Hill profits from Berger's blow

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The Independent Online
Damon Hill's fortune changed at last in the homeland of his great adversary yesterday, as if to confirm the passing of the world championship crown to the Englishman.

Michael Schumacher was a distant, impotent fourth after Hill emerged from the smoke of Gerhard Berger's blown engine to claim victory in the German Grand Prix here yesterday and ease the pressure for the run-in to the title.

Schumacher has long since accepted his two-year reign must end, but Hill wallowed in the satisfaction of casting aside the doubts before a massive crowd which was almost totally committed to the futile cause of the Ferrari driver.

Relieved of the task of trying to overtake Berger, Hill was able to savour the last few miles and doubtless calculate that his championship advantage over his Williams-Renault team-mate, Jacques Villeneuve, would increase to 21 points. The Canadian finished third, behind Berger's Benetton-Renault partner, Jean Alesi.

The win would probably have gone to Berger but for his engine failure, less than three laps from the end, and Hill acknowledged as much. But then the championship leader justifiably pointed out he had served his time on the wrong end of hard luck stories here. In 1993, for instance, he was denied success by a late puncture.

Little wonder, therefore, that, when asked if he had been lucky, Hill responded: "Absolutely not. I've had my share of bad luck. These things happen. It's a damn shame for Gerhard and for Renault, because they would have had the first four places.

"It was going to be difficult to pass Gerhard. It would have taken an error by him for me to get by and I was pushing him hoping he would do that. He moved across when I made a move but he did no more than is permitted. I wanted to win but I couldn't afford a big risk and not finish the race. It was crucial to score points. Then I heard one of the engines make a noise and I thought it could have been mine. I moved over as I realised it was Gerhard's."

Following the setback at Silverstone and the torrent of conjecture about his future, Hill had not only put his championship campaign securely back on course but had also reinforced his position to negotiate a new contract with Williams.

Those anticipating a tense climax to the race were less contented. Another largely uninspiring grand prix suddenly held out the prospect of a battle to the line when Hill, on a two pit-stop strategy, returned to the track for the final 10 laps trailing the Austrian by 2.2sec.

Within two laps the Williams was on the tail of the Benetton and that is how they stayed for six enthralling laps. Every time Hill made a move, Berger, the most experienced driver in Formula One, cunningly covered. There remain doubts about Hill's overtaking ability and here was the opportunity to present his case. That opportunity, alas, was snatched away.

Berger, who had his last grand prix win here two years ago, parked his crippled vehicle at the side of the track and hitched a lift back to the pits on Alesi's car. "I was confident I could have held off Hill," Berger said. "I had no warning that anything was wrong when suddenly the engine blew. I so much wanted this victory for myself, the team, for everyone."

Had Hill made a clean start from pole, he might have been spared all the concerns that were to follow. Berger claimed the first corner and Alesi launched himself from fifth to second. By way of a rehearsal for the later performance, Hill tracked Alesi's Benetton without ever suggesting he could pass. Hill said: "The cars are so closely matched and if you get close to the one in front, the efficiency of your car is reduced."

Villeneuve, who has five grands prix to challenge Hill, insisted he had not given up on the championship and promised his partner a fight to the finish, but with more unknown territory ahead, in Hungary and Belgium, the 25-year-old must sense he has little realistic hope of becoming champion.

Schumacher's resistance kept David Coulthard's McLaren- Mercedes in fifth place and Rubens Barrichello, in a Jordan-Peugeot, earned the final point with sixth place. Martin Brundle, in the other Jordan, was 10th, while Johnny Herbert retired his sick Sauber-Ford after 25 laps.


German Grand Prix

45 laps, 191 miles

1 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1hr 21min 43.417sec (average speed 140.067mph)

2 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault +11.542sec

3 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault +33.926

4 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari +41.517

5 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes +42.196

6 R Barrichello (Br) Jordan-Peugeot +1min 42.099sec

7 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda +1:43.912

8 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford +1 lap

9 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha +1

10 M Brundle (GB) Jordan-Peugeot +1

11 R Rosset (Br) Footwork-Hart +1

12 P Lamy (Por) Minardi-Ford +2

13 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault +3

Not classified (did not finish): 14 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 34 laps completed; 15 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Ford 25; 16 P Diniz (Bra) Ligier- Mugen-Honda 19; 17 U Katayama (Jap) Tyrrell-Yamaha 19; 18 M Hakkinnen (Fin) McLaren- Mercedes 13; 19 J Verstappen (Neth) Footwork-Hart 0.

Fastest lap: Hill 1min 46.504sec (143.312mph)

World drivers' championship

Standings after 11 races: 1 Hill 73pts; 2 Villeneuve 52; 3 Alesi 31; 4 Schumacher 29; 5 Coulthard 18; 6= Hakkinen, Berger 16; 10 Irvine 9; 13 Herbert 4; 14 Brundle 3.

Constructors' championship

1 Williams 125pts; 2 Benetton 47; 3 Ferrari 38; 4 McLaren 34; 5 Jordan 14; 6 Ligier 12.