Few "silly seasons" have been as silly as this, and in Budapest rumour has chased counter- rumour with as much commitment as Schumacher's vain pursuit of the dominant Williams-Renaults of Damon Hill and David Coulthard which occupy the front row of the grid this afternoon. This long- awaited move in the driver market will trigger several other shifts of alliance, and despite a weekend which saw him damage his car in each qualifying session, Jean Alesi will transfer to Schumacher's seat at Benetton.
Other key partnerships have yet to be clarified, but in recent weeks there has been clear evidence of bridge-building between Williams and Hill, and the Englishman, who was Ferrari's second choice after Schumacher, is now expected to stay for a fourth season.
After confirmation in America last week that Jacques Villeneuve will not be staying in the IndyCar series, the French Canadian is expected to be announced later this week as Hill's partner. Villeneuve, son of the legendary Ferrari driver Gilles and winner of this year's Indianapolis 500, impressed the team during a much-publicised test at Silverstone recently. "We have lodged an option on his services with the Contract Recognition Board," Frank Williams admitted grudgingly.
Williams may also be in competition with McLaren for the services of Gerhard Berger. According to one rumour, if Berger were to partner Hill, Ville- neuve might join Alesi at Benetton. None of this is good news for Coulthard, who has been linked to a McLaren drive.
Against this backdrop, the action on the track has been almost incidental. Hill seems the most relaxed, despite his recent misfortunes and the widening points deficit to Schumacher, who looks set to end his Benetton period by bringing himself a second drivers' title and the team its first constructors' championship.
"This is the most important pole of my career," said Hill, who spun immediately afterwards when, by his own admission, he looked too long at the computer readout on his dashboard. "The first corner here is traditionally quite exciting, but I'm on the cleanest bit of track and have the best opportunity."
Schumacher also spun in his final fruitless attempt to beat the Williams- Renaults. He is, however, perfectly placed should the Williams drivers endanger one another at the first corner. "I don't think," said Hill darkly, "that David will be riding shotgun to protect me from Michael."
The FIA has announced a new ruling on overtaking that apparently condones Hill's controversial and unsuccessful attempt to pass Schumacher which resulted in both spinning out of the British Grand Prix. If a following driver places any part of his car in front of any part of the leading car, the leading driver may no longer close the door, or else he risks penalties.
"I'm not yet sure what it all means," Schumacher admitted, "but there are some aspects of it, some possibilities, that I am not happy about." Hill, tongue in cheek, said: "It seems that all you've got to do is sit alongside the guy and he has to let you go. And blow you a kiss, I expect."
The new ruling suggests that drivers may no longer defend an advantage in time-honoured fashion, but in any case, attempts at overtaking are unlikely on a circuit that is as tight as the Hungaroring.
"At the start we'll all have to scatter like the Red Arrows to avoid breaching the new rules," Hill suggested. That at least might provide some sort of spectacle when the noise of the engines temporarily drowns the rumours this afternoon.Reuse content