Hill's timely show of strength

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Motor racing: Damon Hill took back the initiative from his upstart team-mate, Jacques Villeneuve, yesterday as the two Williams-Renaults continued to dominate practice for the Australian Grand Prix, but neither driver placed too much importance on their performance.

There was a curious lack of tension on another day of unofficial testing, as Melbourne continued its laborious advance on today's official qualifying, which will decide grid positions. Hill said: "Tomorrow is what matters. What we did today is useful, but ultimately won't help me start from the front row."

Villeneuve echoed the sentiment, claiming not to have gone for an all- out effort. The drivers were reserving their energies for the first of the new-style one-hour qualifying shoot-outs introduced under new regulations for 1996.

Jean Alesi complained of a lack of front-end grip but was the closest challenger in his Benetton-Renault, while the world champion, Michael Schumacher, improved after a troubled start on Thursday. He was fastest of all in the morning, with his team-mate, Eddie Irvine, third, but though they dropped to fourth and seventh respectively in the afternoon the German was satisfied that the Italian team had made significant progress. He was, however, cautious.

"The situation is that we have had no real test running, as far as developing the car is concerned. We have been able to do a little bit of work to sort out the problems we have encountered, but there are still little things which you have to change and make reliable. We are pretty much on schedule, but we are not in a position now to think about good results and finishing races. We haven't done a proper race simulation with the new car, so it would probably be a bit of a surprise if everything goes in the normal way."

The team's progress is nevertheless regarded as highly promising for future races, given Williams' markedly greater test mileage, and Schumacher added: "It's exactly what I expected when I came to Ferrari. I'm pleased about th principal situation. The base is all right. There are a lot of areas potentially we can build on. I predicted that the gap to the front row teams was going to be around a second - which it is right now."

His Ferrari predecessor, Gerhard Berger, who ended the day sixth fastest in the second Benetton after splitting the Ferraris in the morning, was the centre of mild controversy following comments he was alleged to have made about two corners on the 5.27km circuit in Melbourne's Albert Park.

His apparent criticism had provoked mischievous comments from the vice- president of marketing for the sport's governing body, FIA, Bernie Ecclestone, who said: "I'm surprised that he would say that, given he goes so slow."

Berger later set the record straight: "I said that some points are a bit critical, and it was then written down as 'dangerous'. For a street circuit it's very quick, and I think when you have a map or drawing in front of you, you try to make the best run-off areas and safety points.

"Then when you go round for the first time in a racing car, you find out that your line and speed are different from what you expected. You find different places that you didn't think were dangerous on the drawing. But apart from those two corners about which I have reservations, it's a great circuit."

The qualifying shoot-out promises to inject some much-needed drama, but one potential blight faded as threats of protest action receded last night. Though the "Save Albert Park" campaigners picketed the black-tie grand prix ball in the centre of the city, the race organisers won a victory when the Supreme Court upheld their ejection on Thursday of four ticket- buying protestors who had hung anti-GP banners from their seats in the main grandstand.

Jenni Chandler, leader of the minority group campaign to have the grand prix transferred elsewhere on environmental grounds, admitted that it is now unlikely that the threatened "international incident" will go ahead during tomorrow's race.

Practice times from Melbourne 1 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 32.159sec (128.696mph)

2 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1:32.396

3 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 1:32.475

4 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:33.007

5 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot, 1:33.480

6 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault 1:33.528

7 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:33.592

8 J Verstappen (Neth) Footwork-Hart 1:33.640

9 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:33.846

10 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:33.935

11 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:33.992

12 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford 1:34.068

13 M Brundle (GB) Jordan-Puegeot 1:34.077

14 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1:34.156

15 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Ford 1:34.664

16 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:34.857

17 R Rosset (Bra) Footwork-Hart 1:35.011

18 P Diniz (Bra) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1:35.121

19 P Lamy (Por) Minardi-Ford 1:35.145

20 G Fisichella (It) Minardi-Ford 1:35.477

21 L Badoer (It) Forti-Ford 1:39.141

22 A Montermini (It) Forti-Ford, 1:43.506