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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Brazilian Grand Prix Signals Year Of Surprises

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- The Brazilian Grand Prix reinforced Jacques Villeneuve's standing as the favorite to win the Formula One world championship, but also bolstered hopes that the rest of the field will provide plenty of surprises in 1997.

New team ownership and new tires, combined with consolidation of blooming technology, are paying off with a high degree of car reliability and success by lesser known drivers, as the results of the second race of the season suggest.

Canada's Villeneuve, in his second year for Williams-Renault, notched up his fifth Grand Prix victory at the Interlagos circuit with relative ease Sunday, but not without a late challenge by veteran Austrian driver Gerhard Berger in his Benetton-Renault.

Berger, who closed the gap with Villeneuve from 17 seconds to four seconds at the end, was surprised that he could give the Canadian the challenge he did.

"Before coming here, I was confident that I'd be close to the front-runners, but I didn't think I'd be that close to Jacques," Berger said.

Another unexpected twist to the race came from the Prost Mugen Honda team, which saw its French driver Olivier Panis finish third in the team's second race under the ownership of four-time world champion Alain Prost.

Panis credited his second-best career finish with Prost's push for a one-stop strategy, compared to the two stops used by other top contenders, and to his Bridgestone tires, new on the circuit this year after Goodyear's long-running Formula One monopoly came to an end.

The field also made a rare show of reliability, with 18 of the 21 cars classifying compared to only 10 in the season opener in Melbourne.

"With only three dropouts, the race proved that all the others besides Williams are improving quickly and also underscored the reliability of just about every car," said racing commentator Silvio Nascimento.

Defending world champion Damon Hill's Arrows-Yamaha racer symbolized the growing reliability. After his car left him stranded on the warm-up lap in Melbourne three weeks ago, Hill drove 69 of the 72 laps before a technical problem put him in the pits and left him classified in 17th place.

Two-time world champion Michael Schumacher of Germany, who only mustered a fifth-place showing, complained that his scarlet Ferrari has yet to reach its prime.

"The biggest problem with our car at the moment is a lack of mechanical grip," Schumacher said.

Despite a pleasing showing for many teams Sunday, drivers and team owners stressed that much work will be needed for the Argentine Grand Prix, to be staged in Buenos Aires in two weeks.

Villeneuve, meanwhile, looks to be sitting pretty.

"The car is very strong and the team is working very, very well, as are the tires and engine," Villeneuve said. "So I'm really confident."