused Schumacher of the ``deliberate removal of a competitor.″

Then there’s the role of Schumacher’s Ferrari teammate, Eddie Irvine. He blocked Villeneuve in Japan, allowing Schumacher to speed past and win. He’s planning to do the same, if he can, on Sunday.

``I do not feel under any pressure this weekend,″ Irvine said. ``All I can do is try my best and I hope I can be up near the front with Michael so that I can help him win the race.″

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