Motor Racing: Despondent Hill poised for early exit

Motor racing: British ex-champion may retire before Silverstone after Jordan team-mate Frentzen wins in France
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The Independent Online
DAMON HILL stood on the edge of the celebrations, palpably self- conscious, tormented, and reluctant to trespass. It was Heinz-Harald Frentzen's party and now it was his team also.

Frentzen's victory in a mesmeric French Grand Prix yesterday appeared to represent the formal handing-over of responsibilities as leader of Jordan-Mugen. Hill is ready to end his career this week rather than prolong the public and private suffering.

He is unwilling even to make a final appearance in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, on Sunday week. He had further talks about the timing of his retirement with his boss, Eddie Jordan, last night, and the body language, as much as the words, indicated this was the end of the road.

While Frentzen, cunningly supported by his team, had driven a near faultless race, Hill had to endure yet another afternoon of mishaps and ultimate despair.

Hill was only in the race through the mercy of the stewards, who upheld the team's appeal after he failed to qualify.

The Union flag, positioned upside down, above his garage was an omen. A puncture interrupted his progress, a misfire stopped it, and now the 38-year-old Englishman has had enough.

Hill, world champion three years ago, said: "I didn't want this to be my last race, but the probability is that it was. If you believe in reading the signs, I've got to stop. It's just been problems non-stop this year. When everything turns against you, it hits you with everything it's got.

"I'd rather not go to Silverstone and fare badly. I'd like to go to Silverstone but nothing could be worse than another bad race there. I have to do what is right for me and my family.

"I have been in motor racing long enough to cope with these things. I appreciate the fans have been with me all the way. I can appreciate people will want to see me race but they will understand. They will not want to see me tugging around at the back. That would hurt me, too.

"I would have gone straight home, but I've stayed behind because I could see Heinz was going to win. It's fantastic for him and the team. Heinz has driven splendidly. I've had my days."

Hill will have perhaps one more night's sleep on his final announcement, but Eddie Jordan is patently contemplating his options for Silverstone.

Jordan said: "I have been aware for sometime that Damon has not been happy with his performances. He is very professional and I believe I know what his decision is going to be, but I'll reluctantly accept it.

"It's his call, and whatever it is we'll support it. This is probably the biggest decision he's ever made. It would be grossly immoral of me to make him race. When you consider the dangers in this sport I could not do that. I could not forgive myself if I did and something happened. This race was Heinz's high and Damon's low.

"Heinz drove immaculately. When you consider he had a big accident a fortnight ago in Canada and might not even have raced here, it's one of the best turnarounds I've ever seen. He's done an amazing job. So did the team. It was a great call by the team on the pit wall to put on more fuel and perhaps a sign we are growing up."

Jordan's problem is to find a replacement. He is unenthusiastic about hiring Finland's inactive Mika Salo. He could promote his Japanese test driver, Shinji Nakano, or perhaps make a surprise move for Scotland's Allan McNish, who has tested Formula One cars but has been driving sports cars.

Frentzen steered a steady course on a day when the rest were subjected to a white water ride. Torrential rain brought out the safety car for 10 laps and the cars were released to produce a spectacular show to satisfy thrill seekers everywhere.

The long straight and tight Adelaide hairpin provided the encouragement for a succession of nerve-testing overtaking and yet Frentzen was able to win the race without such effort. His team filled up his tank when he came into change to wet tyres and that was enough to see him through. He had half a litre left at the end yet had delivered his and his team's second Formula One victory. The other drivers stopped a second time and could not make up the time difference.

Frentzen said: "I knew the car was heavy after the start but it was only when I was on the track that they told me about the strategy. I had one agonising moment near the end when I thought the gearbox was broken, but fortunately I was able to find my gears again."

Mika Hakkinen, whose erratic fortunes typified the day, leading the race after starting 14th on the grid, spinning and dropping down to seventh, and then charging up to second in the McLaren-Mercedes.

Rubens Barrichello led twice in the Stewart-Ford before finishing third, ahead of Williams" Ralf Schumacher, who forced his way past his brother Michael, in a Ferrari. Eddie Irvine, in the other Ferrari, dutifully settled for sixth.

Hakkinen, now eight points clear of Michael Schumacher at the top of the championship, was hugely relieved with the outcome, having seen his main rival move in front but then drop back with a steering problem. The champion said: "Today was what motor racing should be. It was exciting, lots of overtaking, but very professional, no banging wheels, no crashing. It was great fun."

His team-mate, David Coulthard, was hardly inclined to share the sense of frivolity. He surged ahead in the early stages, but had to pull up on the 10th lap with an electrical problem. "If it wasn't for my bad luck, I wouldn't have any luck at all," the Scotsman said. Englishman Johnny Herbert, in the other Stewart, also suffered more misfortune, having to stop after only four laps.

RESULTS FROM MAGNY-COURS

72 laps, 190 miles

1 H-H Frentzen (Ger)

Jordan-Mugen-Honda

1hr 58min 24.343sec

(ave speed: 96.314mph)

2 M Hakkinen (Fin)

McLaren-Mercedes +11.092sec

3 R Barrichello (Bra)

Stewart-Ford +43.432

4 R Schumacher (Ger)

Williams-Supertec +45.475

5 M Schumacher (Ger)

Ferrari +47.881

6 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari +48.901

7 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot +57.771

8 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot +58.531

9 R Zonta (Bra) BAR-Supertec +1min 28.764sec

10 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford +1 lap

11 T Tagagi (Japan) Arrows +1

12 P de la Rosa (Sp) Arrows +1

Did not finish (not classified):

13 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Playlife 42 laps completed

14 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 31 laps

15 A Zanardi (It) Williams 26

16 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Supertec 25

17 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Playlife 25

18 M Gene (Sp) Minardi-Ford 25

19 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas 24

20 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 9

21 P Diniz (Bra) Sauber-Petronas 6

22 J Herbert (GB) Stewart-Ford 4

Fastest lap: Coulthard 1:19.227 (120.022mph)

Constructors' championship

1 Ferrari 58pts

2 McLaren 52

3 Jordan 26

4 Williams 15

5 Benetton 14

6 Stewart 12

7= Prost and Sauber 2

9 Arrows 1

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