Benetton-Ford's world championship leader held the provisional pole position at the end of the first qualifying session for tomorrow's British Grand Prix here, resisting the fiercest endeavours of Ferrari, Williams and a growing bunch of teams on the brink of the main event.
Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi gave Ferrari second and third places, and Damon Hill was fourth with the first of the Williams. His partner, David Coulthard, was sixth, immediately behind Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Sauber-Mercedes.
The Williams pair will be thankful for their respectable positions and continued good health in light of events yesterday. Hill, attempting to follow up his fiery words with actions of similar ferocity, was just a few hundred yards into the morning's unofficial practice session when the push rods of his car came adrift, leaving his left front wheel flapping helplessly.
Suddenly the FW16 was bucking like some demented bronco. Fortunately for Hill, he was still travelling at a modest pace and was able to bring the beast to a halt without further harm to it or himself. Coulthard, too, was grounded with a jammed wheel and Williams pulled down the garage shutters on their embarrassment.
Hill came out for qualifying venting his frustration. He went to the top of the time sheets and embarked upon another flying lap, wrestling the car with the sort of aggression that characterised Nigel Mansell's driving here. Alas, he pushed a little too hard, and spun into the gravel trap at Club.
Coulthard also went off, losing his momentum for a higher grid position, and although Hill had laps in hand, he returned to the road during rush hour, was held up in the traffic and had to settle for fourth.
Hill said: 'I have been playing catch-up after missing so much of the morning session but I thought I could have been on the front row. I was trying a little too hard on my first run and decided to settle down and wait for a clear track, but that didn't work out. I've never seen so many cars out at the same time all season.
'I was shocked and saddened when that happened this morning because it's not the sort of thing you expect to happen. I know it's not good for the team, but I've done lots of miles with them and I have absolute confidence in their workmanship. I think I showed that the way I drove in the afternoon.'
Hill is on a mission here and told the world so in no uncertain terms. He is bitter that his ability and future are still being questioned, but is aware results will have a still more powerful impact.
His outburst struck a chord with Patrick Faure, head of Renault Sport. It displayed the spirit and determination Faure looked for in drivers. Faure also said he believed it was worth the team's and Formula One's investment in restoring Mansell to the world championship next season. He said: 'If viewing figures increase by 20 per cent because of Nigel, then it is justified.'
Faure is unconcerned about the prospect of pairing Hill and Mansell, two Britons. What matters is their capability, not their nationality. 'C'est bien,' he concluded.
So far c'est bien for Schumacher, though he conceded the others were rather too close for comfort and he is bracing himself for fresh assaults in today's final qualifying session, and, more importantly, in the contest proper tomorrow.
The German said: 'It will be a tough race again. It looks like Ferrari are closing the gap and Williams are close, so I expect it will be between Benetton, Williams and Ferrari. Damon had his difficulties at the beginning of the season but now he is much more consistent and can show his talent.'
Eddie Irvine recorded the same time as his Jordan-Hart team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, in seventh place, so confirming the potential they have shown this season.
McLaren-Peugeot drifted out of contention, Martin Brundle finishing in 12th place, one ahead of his former team-mate, Mark Blundell, in a Tyrrell-Yamaha.
Coulthard's challenge, page 23
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