Hill's L-plates for Schumacher

David Tremayne in Estoril studies the job prospects of a champion- in-waiting
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The Independent Online
IF THE jungle drums in Estoril are playing the right beat there is really only one seat that Damon Hill will consider for 1997, as all other potential avenues have been blocked.

Leadership of the Jordan-Peugeot team beckons, even though Jackie Stewart is making a strong effort to attract him to his own fledgling enterprise.

This weekend Jordan confirmed the continued support from Benson & Hedges and the signing of Michael Schumacher's precocious 21-year-old brother Ralf, but any announcement on Hill is unlikely before the final race, in Japan on 13 October.

While everyone around him appears more certain of his future, Hill seems outwardly relaxed. "I've had a lot of discussions and phone calls," he admitted.

"Much of that is confidential and I don't want to divulge too much. It wouldn't be right to breach any confidentiality. I've got a lot of things to look at."

He spoke with humour of his feelings were he, hypothetically of course, to partner his main rival's sibling at Jordan. "At one point I thought the world of F1 could only bear one Schumacher. Until this year I didn't even know Michael had a brother, so it all caught me by surprise."

Since Monza Hill's situation has distilled. In Italy Bernie Ecclestone's desire to see him in a top-line car seemed likely to persuade Benetton chief Flavio Briatore to ditch the mercurial Jean Alesi in favour of Hill, provided he wins the world championship.

Since then it appears that no less a QC than George Carman (who acted for Benetton back in 1994) has advised that Alesi's contract is breakable only via its hefty buy-out clause, said to be $15m. That is considerably more than Briatore and Renault would be willing to pay for Hill, even if he has won the engine manufacturer more grands prix than anyone else.

This backdrop to his world championship aspirations can only be unsettling to Hill's emotional resources, at a time when he needs clarity and focus to steer him towards the title that seemed his for the asking at mid-season.

During a prolonged verbal skirmish on Friday, ending in Hill's favour, an edge crept into his voice as he said: "Hypothetically, I'd prefer to drive for Williams. But in reality I don't have that option, so we could bat the hypothetical thing around for a long time. I'm talking to a number of people and that's it."

For Jordan the benefits of Hill's presence are clear with or without the world title: Benson & Hedges would be happy with the top British driver, who would enhance credibility and bring intimate knowledge of the strengths of Williams and Renault. For Hill the advantages are less defined, but his is scarcely the strongest hand Fate could have dealt.