Hill calmly fends off Ferrari

In the perfect riposte to Ferrari's qualifying pace, Damon Hill and Williams-Renault confirmed the strength of their world championship challenge with a splendidly judged victory in yesterday's San Marino Grand Prix.

Last year Williams' strategy was frequently questionable, but this time the team kept Ferrari on the back foot all the way through. "That was a great race," Hill said, as he admitted to having doubts about the plans of the chief designer Adrian Newey. "I asked Adrian if he was sure, and he said yes. And they were perfect. Our tactics went extremely well."

Crucially, Hill went to the start carrying more fuel than Schumacher, which meant that his car was significantly heavier. He nevertheless led Schumacher as far as the first corner, but when David Coulthard made another stupendous start in his McLaren-Mercedes, Hill did not resist as the Scot surged round the outside to steal the lead.

When Schumacher also edged alongside on the second lap Hill made room. "I didn't want to let him through," he said, "but I didn't want to risk going into the gravel. I just had to try and stay in touch after that."

As Hill settled into his rhythm in third place, Coulthard gave his stock another strong boost as he and Schumacher raced away in their own private battle. Coulthard stopped for fuel on the 20th lap, followed by Schumacher a lap later, and though the world champion got back on the track ahead of the Scot, Hill had taken the lead he maintained to the end. When he stopped for a very quick fuel call on the 30th lap he rejoined less than a second ahead of the Ferrari, but was able to maintain the cushion until Schumacher's inevitable stop for more fuel 10 laps later. Hill's second top-up stop occupied only 8.3sec, and he was aided to a small extent when Schumacher was delayed while trying to lap Mika Hakkinen and Pedro Diniz as they fought over ninth place. Later both drivers were penalised 10 seconds for blocking, but Schumacher was not particularly critical.

"They were fighting for a position, and they probably thought that the blue overtaking flags were for each other," he said.

In the closing stages Schumacher pushed hard after Hill, but the Williams driver had things in perfect control and sailed serenely on to the 17th win of his career. For Schumacher, however, the day ended with the same sort of drama that had befallen him immediately after setting the fastest time in qualifying as his Ferrari suffered a mechanical problem.

"I got to the chicane at the top of the hill on the last lap and suddenly I saw smoke and sparks from the right front wheel," he said. "At the next corner the wheel nearly fell off completely. If I'd had to do another lap it would have been very interesting, but fortunately I got to the finish." A brake disc had shattered, and as the Ferrari rolled to a halt after the finishing line it was engulfed in a sea of souvenir-hunting fans.

For Coulthard there was only disappointment. His impressive showing ended on the 45th lap when his McLaren's gearbox failed just when he was poised to regain third place from Gerhard Berger's Benetton. The Austrian kept going to take the final podium position on a day when Benetton's other driver, Jean Alesi, was condemned for his tactics.

He collided twice on the opening lap with the European Grand Prix winner, Jacques Villeneuve, who staged a strong recovery drive after a lengthy delay. Williams blamed the incident with Alesi for Villeneuve's suspension failure which forced him out of sixth place five laps before the end. Alesi was later penalised 10 seconds for speeding in the pit lane, spun, and then left the road briefly while trying to avoid being lapped by Schumacher, the man he replaced at Benetton. He finally salvaged sixth place behind Eddie Irvine, in the second Ferrari, and Rubens Barrichello's Jordan-Peugeot.

Another serious pit lane incident was narrowly avoided on the 39th lap when Jos Verstappen pulled away from the Arrows pit before the refuelling hose had been disconnected. The refuelling equipment in the garage was damaged, spilling four litres of fuel, but though mechanic David Lowe sustained a dislocated shoulder, prompt action by the Arrows' other mechanics prevented a conflagration.

With Villeneuve's retirement, Hill's fourth victory of the season pushed him further into the lead of the world championship. "The extra fuel worked the brakes a bit harder and I had to see how they shaped up in that first stint," Hill said. "But our teamwork was superb, and I'm delighted to win here." In deference to the late Ayrton Senna, Hill added: "What we saw today was a very good race, and that's the best way to overcome the memories of two years ago."

San Marino Grand Prix

1 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1hr 35min 25.156sec 10pts

2 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari +16.460sec 6pts

3 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault +46.891 4pts

4 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari +1min 01.583sec 3pts

5 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot +1:18.490 2pts

6 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault +1 lap 1pt

7 P Diniz (Bra) Ligier-Mugen-Honda +1 lap; 8 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +2 laps; 9 P Lamy (Por) Minardi-Ford +2; 10 L Badoer (It) Forti-Ford +4; 11 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault +6. Not classified (did not finish): 12 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 54 laps completed; 13 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 45; 14 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 44; 15 R Rosset (Bra) Footwork-Hart 40; 16 J Verstappen (Neth) Footwork- Hart 38; 17 M Brundle (GB) Jordan-Peugeot 36; 18 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber- Ford 32; 19 G Fisichella (It) Minardi-Ford 30; 20 J Herbert (GB) Sauber- Ford 25; 21 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha 23. Fastest lap: Hill 1:28.931 (198.032kph/123.054 mph).

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