Hill drives away the anguish

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The Independent Online
Damon Hill's dark face betrayed little sign of any emotion he might be feeling, and he considered the question with his customary care. "Yeah, I'm reasonably satisfied. I'm always happy if we've done good work on a Friday. We didn't show our potential, certainly. A lot of time, when it's come to Canada in the past, we've had a dreadful first day and it's been difficult to set the car up, but there were a few times today when my car felt really nice, so that was encouraging."

He did not look like a man who has recently seen 20 championship points slip from his grasp. Despite that rare Renault engine failure while leading the race at Monaco, and the three spins in the torrential rain in Barcelona, he remains outwardly confident and completely focused. The anguish of Monaco, where an easy victory was snatched away by a simple mechanical failure, and Barcelona, where he is quick to admit that he paid the price for failing to make the right set-up changes to his Williams-Renault, has already been filed away. Things of the past. Negatives to be ignored, not dwelled upon. With Michael Schumacher hitting his stride in an increasingly competitive Ferrari, only the future matters. The past is merely matter fit for conjecture by journalists.

"My points advantage has been eroded because I haven't finished the last two races," Hill said, "but I think the car is still very competitive." The Englishman has a wry sense of humour, and he added: "It seems to be more a problem in the minds of everyone else. It's a point that's being asked because it's a change in the storyline, but the truth of the matter is that nothing much has changed. I still have the chance to win races and I still have the chance to win the championship."

And what of Schumacher, who seems to be pushing his big guns closer and closer with every outing? "Michael's just another competitor to me," Hill said. "All that I am thinking about is Damon Hill and how well Damon Hill is going to do in the championship. That is all that worries me."

In fact, Hill also had his team-mate to worry about here yesterday. Vibrant Montreal is in the grip of Jackomania, and the chauvinistic thousands have flocked into the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on the Ile Notre Dame. At the epicentre of the storm, Jacques Villeneuve admitted it was a relief just to get into the cockpit after all the pre-race hype.

"Earlier in the week it was tough, but that's why we did the full press day, to make things easier now. I had never worked so hard out of the car before I had to start driving, so I was really happy to get on the track.

"Sure, you see the crowd, either when you are sitting in the pits or during a slowdown lap, but it's just a flash. But when you are concentrating on driving, there is no room for anything else."

As Hill had suggested, Friday barely scratched the potential of the Williams- Renaults, and Saturday afternoon brought the proof. First Villeneuve set the pace, lapping confidently in 1min 21.196sec as the ever-present red menace, Schumacher, shaved to within two thousandths of a second. At this stage Hill was still fighting a car that preferred to slide rather than grip, but when Alesi crashed his Benetton and the session was temporarily halted, the Briton gained extra time to change his set-up. Villeneuve's last lap won him the pole again, but it was a short-lived victory as Hill fought his car round the track two hundredths of a second faster still as qualifying drew to its close. It was his 16th pole position.

When Berger repeated Alesi's shunt right at the end, Schumacher lost what little chance he had of responding.

The world champion, never one to lose an opportunity, was interviewed by Jackie Stewart, who is present not only in his role as television commentator but to maintain a watching brief as he presses ahead with his own Grand Prix team, which will debut in 1997. "I told him there was a better driver than himself coming along," Stewart related gleefully. "I was actually talking about his younger brother Ralf, and it took Michael quite a while to figure it out. But then he got it, laughed, and immediately shot back: 'He's certainly good enough for your team, Jackie!'"

There are no flies on Schumacher, but Hill and Villeneuve already know that.

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