Dominant display strengthens Hill's case

Motor Racing Derick Allsop reports from Budapest
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The Independent Online
Damon Hill yesterday grasped provisional pole position for tomorrow's Hungarian Grand Prix here and gave the simmering Formula One transfer pot another stir. The Englishman is prepared to reject an offer from the IndyCar team, Newman-Haas, but is said to be seeking a substantial pay rise from Williams-Renault, and every bit of leverage will help.

Hill's imperious performance yesterday - more than a second faster than fourth-placed Michael Schumacher - served to revive his World Championship prospects and he was insistent nothing else concerned him. In truth, however, it is impossible to ignore the aroma of cooking deals and Hill's negotiations are evidently coming to the boil.

Word has it that Schumacher, Jacques Villeneuve and Jean Alesi already have contracts agreed and that they will be officially announced as drivers for, respectively, Ferrari, Williams and Benetton-Renault on Monday. Schumacher's aides deny such a commitment, but few doubt he is on his way from the Cotswolds to Maranello or that Alesi is due to move in the opposite direction.

The one definite development yesterday was the announcement from across the Atlantic that Villeneuve would be abandoning IndyCars for Grand Prix racing. There was no confirmation he would be joining Williams, although that is the general assumption.

Hill is keen to stay at Williams and, along with his lawyer, travelled here with Frank Williams in the team director's private plane and doubtless discussed terms for next season. It is thought Hill is endeavouring to double his basic pay to around pounds 1.5m. Links with Newman-Haas, Benetton and Ferrari presumably give him useful bargaining muscle.

The figure Hill wants looks paltry compared with the pounds 16m Ferrari are prepared to lavish on Schumacher. Only the late Ayrton Senna negotiated a contract of that magnitude. It is pointless Hill troubling himself with the discrepancy, but he might yet be worried by the consequences of the German's agreement.

There remains a possibility that Ferrari will meet Schumacher's demands for outright number one status and balance the books by promoting their test driver, Nicola Larini, and unloading Gerhard Berger, as well as Alesi. Berger is currently earning pounds 8m a year from Ferrari.

Should the Austrian be released, he would be an obvious candidate for Williams, McLaren, Mercedes or indeed Benetton. That, in turn, would represent a threat to both Hill and David Coulthard. The latter appears certain to leave Williams and is a contender for a job at McLaren. Other rivals for top seats are Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Rubens Barrichello.

A revised line-up, featuring Schumacher at Ferrari, Alesi at Benetton, and Villeneuve at Williams, is precisely what Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's impresario, requires to resuscitate his flagging show. He should have at least three teams and five drivers competing at the sharp end next season.

It was scarcely a competition for pole yesterday, Hill obliterating the opposition and finding two drivers - Coulthard and Berger - between himself and Schumacher, who leads the championship by 21 points.

While Hill and his Williams were gliding to a fastest lap of 1min 18.374sec, Schumacher was wrestling his uncooperative Benetton to a best time of 1:19.490.

Hill, his title aspirations buoyed, said: "This is a race where you have to be on the front row at least and I'm very pleased with the performance. It was fairly dominant. I'm sure Benetton will bounce back, but if they stay where they are they'll have a lot of problems."

Hill is aware that Schumacher and Benetton have recovered from the Friday syndrome before to win the race.

Schumacher said: "We have a lot of problems. Everything has gone wrong. The car is very twitchy and we have no grip. But then it is so bad it can only get better. I am sure we will improve for the second day and the race is another thing. It is not the first time we have had black Friday."

Alesi had one spin too many, careering across the gravel into a barrier. He was taken to hospital for observation and was said to be shaken but uninjured.

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