Local hero Hill turns screw

British Grand Prix: The gloom heightens for Schumacher as German's fans witness the unacceptable face of nationalism
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The Independent Online
The recent meeting between England and Germany may not have been notable for its outcome, but the sportsmanship it engendered was only marginally eroded by discordant notes of organised thuggery. When the two nations met yesterday at Silverstone in the personages of Damon Hill and Michael Schu- macher, each responded to claims of vandalism against the Schumacher Fan Club bus.

"Everywhere I go I see fans of different nationalities standing together, waving flags, and I think we have a sport with a good atmosphere," Schumacher said. Hill was unequivocal. "I want nothing to do with misplaced nationalism, jingoism or whatever."

Nationalism there was, in spades, as the crowd celebrated Hill's 17th pole position, after another shoot-out with his Williams-Renault team- mate Jacques Villeneuve, but it was good-natured not xenophobic.

After his defeat at Hill's hands on Canadian soil a month ago, Villeneuve desperately wanted to turn the tables, but though his initial effort put him on target, Hill surged when it mattered.

Schumacher wrestled his Ferrari to a temporary pole position, but his workload at the wheel was just too great as he corrected continual directional aberrations. When the Williams-Renaults took to the track they were in a different class.

As he had on Friday, Villeneuve upstaged Hill initially. McLaren and Benetton struggled vainly to get close even to Schumacher, as Hill and Villeneuve retired to their garages. Then the second round fell to Hill as he became the only driver to push below the 1min 27sec barrier with 1min 26.875sec. A subsequent lap was aborted because of traffic, but it mattered not, for Villeneuve's best was a tenth slower than his previous best.

With eight minutes left, Schumacher came out for another bout with the wayward Ferrari. But though he pushed the car round faster than it wanted to go, there was no way that the status quo would be challenged. "When I saw that [Mika] Hakkinen wasn't going to challenge my time, I decided to save my tyres for the race," he said.

That left it to a final shoot-out between Frank's boys. Villeneuve pared a tenth from his time and just failed to breach 1min 27sec, but that was as good as it got. Just to rub it in, Hill banged in another sub 1min 27sec lap.

Villeneuve was again resigned and outwardly placid. "The first run was pretty good, but the engine was going down a bit in the afternoon. I don't know why. But the car was pretty good in corners. It was gonna be close."

Only Hakkinen, in the improving McLaren-Mercedes, came anywhere close to the leading trio, but the Benetton drivers Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger enjoyed no respite from their misery with disappointing fifth and seventh places either side of Rubens Barrichello in the leading Jordan-Peugeot. Hill's fellow countrymen had little to celebrate, with Martin Brundle eighth, a perplexed David Coulthard struggling in ninth just ahead of an equally unhappy Eddie Irvine, and the 1995 winner Johnny Herbert left but to dream in his increasingly unimpressive Sauber-Ford down in 13th place.

Last year, Hill's overtures regarding future remuneration preceded a race which turned out to be a nightmare when an ambitious overtaking manoeuvre brought him into contact with Schumacher. He joked on Friday that he could not remember that catastrophe, but as far as financial wrangling is concerned this weekend has followed a similar pattern with thinly veiled suggestions of what he will require to sign as World Champion for a fifth consecutive season.

Frank Williams offered laconic comment on Friday. "I got a lot of press cuttings on my desk yesterday morning, all saying the same things. I thought, 'Damon is sending me a message.' But the cuttings fell off the desk into the bin, as they always do."

Sources within Williams suggest that, even if Hill does win the World Championship, the team's management will not be bullied into a dramatic pay hike.

This afternoon Hill's only concern will be adding a seventh victory to his tally. England expects, and he has always been a man aware of his duties. "Pole position isn't so important here," he said, "but for sure this is going to be a race of tactics." On, and off, the track, it would seem.

Jordan were fined $10,000 after qualifying for irregularities in its refuelling routine in the pit lane. There was nobody standing by with a fire extinguisher when one of its cars was refuelled.

l Korea is poised to host its first grand prix in 1998 after the Formula One Constructors' Association announced yesterday that a "commercial conditional agreement" had been agreed with an engineering company to build a circuit on the south-west coastal area of the Korean peninsula.