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 a group that includes 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 European Grand Prix with 78 points - one point ahead of Villeneuve.
Defending world champion Damon Hill thinks Villeneuve, his former understudy at Williams Renault, 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 today’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 (today) 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.