reports from Magny-Cours
Williams-Renault claimed its familiar place in the sun here yesterday, Damon Hill and David Coulthard dominating the first qualifying session for tomorrow's French Grand Prix.
Their contentment, however, is tempered by the fear that history will repeat itself in the race, and confirm Michael Schumacher's advantage in the world championship.
Hill, as good as his word, demonstrated a significant improvement in the performance of the Williams, and he had to draw on his own reserves to edge out his young partner for provisional pole position, by barely three hundredths of a second.
Schumacher, leading Hill by seven points in the championship, trailed in third with his Benetton-Renault, immediately ahead of the Ferrari pair, Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi. Martin Brundle, steering his Ligier-Mugen Honda on home ground here, was sixth.
Those committed enough to aim for the front risked uncomfortable contretemps with the kerbs and gravel traps. Both Ferraris had eventful runs, Alesi treating his followers to a sample of his escapology. Berger settled for a bumpy ride rather than tempt fate and greater embarrassment. Johnny Herbert, another who found a scenic route, had to abandon his beached Benetton.
Hill, too, flirted with the limits of adhesion and logic, yet maintained control and momentum to register the decisive lap. After the disappointments of Canada and Monaco, and mechanical problems during the morning, it was a timely fillip. But then he has been in this position before and still not managed to contain the champion come the race.
"It's far too early to get too excited," Hill said. "It's only the first day. The team did a great job because we had two mechanical problems in the morning and lost the first 20 minutes of the session. I was worried because it was getting hotter but in fact it didn't affect the times.
"The notable thing is that it's very close, which is good for the sport. I intend to stay on pole and if I could stay in front through the race it would be even better. But times are usually quicker on the Saturday, so today's times will probably be history tomorrow.
"Williams have a good record in qualifying here. We've been on pole for the last four years and always with an English driver, first Nigel Mansell, then myself. I am shooting for pole because it would be great to get it for the third year running. But it could be a Scot this time. He's certainly making it very exciting."
That Scot, Coulthard, eclipsed Schumacher and the Ferraris, only to realise, to his dismay, he had left the door open to his partner.
Coulthard, who had his tonsils removed a fortnight ago, said: "I feel good, fired up and quite aggressive. It was a great battle between Damon and me, rather than with Michael and the Ferraris. I showed my hand too early. Damon had to dig deeper and he did. It's early days but I feel we have made progress.
"We have always been strong in qualifying but suffered a lack of performance in the race. I hope we have the same advantage in the race. We had better, or Schumacher will do his usual and disappear."
Schumacher's renowned fitness could again be significant tomorrow. The drivers had to endure the 90 degree heat only for short bursts yesterday. The grand prix will examine them for an hour and 40 minutes. The German condemned his engineers and technicians to a marathon stint of analysis and planning last night. "We have a lot to discuss," he said.
"It's not like me to run out of laps. I think the high temperatures were the main reason. The car was not bad, but we do not have the mechanical grip we need. It is typical of Williams to be quick in qualifying, but they may not be so quick in the race."
Herbert resumes business today in eighth place. Eddie Irvine, in his Jordan-Peugeot, is 11th, and Mark Blundell, driving a McLaren-Mercedes, is 12th.
Yesterday's field was reduced by a further two to 22, the Minardi-Ford cars having been grounded by a dispute over payment for engines. The Italian team hope to resolve the matter and be back on the track today.
FRENCH GRAND PRIX (Magny-Cours) First qualifying times: 1 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 18.556sec (ave speed 194.765kph, 121.027mph); 2 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault 1:18.585; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton- Renault 1:18.893; 4 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:19.051; 5 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:19.254; 6 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Mugen Honda 1:19.384; 7 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen Honda 1:19.466; 8 J Herbert (GB) Benetton-Renault 1:19.555; 9 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot 1:19.763; 10 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren- Mercedes 1:20.218; 11 E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Peugeot 1:20.713; 12 M Blundell (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:20.804; 13 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford Zetec 1:21.111; 14 G Morbidelli (It) Footwork-Hart 1:21.756; 15 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:21.921; 16 J-C Boullion (Fr) Sauber-Ford Zetec 1:22.372; 17 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:22.959; 18 T Inoue (Japan) Footwork- Hart 1:23.355; 19 A Montermini (It) Pacific-Lotus-Ford 1:24.172; 20 B Gachot (Bel) Pacific-Lotus-Ford 1:24.509; 21 P Diniz (Bra) Forti-Ford 1:25.787; 22 R Moreno (Bra) Forti-Ford 1:26.445.Reuse content