Hill storms ahead to confirm class

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Motor racing


reports from Sao Paulo

Wet or dry, Damon Hill stamped his mark on the Brazilian Grand Prix yesterday. This was no replay of Melbourne, where he battled team-mate Jacques Villeneuve all the way. This time Hill and his Williams-Renault were in a class of their own and left the field for dead even though a rainstorm just before the start upset expectations of a broiling event.

When the skies clouded and the heavens opened, it was not just a drop of rain, but a proper Latin cloudburst that left the front straight awash. There was just time before the start to enable drivers to acclimatise to the new conditions, and suddenly the race seemed to have become a lottery. Hill, however, had other ideas.

Watched by the football legend Pele, he and Rubens Barrichello were slow getting off the grid, and as Hill moved left to defend his position from the Brazilian, Villeneuve momentarily drew level and took the initiative on the outside line going into the first corner. But Hill reasserted himself at the bottom of the slope that follows and muscled clear, leaving Villeneuve to tussle with Barrichello and a charging Jean Alesi. At the end of the first lap he had an advantage of almost six seconds, and Alesi had deposed Barrichello to take third place.

Hill was in majestic form and confidently extended his lead despite the slippery conditions, as Villeneuve protected him from Alesi and Barrichello as the track began to dry slightly. Only a little further back German rivals Michael Schumacher and Heinz-Harald Frentzen also staged a wheel- to-wheel battle that lasted until Frentzen's engine broke on lap 37.

The efforts of Barrichello to live up to his countrymen's expectations of him enlivened the race, but though he managed to pass Alesi on three occasions, each time the Frenchman squeezed back ahead, and later pulled clear.

Villeneuve finally came unstuck on his 27th lap, just after he had been balked by a backmarker. Alesi dived alongside and pounced into second place, and as the Canadian attempted to retaliate he lost control of his Williams and spun into retirement in a gravel bed.

Free of his closest challengers, Alesi began pushing after Hill, who was by now 17.5sec ahead. The gap shrank steadily, but Hill and Williams were judging their pit strategy to perfection, and got a breather when Alesi dropped back behind Barrichello after a moment on lap 32.

As half distance approached, Hill looked untouchable once again. When Barrichello stopped for fuel and tyres on lap 34, Alesi once again had a clear track to the Briton, who was clearly intending to pit stop only once. As the Williams team prepared to receive him with the race's first slick tyres on lap 40, Hill's lead was 14.2sec over the Frenchman. The stop took 11.2sec, as he embarked on the great gamble of dry tyres on a track surface that was still very wet in places. Schumacher followed suit the same lap.

Alesi took the lead, just avoided repeating his Melbourne collision with Eddie Irvine's Ferrari as he lapped the Ulsterman, and then made his own single stop for fuel and slick tyres at the end of lap 42, surrendering the lead.

Hill's apparent gamble was immediately vindicated as he lopped six seconds off the previous fastest lap, but it was still a delicate matter of keeping on the narrow dry line, until the track suddenly dried almost completely by lap 50.

Over the remaining laps he was equal to Alesi's repeated challenge, the two separated by more than 20sec. His only tense moments came as he lapped Barrichello, who himself was thirsting after Schumacher's third place. The Brazilian passed the world champion on lap 60 going into the first corner, ran wide, lost third place again, and then unfortunately threw away an excellent day's work by spinning into the gravel bed that had claimed Villeneuve.

Schumacher thus finished on the podium for Ferrari, ahead of a race-long fight between the Finns Mika Hakkinen and Mika Salo, but the day was Hill's. When he lapped Schumacher in the closing stages, it simply endorsed his superiority. On current form, a world championship beckons.

Read Damon Hill's exclusive column in the Independent tomorrow

Brazilian Grand Prix

1 D Hill (Williams-Renault) 10pts

2 J Alesi (Benetton) 6pts

3 M Schumacher (Ferrari) 4pts

4 M Hakkinen (McLaren) 3pts

5 M Salo (Tyrrell) 2pts

6 O Panis (Ligier) 1pt

Drivers' championship

1 D Hill 20pts

2= J Villeneuve 6

J Alesi 6

4 M Hakkinen 5

5= E Irvine 4

M Schumacher 4

7= G Berger 3

M Salo 3

9 O Panis 1

Constructors' championship

1 Williams-Renault 26

2 Benetton-Renault 9

3 Ferrari 8

4 McLaren-Mercedes 5

5 Tyrrell-Yamaha 3

6 Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1