McLaren are Hill's favoured option

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The Independent Online
Damon Hill as good as admitted here yesterday that McLaren-Mercedes are his preferred option for next year. The problem is that he risks being stranded in another uncompetitive car by holding out for what he considers will be a potentially championship challenging opportunity.

The reigning champion's declared intention to return to the front line of Formula One appears already to have cost him a job with Sauber-Petronas. He visited the team's factory in Switzerland last week, expressed himself suitably impressed and had talks with officials.

He was not, however, prepared to commit himself at this stage and the team are understood to have said they were unwilling to wait indefinitely and would be looking elsewhere.

In truth, Sauber were never at the top of Hill's shopping list. He repeated, in the build up to Sunday's Hungarian Grand Prix, at the scene of his maiden victory, his desire to carefully weigh up his options and not rush into a decision. He maintained next year's change of regulations could throw up other front runners, providing imaginative designers with new opportunities to exploit.

Then, significantly, he went on: "But it will be difficult to overturn the natural order in Formula One. Ferrari, McLaren, Williams - these are likely to be the ideal places to be."

Since Williams, the team who unloaded him last year, are unlikely to recall him and Ferrari already have Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine in place for next season, that leaves McLaren as his obvious choice.

McLaren have assured their current drivers, David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen, they will be given every opportunity to justify new contracts for 1998, but their managing director, Ron Dennis, has asked Hill to sign for no one before speaking to him again.

Dennis wishes to hold as many driver options for as long as possible and Hill could wait in vain. It is a gamble he seems prepared to take for a little longer, if not as long as Dennis may like. Hill is doubtless hoping the arrival of Williams' former designer, Adrian Newey, at McLaren will serve to reinforce his claims.

Hill said: "I worked with Adrian for six years at Williams and have a lot of respect for him, but it is not his team. It's McLarens and Mercedes. Ultimately the decision is down to them. McLaren have got to be regarded as a strong bet for next year. I'm waiting to see what develops and hope it won't be too long."

Hill talked of the progress made by Arrows-Yamaha in recent weeks and the satisfaction he has gained from the development, but he added: "I know I can give my best in a front running situation. I had that opportunity with Williams in `96 and I ran at the front. I still have the motivation and I know I can do it again."