Hill does his talking on the track

British Grand Prix: Rivals distance themselves from the controversy that has helped to fuel their championship duel
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The Independent Online
DAMON HILL has drawn some good hands in the game of political poker being played out here this weekend. In the verbal war with Michael Schumacher he has certainly held his own. Also, his supporters here within the media have strongly advised the head of Renault Sport, Patrick Faure, of the error of his assumption that Hill threw away the 1994 World Championship in Adelaide last November.

Faure believes his driver actually saw Schumacher crashing off the track and thus should never have attempted his ill-fated overtaking manoeuvre, whereas his supporters believe Hill's version, that he had seen nothing. A small misapprehension, perhaps, but on such things a driver's future can depend.

Then on Friday afternoon Hill responded magnificently to a blistering lap of 1 min 28.397 sec by Schumacher to push ahead with 1:28.124, which remained good enough for pole position when it rained yesterday.

Most drivers restricted the number of laps that they ran in the wet conditions. This prompted Max Mosley, the president of the FIA, the sport's governing body, to call into question the idea of splitting qualifying into two sessions. "There are good reasons for only having qualifying on the Saturday," Mosley said. "It's only my personal view, but I think Friday qualifying is a big waste of time." Mosley said that the FIA would discuss holding qualifying only on Saturdays, with teams using the Friday as an unofficial practice session. The change could be introduced this season if teams agree.

The recent connection of Hill's name with Ferrari is not to be taken lightly, for he has been in discussion with the famous Italian team for some months. And he is known to be concerned that, having begun as "office boy" test-driver for Williams, there is the danger that he may become regarded as just another piece of the furniture. Interest from another team is a useful card.

However, this is traditionally the "silly season", when everyone starts discussing who will get which drive in the year to come. Gerhard Berger, the Ferrari driver, put a lot of it into perspective when asked if he would be driving for Ferrari in 1996.

"It depends how many cars they enter," he began. "I hear that Schumacher is going to drive. Damon Hill is going to drive. Jean Alesi is going to drive. Me too . . . That's four cars!" On the track though, Hill needed only Schumacher's spur, and with his team-mate David Coulthard lining up third, their Williams-Renaults inevitably upstaged the less competitive packages of their fellow countrymen.

Johnny Herbert was philosophical about his secondary role to Schumacher, taking fifth place, while Eddie Irvine redressed the balance of qualifying superiority over his Jordan team-mate Rubens Barrichello to take seventh. Martin Brundle is 11th, just behind Mark Blundell, whose performance in an improved McLaren was impressively close to his partner Mika Hakkinen's.

Blundell, of course, replaced Nigel Mansell in Monte Carlo, and Formula One has moved on since the days of "Mansellmania". A few of the faithful still carry the banners, but, as the man himself is otherwise engaged in the Devon Open golf championship, chauvinistic eyes are focused on Hill. Nothing would please more than a repeat of last year's emotional triumph.

Hill is under no illusions. "Pole means a great deal," he said yesterday. "But I must confess to a certain feeling of deja vu. I've started on pole a few times this season but the positions have been reversed in the race." After the defeat Schumacher doled out in France, the odds again favour the race-day performance of the German and his Benetton-Renault team and car.

"It is very easy to criticise race strategy afterwards," said Williams' chief designer, Adrian Newey. "First at Magny-Cours it was suggested that we should have stopped earlier. But if we brought Damon in earlier it would have run David out of fuel. Sometimes you get it wrong and sometimes you get it right."

Going into this crucial race in the 1995 campaign, Hill and Schumacher will both certainly know that while Williams and Benetton have both got it right before, and there have been many times when Benetton has got it right and Williams hasn't, there have been very few occasions on which Williams has got it right and Benetton has got it wrong. In this game of high-speed poker, inner confidence is everything. Hill has held some good hands thus far, but waits to see just what Schumacher may have up his sleeve this afternoon.

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