Motor Racing: Hakkinen shows rivals the way

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The Independent Online
ATTENTION WAS directed away from retiring drivers and back towards the track yesterday. Mika Hakkinen was delivering a declaration of intent and the chasing pack were presenting the prospect of a competitive British Grand Prix here tomorrow. The McLaren-Mercedes driver, leading the world championship by eight points, was quickest in yesterday's practice session, but by a mere 0.023sec from the Williams of Ralf Schumacher.

Three more drivers, Eddie Irvine, of Ferrari, David Coulthard, in the second McLaren, and Rubens Barrichello, in a Stewart-Ford, were all within two-tenths of a second of Hakkinen's time.

Ferrari's Michael Schumacher, second in the drivers' standings, was another 0.169sec off the pace, just ahead of the man who has managed to deflect most of the attention from the championship issue, Damon Hill.

The Jordan-Mugen driver, still apparently contemplating his future, was seven places ahead of his in-form team-mate, Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Hill was placed fourth until the closing moments of the stint, and was palpably relieved to have produced a competitive performance.

Frentzen, too, was encouraged by the former champion's driving. The German, winner in France a fortnight ago, recognises that if Hill retires after tomorrow's race he will be left to shoulder the burden of being the senior driver and leading the team's quest to finish third in the constructors' championship.

"At the moment Damon is the only other person who knows the car and he is more experienced than anyone around," Frentzen said. "It's no good to leave me to do the job by myself, to make sure the team fulfils its ambition. It puts pressure on me."

He would not, of course, be left without a partner but finding a suitable replacement for Hill, someone capable of contributing to the cause, midway through a season may prove difficult.

Hill has, by his own admission, given insufficient in terms of performance this year and three points is a meagre offering. Frentzen feels, however, that racing in front of his own crowd may provide Hill with the lift he requires.

Frentzen said: "Damon has been through a bad time and most of it has not been his fault. He hasn't been able to get into his rhythm. Having been world champion and won many races it has been hard for him to motivate himself but if he had been able to start the season better it could have been different.

"He is very motivated for this race. He is really working hard and taking it seriously here, so I wish him all the best. It would be nice for him to be on the podium. For us to win here, though, will be tough. This track is better for McLaren and Ferrari."

Hill's decision will presumably be determined largely by his result tomorrow. He declined to throw any light on the subject yesterday but said: "It was good to get driving again. In myself I was very content and happy to be out there.

"There is an extra buzz being at the British Grand Prix and I've had a good reaction from the fans so far.

"Today has been encouraging. It's good to be up with the front-runners. I think there's more to come from the car and we have a realistic hope of qualifying in the top six."

Irvine is an obvious contender to replace Hill as the nation's No 1, but the man from Northern Ireland said, characteristically: "Formula One is about being world No 1. British No 1 doesn't carry any weight. It maybe sells a few more hats but I'm not in Formula One for that."

Hill, sitting next to him wearing his trademark London Rowing Club cap, remained impassive. He even passed up the opportunity to challenge Irvine over recent comments suggesting the Englishman should get out now rather than risk hurting himself.

Coulthard has what still seems to be the best car in Formula One but as yet has been unable to convert that potential into results and challenge Hakkinen for the championship.

Their boss, Ron Dennis, said: "I don't believe in luck. We're really trying to achieve equality for our drivers and there's no reason why there should be more problems on David's car.

"It's as frustrating for us as it is for David. He should have won at Imola and he knows that, but how can we fault his performances in France and at other races?"

Ralf Schumacher's second place will be a fillip for the Williams camp and Barrichello's fifth confirms the confidence at Stewart-Ford. For Johnny Herbert, in the other Stewart, the suffering goes on. Striving to keep his place in the team next year, he was down in 18th place after a day of frustrations. The Englishman said: "The team know it doesn't look good when one of their cars has so much trouble and they're working hard to put that right."

Practice times 1 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren 1:26.981 2 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams 1:27.004 3 E Irvine (N Irl) Ferrari 1:27.061 4 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren 1:27.155 5 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford 1:27.158; 6 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:27.327; 7 D Hill (GB) Jordan 1:27.381; 8 P Diniz (Bra) Sauber 1:27.931; 9 J Villeneuve (Can) British American 1:27.981; 10 A Zanardi (It) Williams 1:28.162; 11 R Zonta (Bra) British American 1:28.238; 12 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber 1:28.472; 13 G Fisichella (It) Benetton 1:28.546; 14 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan 1:28.595; 15 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton 1:28.740; 16 J Trulli (It) Prost 1:28.883; 17 L Badoer (It) Minardi 1:29.130; 18 J Herbert (GB) Stewart-Ford 1:29.201; 19 M Gene (Sp) Minardi 1:29.416; 20 P de la Rosa (Sp) Arrows 1:29.439; 21 T Takagi (Japan) Arrows 1:29.630; 22 O Panis (Fr) Prost 1:30.372.