Moraleboost for Hill

French Grand Prix: Schumacher's determined late charge fails to dislodge high-performance Briton from pole position
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The Independent Online
AS THE Benetton came scrabbling out of the final corner, lunging for the finish line, Damon Hill's face remained an impassive mask. Only Michael Schumacher stood between him and a third consecutive pole position for the French Grand Prix, but as the German's time was relayed to him - 1min 17.725sec - the immobility gave way to a grin of savage relief.

"I'm especially pleased to be on pole again here," said Hill, whose 1:17.225 lap had withstood Schumacher's late assault. "We have only half done the job, because pole position doesn't really mean much and we have to win the race, but it's good for morale and confidence."

After his disastrous Canadian Grand Prix three weeks earlier, Hill and Williams have been testing solidly, and though both his and his team-mate David Coulthard's cars bore only small changes, their net worth amounted to a performance boost that has put Williams back in the position it enjoyed for the first three races of the season.

Schumacher, however, is still in contention. "I thought I had something in reserve, but I had to fight too much oversteer and we lost a little speed on the straight. I also had Mika Hakkinen in front of me on that last lap. I think I could have got very close," the German said.

Behind them, Coulthard, fitter after a recent operation for tonsillitis, showed the ability to match Hill's speed at the intermediate points round the lap, but each time something happened to spoil the final section and he had to be satisfied with third place, ahead of Jean Alesi.

Ferrari have not impressed so far this weekend, and in final qualifying Alesi suffered from time lost to a hydraulic failure in the morning. He and his team-mate Gerhard Berger, whose Ferrari was never well balanced, had to watch Hill, Coulthard and Schumacher exploit more powerful Renault engines.

They are separated by Rubens Barrichello and Olivier Panis. Barrichello was delighted with the performance of his Jordan-Peugeot, while Panis made full use of the Ligier team's home track to take sixth place on the grid. A late improvement elevated Hakkinen's McLaren-Mercedes to eighth, ahead of Martin Brundle, who crashed his Ligier and had to borrow Panis's, and Johnny Herbert, whose Benetton lacked the grip of Schumacher's car.

After qualifying, a controversy arose as Schumacher explained how seven of his allocated tyres were accidentally damaged while Goodyear technicians were checking their temperatures late on Friday.

"We only have five sets for [the race]," he said. "We need one set for the morning warm-up, one is too worn, and I'm not prepared to risk the damaged sets."

Schumacher's damaged tyres lost only four pounds of pressure overnight and elsewhere in the paddock rivals believe that the claim is a ruse to obtain two fresh sets of tyres - which could be highly advantageous in the race - by political guile.

"The Goodyear engineer has admitted that he left the probe too long and caused the damage," Ross Brawn, the Benetton technical director, said, "but the stewards say there is no precedent for replacements. We have only four usable sets of tyres left, and that will affect our choice of race strategy.

"There is an element of risk in using the damaged tyres and we are being disadvantaged by a mistake that was not of our making." Discussions with the stewards continued overnight.

This has been an unsettled week, with growing concern for the long-term future following the demise of the Simtek team since Monaco, as it joins the once great Lotus, and Larrousse, on the list of financial casualties.

Early last week, the international federation dropped another depth charge on the impecunious tail-end teams when it announced that it would be tightening the parameters for qualifying in 1996. At present all qualifiers must lap within 110 per cent of the man on pole position; next year the cut- off will be 107 per cent.

On Thursday, gendarmes impounded Minardi's equipment after a dispute over unpaid debts from 1993, but a compromise was reached and the team was allowed to participate.