Hill masters his emotions to foil the Ferraris

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The Independent Online
MOTOR RACING

Damon Hill led Formula One's glorious and poignant tribute yesterday to Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger in the arena that claimed their lives.

Twelve months on, the San Marino Grand Prix was transformed into an occasion of jubilation and relief; a celebration of motor racing at the highest level. The mourning was over. The sense of deliverance came with the victory by Hill, the Englishman who succeeded Senna as Williams-Renault's senior driver, and the joy was enhanced by Ferrari's places on the podium.

The fans who drifted away from the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in numbed disbelief last year spilled on to the track in waves of red to acclaim the rebirth of the Prancing Horse. Jean Alesi was second, Gerhard Berger third.

David Coulthard, in the other Williams, was fourth after an eventful drive, much of which brought upon him the wrath of Alesi, and the young Scot was disappointed he had not been able to sustain a challenge at the front. Michael Schumacher's early crash in the Benetton-Renault was a reminder that no amount of circuit modifications will totally free Formula One from its inherent perils.

But no one was hurt and the emotions of the year were encapsulated in the brief seconds it took Hill to cruise from the finish line to Tamburello, the now reshaped bend where Senna died. "You feel the emotions of winning because of the enormous pressures on you," Hill said. "Then you look across at a picture of Ayrton on the wall and you remember. You think this is the place where we had all the terrible times last year. You realise how things have changed in the sport. It's like mountains and valleys. The highs and lows are very distinct.

"It's good for everyone to come back from last year like this. Formula One is healthy and everyone had a great reception. It was so sad last year and I think Ayrton would have liked this. It was a great race and everyone had a good day. The foreboding everyone felt before coming here has been expelled."

Hill had contained the pressures and emotions for 63 laps of disciplined racing here to assume the leadership of the world championship for the first time. "I was able to keep it all out of my mind through the race," he said. "You have to."

The contrasting scenes, separated by a traumatic year, touched Berger more than most. He had been devastated by the death of Ratzenberger, a fellow Austrian, and the Brazilian he considered a close friend. He is proud he "taught Senna how to laugh." He said yesterday: "To see all this, the crowd and everything, gives us all a lot of happiness."

The spectacle of the early laps was especially engrossing. Schumacher was at the head of the precarious charge on a rapidly drying track, only to become over-zealous and lose control after changing to slick tyres. His off-side wheels were ripped off when he smashed into the wall and he was fortunate the car did not flip over as it leapt across the gravel track into a tyre barrier.

Berger inherited the lead and Hill took up the challenge as Coulthard fended off Alesi. The latter scrap was to rage deep into the race and beyond.

Alesi, not renowned as a shrinking violet, complained: "I did races with Senna, Mansell, Prost and Piquet and I never zig-zagged as he did. He is one of the most incorrect drivers. I understand he wants to keep his position, but this is very bad. He touched my front left wheel and I was very lucky to stay on the circuit and finish the race."

Coulthard, in only his 11th grand prix, seemed taken aback by the condemnation. "If Jean Alesi has a problem he'll come to me," he said.In the event, Coulthard went to Alesi and no reports of fisticuffs emanated from the Ferrari motor home.

Coulthard was removed from Alesi's racing path by a stop and go penalty incurred for speeding in the pit lane and a spin.

It was the first chance for Mansell in his made-to-measure McLaren-Mercedes and he was on course for a place in the points until he tangled with Eddie Irvine's Jordan-Peugeot. Irvine's car had its front wing chopped off, Mansell's had a puncture and they finished eighth and 10th respectively. Irvine, having had more than his share of brushes with opponents and the authorities, diplomatically and prudently dismissed the incident as a "misunderstanding."

Many of the drivers were more critical of the back markers who were apparently reluctant to give way. "They'll be a few strong words at the next drivers' meeting," Hill said.

Hill patiently coped with the mobile hazards as he did the changing conditions, but played down the inevitable championship speculation. He believes he still has the best car, but Benetton and Ferrari are patently improving. Schumacher will be back, and may eventually have effective support from Johnny Herbert, who was seventh yesterday.

1 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault

1hr 41min 42.552sec (ave sp: 109.153mph)

2 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 18.510sec behind

3 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari +43.116sec

4 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault 1.890sec

5 M Hkkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +1 lap

6 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford +1

7 J Herbert (GB) Benetton-Renault, +2; 8 E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Peugeot, +2; 9 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen Honda, +2; 10 N Mansell (GB) McLaren-Mercedes, +2; 11 A Suzuki (Japan) Ligier-Mugen Honda, +3; 12 P Martini (It) Minardi- Ford, +4; 13 G Morbidelli (It) Footwork-Hart, +4; 14 L Badoer (It) Minardi- Ford, +4; 15 P Diniz (Bra) Forti-Ford, +7; 16 R Moreno (Bra) Forti-Ford, +7.

Did not finish: K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber-Ford +20; B Gachot (Fr) Lotus Pacific-Ford +27; D Schiattarella (It) Simtek-Ford +28; R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot +32; U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha +40; M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha +44; A Montermini (It) Lotus Pacific-Ford +48; J Verstappen (Neth) Simtek-Ford +49; T Inoue (Japan) Footwork-Hart +51; M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Renault +53.

Fastest lap: Berger 1:29.568 (118.046mph).

World drivers' championship (after three races): 1 Hill, 20pts; 2= Schumacher and Alesi, 14; 4= Coulthard and Berger, 9; 6 Hkkinen, 5. GB: 7 Herbert 3; 9 Blundell 1.

Constructors' championship standings (after three races): 1= Ferrari and Williams, 23pts; 3 Benetton 7; 4 McLaren 6.

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