Motor Racing: Determined Hill throws down gauntlet

DERICK ALLSOP reports from Silverstone
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The Independent Online
Damon Hill pointed his machine down the old airfield, seemingly about to take flight. He twisted alarmingly as he homed in on his target, yet never flinched, and the surge of adrenalin turned to elation as the clock confirmed it was mission accomplished.

The Williams-Renault driver had eclipsed Michael Schumacher's time to take provisional pole position for tomorrow's British Grand Prix here and regain a foothold on the psychological high ground.

All the vitriol of the past days was blown away by Silverstone's familiar elements, leaving Formula One's world championship contenders to confront each other, man to man, in a classic qualifying contest.

An ill wind may yet waft over this duel, but yesterday afternoon moral and sporting order was restored as the Englishman and the German responded magnificently in turn to the escalating challenge.

David Coulthard in the other Williams was third, followed by Gerhard Berger's Ferrari and Johnny Herbert's Benetton-Renault. But, not for the first time, only two drivers were genuine candidates for the front place on the grid and here, this weekend, it was really the only appropriate scenario.

Hill, trailing the No 1 Benetton driver by 11 points after being outpaced in France, is conscious he must not stumble further behind. It will take an inspired, committed performance in front of his home crowd to beat Schumacher, and it was an inspired, committed performance that Hill conjured to earn overnight pole.

There were 37,000 witnesses to Hill's heroic and successful final attack. Tomorrow, 90,000 will demand more of the same. So will 34-year-old Hill, and he has no doubt Schumacher has received the message. He said: "The way I feel I am even more motivated than ever to win. Today was a good signal to Michael that I'm not going to let him have it all his own way. I don't like losing. I was second in France and wasn't happy with that.

"The pressure is very much on, but doesn't worry me at all. I love it. The real thrill is when there is more at stake. Friday's times can be fairly meaningless, but this is good for morale. The important thing is Sunday. Michael bounces back very quickly and I would never underestimate him.''

Schumacher, much as Hill would have expected, put down the early marker with his first flying lap and came back into the pits to monitor the replies of the rest. Berger could not seriously threaten his position, but Hill was quicker through the first third of his lap, only to fall short at the end by two-tenths of a second. Coulthard's first throw brought him fourth place and Schumacher sensed the opportunity to consolidate.

He was on schedule for a significant improvement until the Benetton spun coming out of Club Corner, and although Schumacher brought it back into line, he had clipped a kerb and returned the car to its crew for urgent attention.

Coulthard managed to maneouvre himself into third place, although now we were down to the fight proper: Hill v Schumacher. Hill sat in the cockpit of the Williams as the Benetton was launched again. Schumacher hacked seven-tenths of a second off his time, half a second of that on the last third of the lap.

Hill went to work again, dutifully moving over as Schumacher completed his allocation of laps. Schumacher, in turn, gave way as Hill unleashed the Williams. He was six-tenths of a second up over the first third, and although he lost four-tenths of that after he touched a kerb and had to wrestle the car from the outside of the last corner, he crossed the line 0.273sec ahead.

"I just dug in deep and took a few more risks,'' he said. "I went over the kerb on the last corner, but there was no way I was going to lift.''

Schumacher, arms folded and stern-faced, watched from his lair, and will attempt to counter this afternoon, but in the meantime he had one feel- good factor to commend. "After all that has happened between Damon and me this week, I know it is going to be very fair on the racetrack," he said. "He got out of my way on my flying lap and I got out of his way on his flying lap.''

Coulthard, eight-tenths of a second behind Hill, expressed himself disappointed yet determined to join the battle for pole position in the final qualifying session.

He said: "I am third and I want to be first. It was a bitty sort of day because of the gusty conditions, but even if it is like this I'm sure the times will be quicker. People will be hanging it out a bit more.''

Ferrari, who had Jean Alesi in sixth place, will also be seeking a distinct improvement today. The Italian team are not permitted to test here - Monza is their designated circuit - and are inevitably having to play catch-up.

Renault, however, are not prepared to rest on their laurels. Bernard Dudot, the technical director of the company's sporting operation, reflected a little Bastille Day resolve when he said: "It is crucial that Johnny Herbert takes fourth place on the grid to complete the first two rows with an all-Renault line-up.''

Herbert is patently under pressure to deliver after what he describes as a "patchy'' campaign so far. Northern Ireland's Eddie Irvine, earning more admirers by the race, was just two places behind the Englishman in his Jordan-Peugeot.

Mark Blundell, in a McLaren-Mercedes, was 10th, immediately in front of his regular companion, Martin Brundle, of Ligier-Mugen.

Barnard's Ferrari war,

Ken Jones, page 26