Hill's line backed by Ecclestone

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The Independent Online
Motor racing

Running out of races and in danger of running out of ideas: Damon Hill's Formula One world championship plight becomes ever gloomier with every fateful turn. His latest collision with Michael Schumacher, in Sunday's Italian Grand Prix here, may well have amounted to another opportunity missed, as well as another public scar he could have done without.

It seems no matter what the circumstance, Schumacher has the ability to stay one step ahead. As at Silverstone, Hill appeared to have Schumacher at his mercy, and again both were taken out, with the Englishman generally perceived as the guilty party.

Sunday's incident involved a third party, a hapless Japanese, Taki Inoue. Schumacher, in the classic way of all smart drivers, is adept at using back markers as buffers to buy time. He passed Inoue to the left and then the Footwork-Hart driver moved across Hill before allowing the Englishman to take him on the right.

By the time that manoeuvre had been completed, the Williams-Renault was right behind the slowing Benetton-Renault approaching a chicane, and the onus was on Hill. He ran into the back of Schumacher, sending both in the gravel trap.

They remain 15 points apart and now only five races remain. Hill was handed a one-race ban, suspended for one grand prix, but there are those who suspect he may have been lured into a trap.

Bernie Ecclestone, for instance, the commercial brain of Formula One, offers an intriguing thought: "It was obvious Damon was all over him and it was just a matter of time before he got past, but if Michael braked earlier and harder than he had been doing, he may well have done it knowing full well it would put Damon out without affecting his own chances. And if the result of the incident was an advantage of Schumacher, I wonder whether it might have been an act of gamesmanship by Michael.

"It's pretty evident the fewer races Damon has to win the championship is to Michael's advantage. Braking early and hard could be a legitimate tactic, but its effect could be again to Schumacher's advantage. It would be extremely difficult without seeing the telemetry to make a final judgment."

On one aspect, Ecclestone has little doubt: "Inoue was to blame for setting up the situation. He is a complete clown and idiot, who is right out of his depth."

Ecclestone brings up another point for his fellow administrators to ponder. "Millions of pounds have been spent on the safety of cars and circuits, and maybe we've made it too safe because drivers seem to be taking risks they wouldn't have taken before. When you get the basic human element of ruthlessness in drivers, there is potential danger when they think they are bullet proof."

Schumacher and Hill resume their contest in Portugal on Sunday week, when both will be racing under threat of suspension. To Schumacher's dismay, he must endure a further two grands prix knowing a false step could put him out of action, the penalty for his "weaving" in Belgium. Not that Ecclestone is deeply depressed by this latest controversy. It has given his roadshow more airtime and many more column inches. Business is looking up.

Almost lost in Sunday's pandemonium were the contrasting and ironic fortunes of Johnny Herbert and David Coulthard. The former, a man discarded and seeking employment, left here with his second win of a bizarre season and third place in the championship. The latter, apparently a man in demand, spun off on the parade lap of the original race, was amazed to be given a reprieve, and spun out again after the restart with a broken wheel bearing.

But while Herbert's victory was inherited after the demise of five more likely winners, Coulthard feels his dominance of practice and the early part of the grand prix confirmed his emergence as a genuine force in Formula One. Coulthard leaves Williams at the end of the season. His aides maintain he could have stayed, but was not satisfied with the retainer offered. McLaren-Mercedes are understood to have an option on his services until the end of the month, but if Alain Prost decides to make a comeback with the team, the Scot will be more interested in joining Schumacher at Ferrari.