Motor Racing / British Grand Prix: Defiant Hill races to the front: Adversity fuels determination as home hero distances himself from Schumacher

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The Independent Online
THE FATES were kind to Damon Hill here yesterday afternoon. In a tense season he has had to shoulder the burden of leading the Williams-Renault team in the aftermath of Ayrton Senna's death, knowing all the while that the technicians at Renault Sport do not accord him the same credibility as Alain Prost or Senna.

Last week in Magny-Cours he gave notice of his determination by seeing off his 'guest' team-mate Nigel Mansell. And on Thursday he launched into an uncharacteristic and blistering attack on his critics. The outburst seems to have done him a power of good, as he emerged to steal his second consecutive pole position for today's British Grand Prix.

As usual, Michael Schumacher in the Benetton-Ford set the pace all through Friday, to the point where another walkover seemed inevitable. But Hill and Gerhard Berger took the fight to Schumacher as final qualifying developed into an explosion of fast laps and missed opportunities that left Schumacher narrowly defeated in second place on the grid, and Berger fuming at his own clumsiness.

Initially Berger took his heavily revised Ferrari to 1min 25.566sec to dislodge Schumacher from the overnight pole position, only to have the German respond almost immediately with 1:25.526. Berger's next effort had Ferrari hearts fluttering when the intermediate times revealed him to be a full 0.6sec faster two-thirds of the way round the lap, but then he came across the Finnish driver Mika Hakkinen - himself on a fast lap - and agonisingly the red car slowed in the McLaren's wake until the lap was quite clearly ruined.

Then Hill made up for an appalling day on Friday by snatching the honours with 1:25.298. No sooner had that dust settled than the recovered Berger replied with 1:24.980. When Schumacher failed to better that in his next attempt the Ferrari team began to sense the possibility of its first pole position since Prost's at Suzuka in 1990. However, just as the climax was building a major error from the Austrian ruined his chance almost before it had begun when he struck the barrier as he exited the pit lane and smashed the left front wheel.

'It's really a shame,' Berger said, 'because the car was super. When I went out the last time the car had a lot of understeer and I just couldn't avoid hitting the barrier.'

If the Benetton has generally exhibited the poise of a ballerina, Ferrari and Williams have brought back the spectacle of power slides in their drivers' efforts to stem its supremacy, and though they were deprived of Berger's elan, the thousands of spectators were instead treated to a virtuoso performance by Hill which bore the bloodyminded hallmark of the best his illustrious father could have produced. He worked down to 1:24.960 to re-take the pole, but on his ensuing, quicker, lap he came across the French newcomer Jean-Marc Gounon, whom he had to pass on the outside of the fast Club corner, ruining his last effort.

He was thus condemned to the agony of watching the television monitors as Schumacher made his final assault on his customary starting position, but for once the luck did not run with the German either. On both of his quick laps his car twitched and darted alarmingly, but his penultimate effort was a mere 0.003sec slower than Hill and Hill's face was gaunt as he recognised the seeming inevitably that Schumacher would go quicker.

'I felt I could have taken pole position but I didn't get a clear lap,' Schumacher said. 'But then neither did Damon, so I suppose it's fair in the end.'

Hill was rewarded with a hug from the Williams designer Patrick Head, a kiss from his wife Georgie - and a smile from a relieved Frank Williams. 'I knew it was P1,' Hill said, 'but I also knew there was a lot of time left. Believe me, I was very, very emotional in the car. I was praying it would stick and it did, so I'm absolutely delighted. I made a promise I would get pole, and that is one thing out of the way. Now I just want to win. There is no question that being on your home ground lifts you. Nigel claimed it is worth a second a lap and I don't think he is far wrong.'

Pole position for Nigel Mansell would have sent the crowd into delirium, but Hill received a more muted applause as four of his fellow countrymen crowded into the top 12. His team-mate, David Coulthard, was a little bemused in seventh place, and Martin Brundle was grittily pleased to match Hakkinen at McLaren in ninth. Mark Blundell and Eddie Irvine both felt they deserved better than 11th and 12th.

Hill refuses to concede that the 1994 World Championship has been decided, but in his no-more-Mr-Nice-Guy mode it now remains to be seen if he can prevent Schumacher from leaving him for dead at the start, the way he did in France last week.

The world-title challenge aside, there is family honour to defend too, for the British Grand Prix was the race that Graham Hill never won. So far this weekend Damon Hill's performance has lifted the pressure from his own shoulders and deflected it on to those of Coulthard, the man some tip to succeed him alongside Mansell at Williams next year.

Hill would like nothing better than to settle several scores when the action begins in earnest this afternoon.

(Photograph omitted)