Hill plays perfect hand

Click to follow
The Independent Online
If Damon Hill has forebodings about his future at Williams-Renault beyond the 1996 season he has done a poker champion's job of hiding them at Hockenheim, where the thousands of flag-waving spectators have eyes only for their idol, Michael Schumacher.

Speculation has raged all week that Hill's days are numbered at Williams after four years and, to date, 19 victories. And that Germany's other darling, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, will supplant him in 1997 regardless of whether Hill succeeds Nigel Mansell as Britain's latest World Champion.

Hill, to nobody's great surprise, has vented a little spleen against the writers of the strongest speculation, and for a

long time his most serious problem arose during dinner on Friday when he retired halfway through a manful attempt to devour an ice cream, chocolate and banana sweet that would have driven his trainer Erwin Gollner to apoplexy. His manner was very far from that of a man about to find himself with a less comfortable seat when silence descends on the 1997 game of F1 musical chairs. "I don't pay any attention to things like that," he said trenchantly.

On track, too, Hill appeared to have few worries, calmly pacing himself throughout the increasingly tedious day of unofficial chassis setting up on Friday, and shrugging off two minor errors that sapped the advantage from his three previous efforts to dislodge Schumacher and Ferrari from pole position.

The German had opened up with a 1m 44.691s salvo that removed Jean Alesi from a temporary tenancy of pole position, and later trimmed that to 1m 44.477s - constantly wrestling with the Ferrari which is still no handling match for the Williams.

Hockenheim is an odd place, however, and nowhere else is the trade-off between downforce and high straightline speed more evident. Hill and Villeneuve in their Williams-Renaults, Berger and Alesi in their Benetton-Renaults, and Hakkinen and Coulthard in their McLaren-Mercedes, all had cars that were better behaved, and all recorded times that bettered Schumacher's at the intermediate measurement points on this tree-lined course. Coulthard, for example, maxed out at 213mph on one lap, and the others were close. But such performance was a function of the low-wing settings that boosted straightline speed, and in the final stadium section that ends the lap, and where downforce once again becomes paramount, the times slipped away. For Hill the fractional advantage twice slid, literally, into history with momentum-sapping oversteer in the two final corners. Schumacher's time withstood assaults time and again.

Hockenheim is scarcely a test of driving skill, yet curiously it created the most electric qualifying session of the year with the top seven cars separated by just 1.039s. And Hill loved it.

"I wish we could have more tracks like this, with stadiums. They have such a fantastic atmosphere. I could hear the crowd cheering for Michael even in the garage, and the excitement you feel when you come back into the stadium adds a lot to the qualifying and the race."

So, too, did Hill's brinkmanship, for he left his final attempt until the last three minutes of qualifying. "It was getting very last minute there," he admitted, "but I knew that we had the right equipment to do the time. I made an error on my third run, so I knew it was possible to get a good time. We had to leave it because we weren't sure about tyre pressures until the last set."

As the agonised crowd watched, he obliterated Schumacher's dominance with a best of 1m 43.912s to capture the 18th pole of his career, and moments later Berger delighted himself and Benetton by pushing the Ferrari back to the second row.

A post-qualifying protest by the Minardi team, which alleged that Hill had missed a mandatory pit lane weight check, was not upheld by the stewards. Had it been, Hill would have been forced to start from the back. Instead, he remained understandably yet uncharacteristically bursting with confidence. "I've been very confident all weekend that we have a good car, and it's going to be a very good race car tomorrow."

And he added: "I'm not put off much by anything at the moment." Apart, that is, from the odd loose wheel that thwarted him recently at Silverstone or the worn driveshaft bearing that may have spun him out of the lead here last year.