Hill in a title race of his own

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The Independent Online
It may have been a sluggish news week by Formula One standards, but as the European season officially opens, the undercurrents of tension eddying through the Formula One paddock seem ever more likely to sweep Damon Hill onwards to the World Championship.

It took the Englishman a mere seven laps to dismantle his opposition so comprehensively during qualifying that when it was finally over he remained in a class of his own. Only his Williams- Renault team-mate Jacques Villeneuve got anywhere near him, and then the Canadian needed 11 of his 12 allocated laps to achieve a time almost eight-tenths of a second slower. Where dust clouds characterised the quickest laps of Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher as they used all the road, Hill's best were noticeably devoid of histrionics. Two laps into the session he had done enough to take his 14th pole position; later he calmly sliced another second from that.

Were it not for the world champion, the Williams team would simply have had no opposition as the season bears the hallmarks of 1988, when the McLaren-Hondas won 15 of the 16 races. Then, McLaren simply did a better job than anybody else, and so it is proving with the Williams, which looks as cohesive and deadly now as it appeared divided and indecisive at times in 1995.

"The team is working perfectly," Hill said. "We already have a very good car, and we are working to make it better still." Williams has a new rear suspension in the pipeline which has shown promise in testing.

"It's all gelling and, really, I feel that I'm driving better as well," Hill said. "Whichever way the weather goes tomorrow, I'm confident for the race. I'm enjoying a period when everything is going superbly well. The atmosphere in the team is excellent."

This is not the case at Ferrari, where polemics that would have the Borgia family salivating continue to hurt progress. Relations between Gianni Agnelli, the Fiat chairman, and the Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo are reportedly strained, while the designer John Barnard and the press department have expressed views that are at variance on a number of subjects of late.

"I had an engine failure this morning but that didn't really change our situation," said Schumacher, who came to the Nurburgring with his Ferrari back in its original specification rather than with the interim transmission he had been obliged to use in South America. "The only real change with the different specification is with the different floor, which is a bit of an improvement. But it's little steps we are talking of."

Looking every inch a man donning a brave face, he added: "I was expecting after the first three races that this smooth circuit would suit our car, but it's a high grip circuit as well, and we have struggled for mechanical grip here."

Schumacher does not hold out much hope for Ferrari's crucial home race at Imola next week, either. "I don't think that the situation will be much more than this there, although the new engine we will have then will give us a little bit more." Although he denied feeling frustrated, private sources suggest he is close to despair at how chaotic the situation has become within the Italian team. He insisted that he can see light at the end of the tunnel, but the way things are going this may well prove to be Hill's unstoppable express train.

Disappointment curdled the atmosphere during qualifying in the Benetton and McLaren garages, too. Benetton lost the plot with Jean Alesi fourth after a spin and Gerhard Berger only eighth, while McLaren and Mercedes's expectations of a tough weekend on the latter's home soil were realised when Mika Hakkinen's car broke its engine within a lap. The Finn qualified the spare car ninth, three places behind his team-mate David Coulthard. The two-second chasm to Williams does not bode well for McLaren at a time when rumour suggests that its sponsor, Marlboro, is considering concentrating only on Ferrari in 1997.

This afternoon only Jacques Villeneuve or mechanical frailty are likely to stand between Hill and a fifth consecutive grand prix victory, something that would compensate nicely for the embarrassing accidents that punctuated his last appearances in front of Schumacher's vociferous countrymen.

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