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Motor Racing: Accident-prone Irvine slides closer to ban

JODY SCHECKTER came to mind here this weekend. The South African won the World Championship in 1979, but his first year in grand prix racing marked him as something of an enfant terrible. It would appear that Eddie Irvine has inherited that mantle.

The latest incident to blight the Ulsterman's turbulent season occurred on Friday afternoon, when he was involved in a collision with Damon Hill which left the Englishman's Williams-Renault upside down in a gravel bed.

'It was one of those instances where I knew Irvine had lost it, as I saw him go off in front of me, and really there was nowhere I could go to miss him,' said Hill. 'The accident was unavoidable as he didn't mean to go off in front of me - poor old Eddie has had a bit of a rough time recently.'

Roberto Causo, the FIA steward, took a rather less benign view, and warned the Ulsterman that he will lose his licence if he transgresses again - he is already racing under a suspended ban after putting Johnny Herbert's Lotus into a spin at the start of the Italian Grand Prix - but this was just a racing incident.

'I can hardly believe it. I can't even have a simple spin.' Irvine said. 'I ran a bit wide and spun, and landed up going backwards down the track. Damon tried to go round me but was launched over my wheel. There wasn't a lot either of us could do about it.'

The accident ended Hill's challenge for pole position. Only minutes earlier Gerhard Berger had set the fastest time, but as he slowed and headed towards the pits the Austrian indulged in a little bit of gamesmanship, using just enough of the track to frustrate the quick lap that Hill had embarked upon. It was during his next attempt at a fast time that he came to grief.

Track conditions were slower yesterday, which prevented any significant changes in the order, but Hill remains optimistic for today's race.

Like the Italian Grand Prix, this is one he must win to close the points deficit to Michael Schumacher, who is still serving the two-race ban imposed on him when he ignored a black flag at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in July. That, however, may be easier said than done given the form Berger has been showing.

The Ferrari driver starts from the 10th pole position of his career, and is hungry for a second victory to back up his success in the German Grand Prix, which confirmed that the Italian team is finally back on the right track.

Behind them, Benetton struggled with Jos Verstappen 10th and J J Lehto 14th, and it was Hill's team-mate, David Coulthard, who led the pursuit, with Mika Hakkinen and Martin Brundle in the McLaren-Peugeots, Jean Alesi in the other Ferrari, and Ukyo Katayama in the Tyrrell-Yamaha.

Benetton's lack of pace has done little to allay the suspicions that have dogged the team for much of the season. But whatever the truth of the matter they sorely miss Schumacher's speed and commitment. The German returns at Jerez in Spain in two weeks, to face not only Hill but also Nigel Mansell. He cannot come back soon enough for Benetton's managing director, Flavio Briatore, who has watched his team's points advantage being whittled away. If Hill wins today, he will move within a point of Schumacher with three races to go. At Monza a fortnight ago he drove to his seventh Formula One victory, but it clearly rankles that some saw that as a qualified success.

'I won 10 points there,' Hill said on Friday, 'and that was what I aimed for. It's exactly the same here. The fight doesn't begin until Michael and I are level, that's when the gloves can come off.' Scheckter would have applauded that bit of pragmatism.

Ferrari were fined pounds 33,000 yesterday and given a one-race ban, suspended for three races, for vandalising a door to get out of the Estoril circuit. It is believed 13 Ferrari mechanics broke down a locked door to get out of the track late on Friday. Ferrari have offered to pay for the repairs.

(Photograph omitted)