Hill is still target of jibes from champion

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The bodywork and verbal clashes have given way to polite appreciation of late, but then it has been that sort of a season and Michael Schumacher is willing to acknowledge Damon Hill as a worthy world champion.

However, lest we should think the game has gone and they have all turned soft, Schumacher tossed his old adversary a few barbs yesterday and warned: "Damon had better believe I will come back to try to take the championship away from him next year. I am only lending it him."

During the build-up to the British Grand Prix last year the pair exchanged cutting comments, Hill's description of Schumacher as a "clone" being misunderstood in Germany and translated as "clown". After their collision in the race, Hill was generally depicted as the "clown" or "prat" as his boss, Frank Williams, reportedly called him although both drivers were officially reprimanded over the incident.

This time they have arrived with Hill a comfortable championship leader with even Schumacher being unable to turn the Ferrari into a regular threat to the Williams-Renault. The German still hopes to give the Englishman more of a fight before the season is out, but accepts the inevitable outcome.

Schumacher said: "Damon's made a couple of mistakes but he has had some good races as well. I believe he will be a worthy champion."

Asked whether Hill would be worthy of the pounds 12m he is said to be seeking for next season, Schumacher could not resist a mischievous reply: "Lire?" (which would be about pounds 5,000).

A win for Hill here on Sunday would be his 20th, equalling the German's total. Schumacher offered his perspective: "I have won two championships, he has won none. Doesn't that tell you something?"

Hill, who leads his teammate, Jacques Villeneuve, by 25 points and Schumacher by 37, dismissed the championship "loan" theory. "I don't think the championship is down to Michael," he said.

"I think this race will be the toughest of the season. The competition is getting closer and Jacques is getting closer."

Hill is aware, however, that he is expected to deliver a home victory. "I want to give Britain a British victory and you can rest assured I'll be trying darned hard to make it happen."