Hill puts all behind him

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The Independent Online
As a riposte to his rejection by the Williams-Renault team, Damon Hill's eighth pole position of the season could scarcely have been more apposite.

From the moment last week that Frank Williams communicated his lack of interest in retaining Hill's services, speculation has been rife about the world championship leader's future. Here in the hotbed of the Italian rumour factory, it reached fever pitch. Would he go to Benetton? McLaren? Jordan? Home to retire?

At Benetton Flavio Briatore, one of the more colourful individuals in the paddock, has tolerated Jean Alesi's tantrums all season. But he again reiterated his eagerness to retain the services of both Alesi and the less excitable Gerhard Berger. This appears to preclude Hill, though when Alesi aired the view that he would rather be a racing driver than a taxi driver, Briatore was moved to comment tersely: "He'd be better off watching Berger's times and shutting up." Alesi himself is adamant. "Formula One is always a lot of rumours and the reality is that I have a contract for two years with Benetton. The situation is very clear."

At McLaren, Ron Dennis was also reiterative. "Our position on drivers is clear: our objective next week is to discuss, with Mercedes-Benz, the options available. Whatever the outcome is, it will be based on the choice of the best available driver." Dennis continued: "One impression that I would like to correct is that we have had a dialogue with Damon. In respect of him driving for the team, this is not true and at no stage has money been discussed."

Nigel Mansell's attempts to race for McLaren last year confirm that any prejudice can be subjugated to the need of the hour, but Dennis's favourite for the drive is still thought to be the present incumbent, Mika Hakkinen, who set the fastest time in free practice yesterday morning.

Despite Hill's strike rate of 20 wins in 64 starts - beaten only by Juan Manuel Fangio and Jim Clark - he appears to have a seriously limited number of options. The most realistic is Jordan, a team yet to look a likely winner. Hill's manager, Michael Breen, who admitted his surprise when Frank Williams announced his intention to withdraw from negotiations for 1997, appears to hold a weak hand despite comments to the contrary in last Sunday's press conference.

Hill, however, has one great champion, and an unlikely one at that: Bernie Ecclestone. Formula One's supremo persuaded Williams to take Jacques Villeneuve on board, but earlier this year he professed his surprise at the improvement in Hill's driving, and said: "I'm very impressed with the way in which he has raised his game."

And Ecclestone, having not long negotiated a $70m television deal with ITV, was furious with Williams in Hungary when it became apparent that he might not have the leading British driver in a top team. In Ecclestone's ideal scenario, Hill will take Alesi's place chez Benetton, and Alesi will go to Jordan. Peugeot would like that, too.

Against this far from unusual backdrop of rumour and counter-rumour, Hill has conducted himself with sublime dignity as he stares possible obscurity in the face, and though he had a couple of spins on Friday he did not let it upset his equilibrium. Cynics detect the fruits of his new image consultant's recommendations in Hill's public behaviour and that of those close to him, but on track it has been business as usual. He could clinch the world championship this afternoon, and the cerebral Hill will not need inputs from Breen or any number of spin doctors to work out that if he fails to deliver the goods his chances of future employment will be dangerously jeopardised. In Formula One you are a winner, or you are nothing.

Yesterday Hill was a winner, confidently wresting pole position away from his partner and rival, Jacques Villeneuve. In the morning the Canadian blamed Pedro Diniz after the Brazilian inadvertently eased him off the road and lost him valuable time, describing him as "one of those idiot drivers who shouldn't be in Formula One". But in the afternoon he blamed himself when he misjudged braking for a chicane while passing the backmarker Pedro Lamy.

Hill made no mistakes, and after Villeneuve had made the early running the Briton withstood counter-attacks from his team-mate and from Michael Schumacher. The world champion thrust his Ferrari round with his customary brio to stave off the challenge of McLaren and Benetton, but said: "For some reason we couldn't get the performance from the car that we did yesterday."

"This is a particularly satisfying pole position," Hill said, "for a number of reasons . . . it shows that I haven't lost anything as a driver. I think I performed as I have all season."

And he laughed at suggestions of a non-aggression pact with Villeneuve on the run to the tight first chicane. "I think that would be a pretty pointless conversation. There will be a fight, it's going to be a race."

It is no longer just the world championship that is at stake for Hill. It is his very future as a racing driver.