Ecstatic Schumacher extends his lead

EUROPEAN GRAND PRIX: Hill concedes that championship is over but looks forward to next season's challenge
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The Independent Online
Today the Ringmeister, some day later this month, master of Formula One again. Michael Schumacher produced one of his most majestic performances to seal Damon Hill's world championship fate for a second consecutive season.

Hill left his car and hopes crumpled in a heap of tyres, strolled to the edge of the track and acclaimed the winner of a scintillating Grand Prix of Europe, and conceded the title. As Schumacher, savouring his slowing- down lap, came into view the Englishman applauded and gave him the thumbs- up.

Schumacher leads by 27 points with only three races remaining. Fourth place in the Pacific Grand Prix, in three weeks' time, would be enough to confirm his triumph. Hill, pushing in an honourable but forlorn bid to stay in the contest, lost control of his Williams-Renault eight laps from the end of the race. Little more than two laps from the flag, Schumacher manoeuvred his Benetton-Renault past Jean Alesi's Ferrari and went on to claim his second victory of the year on home ground.

Hill said: "I am not going to be world champion, but I will be back. I did everything I could. I don't feel I've disgraced myself. I put up a good fight and it did not come out. The championship is over, really, but I live to fight another day.

"Michael drove a great race and won again in his home country. Hats off to the guy. He's a bloody good driver. I've no complaints this time."

Schumacher said: "Damon's gesture showed what I have said many times. The situation is difficult and we are not really friends, but we respect each other, and it is not a war. He accepts I won the race and almost the championship. I wanted to stop to pick him up but I couldn't, and it was too cold. I would have given him flu."

Hill, who required nothing less than a win to resuscitate his championship challenge, found himself locked in a familiar rough and tumble with Schumacher and an equally aggressive confrontation with Alesi.

He survived a particularly harrowing moment with Schumacher but was not so fortunate as he attempted to overtake Alesi. The French-Sicilian declined to give way and had his front wing chopped off.

Repairs carried out, he was reduced to a damage limitation exercise and pushed too hard in pursuit of his team-mate, David Coulthard, in third place. "I got wide, on to the slippery bit, and that was it," he said.

"I had to try and win. Second was no good to me. I left no margin for error with Alesi. I had to get past because I was losing time to Michael. It was a classic example of his knowing I was there and, if he'd given me room, I would have got through. But let's not get embroiled in that argument again. I'm happy with myself."

Schumacher was ecstatic. He made three pit stops to Hill's two and Alesi's one, and again the strategy, like the driving, was impeccable. Alesi gambled on slick tyres for the start, superbly coaxing his machine along a still damp track, although unable in the early stages to threaten Coulthard, Schumacher and Hill.

Coulthard, named as a McLaren-Mercedes driver for 1996 five hours before the race, tripped up again driving round to the grid and had to switch to the spare car. Even so, he led until taking his turn in the queue to abandon wet tyres.

Alesi took advantage, opening a gap of 40 seconds at the head of the field. Hill, meanwhile, hounded Schumacher, taking and then losing third place in a ferocious scrap. On the following lap they touched as Schumacher once more resisted.

Schumacher made a critically earlier stop than Hill, who lost valuable time endeavouring in vain to out-wit Alesi and they collided. Alesi, hampered by back markers and wayward at the chicane, rapidly loomed in Schumacher's sights and although the pair locked wheels as the German attacked, neither man came to grief. Alesi grudgingly accepted second, and Coulthard was third.

Schumacher said: "It has to be one of my greatest races. I thought I used up my luck at Hockenheim but obviously not. In my wildest dreams I couldn't have expected to be 27 points ahead."

Rubens Barrichello (Jordan-Peugeot) was fourth, Johnny Herbert (Benetton- Renualt) fifth and Eddie Irvine (Jordan-Peugeot) sixth. A Pacific-Ford mechanic, knocked over in a pit lane accident, was taken to hospital with two broken legs.

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