Hill strengthens title position

Motor racing
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The Independent Online
Rumours of Formula One's new life are grossly exaggerated. Damon Hill won yesterday's French Grand Prix here with consummate ease and has the world championship more firmly in his grip.

Hill has retained the sharp edge of his performance by maintaining the opposition would grow stronger, but Williams-Renault are as dominant as ever and the Englishman can anticipate being confirmed as champion later this summer, perhaps before the end of next month.

Jacques Villeneuve underlined the superiority of Williams and the paucity of the competition with second place, yet never threatened his partner. The Benetton-Renault pair, Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger crossed the line nose to tail, third and fourth, a further 38 seconds back.

It might have been a race, possibly a different result, if Ferrari's propensity for the absurd had not stretched Michael Schumacher's patience to near breaking point. The German, leading the parade lap round to take his designated place on pole, had to pull up half-way round with a blown engine.

Schumacher, who started the previous race from the back of the grid after his car failed to get away and ultimately retired when his drive shaft fell off in the pit lane, said: "At first I was angry."

The outgoing champion went on, "I was angry above all because in a few seconds I saw all the hard work I have done together with the team go up in smoke. But I have calmed down now. It is at times like these you must control your emotions and stay cool and rational."

At least, Schumacher should have been home in time to watch his compatriots in the European Championship football final but any prospect of a contest here went with him. Hill, who qualified second, emerged from the clouds of smoke and spewing oil to start at the head of the field and was effectively in the clear for the rest of the afternoon.

His sixth victory of the season extends his championship lead over Villeneuve to 25 points. Schumacher is 37 points adrift. Williams have 101 points in the constructors' championship table, Ferrari and Benetton 35.

It was Hill's first success here and the 50th for the Williams-Renault combination. A 51st, in the British Grand Prix, at Silverstone on Sunday week, looks almost inevitable.

Hill, smiling ear to ear, enjoyed reliving Schumacher's misfortune with a hint of mischief. "Amazed... disbelief... stunned," he hammed it up.

In slightly more serious mode, he said: "Before the race you think of the various permutations and then when the engine in front of you goes up it's clearly going to be a different one. I was a little concerned about the oil his engine was throwing out and had to back off. It's also easy to be distracted and I still had to concentrate on getting everything right."

The opening seconds removed any such anxiety. Hill swung the Williams into the vacant path on the right side of the circuit and claimed the first corner. He was to be unchallenged throughout, conceding the lead only for the three laps between his and Villeneuve's first pit stops.

Hill has the championship at his mercy, but Villeneuve pledged: "I'm not going to give up till it's over."

Second place was a comforting conclusion to a traumatic weekend. He had a spectacular crash in qualifying on Saturday and his crew worked until 3 o'clock yesterday morning rebuilding the car.

Villeneuve overtook Alesi to earn the six points, otherwise it was a familiar procession of the leading cars. Berger closed in on his team- mate late in the race but made no authentic attempt at a pass.

Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard gave McLaren-Mercedes fifth and sixth places.Martin Brundle finished eigthth in his Jordan-Peugeot and Johnny Herbert 11th in a Sauber-Ford, but was later disqualified for a technical infringement.

Eddie Irvine, in the second Ferrari, had a slightly more arduous working day than Schumacher. He brought his car into the pits with gearbox problems at the end of the fifth lap and retired. "There was nothing else I could do," he said.

Jean Todt, Ferrari's sporting director, concluded: "This was the blackest day of my long career in motor sport."

Some were suggesting justice had been seen to be done. Irvine had been relegated to the back of the grid, also because of a technical infringement, after qualifying and suspicions had been raised about the legality of Schumacher's car. By the time officials got to it, however, they found no incriminating evidence.

Magny-Cours details

1 D Hill (GB, Williams-Renault)

1hr 36min 28.795sec (118.864mph)

2 J Villeneuve (Can, Williams-Renault)

+8.127sec

3 J Alesi (Fr, Benetton-Renault)

+46.442

4 G Berger (Aut, Benetton-Renault)

+46.859

5 M Hakkinen (Fin, McLaren-Mercedes)

+1min 02.774sec

6 D Coulthard (GB, McLaren-Mercedes)

+1 lap

7 O Panis (Fr, Ligier-Mugen-Honda); 8 M Brundle (GB, Jordan-Peugeot); 9 R Barrichello (Bra, Jordan-Peugeot) all +1 lap; 10 M Salo (Fin, Tyrrell- Yamaha) +2 laps; 11 R Rosset (Bra, Footwork-Hart); 12 P Lamy (Por, Minardi- Ford) both +3 laps. Not classified (did not finish): 13 H-H Frentzen (Ger, Sauber-Ford) 56 laps completed; 14 U Katayama (Japan, Tyrrell-Yamaha) 33; 15 L Badoer (It, Forti-Ford) 29; 16 P Diniz (Bra, Ligier-Mugen-Honda) 28; 17 J Verstappen (Neth, Footwork-Hart) 10; 18 E Irvine (GB, Ferrari) 5; 19 G Fisichella (It, Minardi-Ford) 2; 20 A Montermini (It, Forti-Ford) 2. Disqualified: J Herbert (GB, Sauber-Ford). Did not start: M Schumacher (Ger, Ferrari).

Fastest lap: Villenueve 1:18.610 (121.644mph).

Drivers' championship: 1 Hill 63 pts; 2 Villeneuve 38; 3 Schumacher 26; 4 Alesi 25; 5 Coulthard 14; 6 Hakkinen 12; 7 Panis 11; 8 Berger 10; 9 Irvine 9; 10 Barrichello 7; 11 Frentzen 6; 12 Salo 5; 13 Herbert 4; 14 Brundle 2; 15= Verstappen, Diniz 1.

Constructors' championship: 1 Williams-Renault 101; 2= Ferrari, Benetton- Renault 35; 4 McLaren-Mercedes 26; 5 Ligier-Mugen-Honda 12; 6 Sauber-Ford 10; 7 Jordan-Peugeot 9; 8 Tyrrell-Yamaha 5; 9 Footwork-Hart 1.

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