Motor racing: Beaten Hill closes in on title

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It must be something in the water. Michael Schumacher has been a sensation at Spa ever since his Formula One baptism here five years ago, and yesterday he won the Belgian Grand Prix for the third time.

He also finished first in 1994, only to be disqualified because of an overworn skid plate. Some record, but then this, as they all tell you, is a driver's circuit, and Schumacher is the supreme driver of his generation.

His victory this time ironically earned the appreciation of his usual adversary, Damon Hill, who was hugely relieved to see the German fend off Jacques Villeneuve, the Englishman's Williams-Renault team-mate and only rival for the world championship.

Villeneuve's second place was itself a bonus for Hill. His fifth place salvaged two points which may yet prove crucial to the outcome of the title contest.

Hill now leads by 13 points with three races remaining and will be crowned champion in Italy, in a fortnight, if he wins the grand prix there and Villeneuve is no higher than fourth.

The equation might have been very different had Williams not brought upon themselves more confusion over their pit stops. With the safety car out following an accident involving Jos Verstappen, Hill sensed the opportunity to take on fuel and fresh rubber, and the team gave him permission to come in.

Unfortunately for Hill, the pit crew were ready to receive Villeneuve, who had misunderstood his radioed instruction to pit and was still on the track. Williams aborted Hill's stop but by then he was approaching the entrance to the pit lane and had to rejoin battle in 13th place. Adrian Newey, the team's chief designer, said: "I made a mistake."

If the mix-up put Hill out of contention, it also shifted the initiative at the front of the field from Villeneuve to Schumacher and, in the long run, may prove even more costly for the younger partner.

Villeneuve, who as race leader was entitled to pit before Hill, said: "We lost the race with the pit stops. The guys were ready for me and I couldn't understand what I was told."

Hill, who complained about his switch in strategy in Hungary a fortnight ago, was at pains to stress here that he was not criticising the team.

He did, however, state: "We have underperformed. It was not the race I expected. We will have to give the situation serious thought between now and Monza.

"I'm not despondent. I'm relieved. At one stage I thought I would get no points and Jacques all of them, but he didn't win and I picked up two points. I would have been upset if he had won because I fought hard for two points. I'm just grateful I've got a 13-point lead and there are fewer races left."

Villeneuve was equally conscious of that. "To beat Damon by four points a race from now on is not enough," he calculated.

Schumacher interjected: "We can organise it for the next race." The outgoing champion was in high spirits. His second win in a Ferrari which had been hopelessly outpaced in qualifying provided more compelling evidence of his sublime talent.

He gave himself a chance by beating Hill to the first corner and staying on Villeneuve's tail. The appearance of the safety car coincided with Schumacher's scheduled first pit stop and by the time Williams had sorted themselves out, the Ferrari was tucked in behind the McLaren-Mercedes of David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen and in position to take the lead when they made their stops.

Villeneuve could still have regained the advantage after his second stop and although he catapulted the Williams out of the pits just ahead of Schumacher, the Ferrari had the greater momentum and shot in front. Villeneuve closed and harried, but Schumacher was unruffled and ultimately the challenge was broken.

"It's like Hollywood life," Schumacher said. "I thought after my accident on Friday that it might be a good omen like last year, when I qualified 16th and won. Even so, I would not have put a penny on it after we were so far behind Williams in qualifying.

"Spa is particularly lucky for me. Perhaps it is because I can use my potential here. There are more high-speed corners and that's why I particularly like this circuit. It's especially nice when you are not winning so often."

Hakkinen was third, Jean Alesi fourth and Gerhard Berger, his Benetton- Renault team- mate, sixth. Coulthard was running fifth when he went off, seven laps from the end. Martin Brundle retired his Jordan- Peugeot with a sick engine and Eddie Irvine parked his Ferrari with gearbox trouble.

Johnny Herbert's race ended at the first corner after an embarrassing collision with his Sauber Ford team-mate, Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Verstappen was badly shaken but escaped serious injury when his Footwork Hart hit the barrier. He was taken to hospital for observation.

Details from Spa-Francorchamps

(44 laps 190.652 miles):

1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari, 44, 1hr 28 min 15.125sec, 208.443 kph (129.619 mph).

2 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault, +5.602sec behind.

3 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes, +15.710.

4 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault, +19.125sec.

5 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault, +29.179 .

6 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault +29.897

7 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha +1min 0.754sec.

8 U Katayama (Japan), Tyrrell-Yamaha +1:40.227.

9 R Rosset (Bra) Footwork-Hart, + one lap.

10 Pedro Lamy, Portugal, Minardi-Ford +one lap.

Did not finish: 11 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes, 37; 12 M Brundle (GB) Jordan-Peugeot, 34. 13 E Irvine (N Irl) Ferrari, 29. 14 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot, 29. 15 P Diniz (Bra) Ligier-Mugen-Honda, 22. 16 J Verstappen (Neth) Footwork-Hart, 12. 17 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford, 0. 18 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Ford, 0. 19 O Panis (Fr), Ligier-Mugen-Honda, 0.

World drivers' championship standings (after 13 rounds): 1 Hill 81pts; 2 Villeneuve 68; 3 Schumacher 39; 4 Alesi 38; 5 Hakkinen 23; 6 Coulthard 18; 7 Berger 17; 8 Panis 13; 9 Barrichello 12; 10 Irvine 9; 11 Frentzen 6; 12 Salo 5; 13 Herbert 4; 14 Brundle 3; 15= Verstappen 1; Diniz (Bra) 1. Constructors' championship: 1. Williams 149; 2 Benetton 55; 3 Ferrari 48; 4 McLaren 41; 5 Jordan 15; 6 Ligier 14; 7 Sauber 10; 8 Tyrrell 5; 9 Footwork 1