reports from Spa-Francorchamps
The capricious weather that comes with the splendour of the Ardennes consigned Johnny Herbert to the sidelines yesterday and filled Damon Hill with foreboding as he contemplated tomorrow's Belgian Grand Prix.
Herbert smashed into a wall during the morning's unofficial practice session and although he was prepared to compete, he missed qualifying because his Benetton-Renault could not be repaired. Hill, intent on retaining his health as well as his interest in the world championship said: "I don't think we should race if it's that bad.
"If it's like it was this morning, I would have serious concerns. Going up the hill, there was a car no more than 50 yards ahead of me and it just disappeared into a cloud. It is always a daunting circuit but in the wet it can be hell."
Into the qualifying session, the rain eased and, in the predictable scramble towards the end of the hour, Gerhard Berger, driving a Ferrari, claimed provisional pole position. Michael Schumacher, the title leader, was second in the other Benetton, Jean Alesi, in the other Ferrari, third, Hill, in a Williams-Renault, fourth and his team-mate, David Coulthard, fifth.
That order will be rendered academic should the sun re-emerge today and remind the drivers why this is their favourite circuit. When the rain sweeps over the forests and along these roads, exhilaration turns to plain fear.
Herbert was powerless as his car snapped out of control exiting La Source, the hairpin just after the start and finish line. Beneath the gaze of his father, Bob, he plunged into the wall at more than 100mph. The Benetton completed four pirouettes as it found its way across the track, to the barrier at the other side.
The Englishman, likely to part company with Benetton at the end of the season, was groggy when he eventually clambered from the cockpit, but was given clearance to drive again after a check at the medical centre. However, the team, unwilling to compromise Schumacher's effort, decided against giving Herbert use of the German's car.
Herbert, who seriously injured his feet in a Formula 3000 crash, seven years ago, said: "It was strange, I don't really know what happened. The car started wiggling, I corrected, but it just went right.
"I wasn't unconscious but I don't remember much. I can't remember how I got to the medical centre. I was there, but on a different planet. It wasn't very nice for my mum and dad to watch, but I've had worse. I've got a bit of a headache. I would have driven in qualifying if they could have repaired the car in time."
Herbert at least had the consolation of a public promise that his place was secure for the rest of the season. Benetton's managing director, Flavio Briatore, said: "Johnny is in the team and we are very happy with him. He will finish the season with Benetton and has no criticism from the team."
Hill set the target in qualifying and as a drying line appeared it was shot down in the inevitable rush. Alesi went top, then Coulthard, then Hill. But it was Berger who made the decisive assault and, at the completion of proceedings, Schumacher was closest to him.
Schumacher, returning to the track where he made his debut and had his maiden victory, would settle for what he has. He said: "I'm happy to be on the front row because it could be very wet again for the final session and this position would be a substantial advantage."
BELGIAN GRAND PRIX (Spa-Francorchamps): First qualifying session: 1 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 2min 14.744sec; 2 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Renault 2:14.962; 3 J Alesi (Fra) Ferrari 2:15.077; 4 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 2:15.143; 5 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault 2:15.232; 6 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford 2:15.533; 7 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 2:15.848; 8 E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Peugeot 2:16.540; 9 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan- Peugeot 2:17.144; 10 M Brundle (GB) Ligier Mugen Honda 2:17.207; 11 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford 2:17.335; 12 J-C Boullion (Fr) Sauber-Ford 2:17.406; 13 O Panis (Fr) Ligier Mugen Honda 2:17.579; 14 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha 2:18.104; 15 M Blundell (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 2:18.136; 16 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 2:18.194; 17 P Lamy (Por) Minardi-Ford 2:18.547; 18 M Papis (It) Footwork-Hart 2:19.300; 19 T Inoue (Japan) Footwork-Hart 2:23.311; 20 R Moreno (Bra) Forti-Ford 2:23.417; 21 A Montermini (It) Pacific-Ford 2:25.291; 22 P Diniz (Br) Forti-Ford 2:25.699; 23 G Lavaggi (It) Pacific-Ford 2:26.311.Reuse content