Motor Racing: Happy Hill back to his best

Belgian Grand Prix: Hakkinen pulls out just enough for another pole position
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The Independent Online
MIKA HAKKINEN was beaming behind his Nomex facemask after edging out his McLaren team-mate David Coulthard for pole position during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix yesterday, but the happiest man was surely Damon Hill.

Spa-Francorchamps is not a circuit on which the Briton has traditionally excelled. Victories here in 1993 and 1994 notwithstanding, he was outqualified and outraced by Jacques Villeneuve in 1996, on the French-Canadian's first visit to the track, and last year at Arrows by the pay-driver Pedro Diniz. But he squeezed stylishly past Michael Schumacher in the dying seconds to place his Jordan-Mugen Honda third on the grid, his best placing of a troubled season.

"This is absolutely brilliant," he said with his once familiar dark smile. "Much is due to the exceptional hard work that the team and Mugen Honda have done recently. What's quite hard to believe is where we are now, and where we were not so long ago." He was referring to the doldrums from which the team have dragged themselves in the year in which race victories had confidently been predicted.

When Hill is on form few can match his engaging personality, and the Mr Hyde persona that occasionally peeps out in times of extreme stress was firmly banished as he added, tongue-in-cheek: "I have to say that I think that I am driving beautifully at the moment. It was extremely good fun, that last lap, because I could see Michael just ahead of me all through it."

Nestling in the Ardennes, Spa is living proof that race tracks do not have to be dull these days. It may be a shadow of its former eight and a bit miles self, but it retains the character - and a sizeable chunk - of the old circuit which had the reputation as a life-taker in the Sixties. Very fast and demanding, it is a king among vassals. But because of all the things that make it great, it is not a place where you want to have an accident. In 1993, Alex Zanardi crashed his Lotus very heavily on the exit to Eau Rouge, the plunging bend that sweeps suddenly upwards again as it changes direction. It is the Everest of F1, the corner that defines the men and the boys.

On Friday afternoon, the world champion Jacques Villeneuve repeated Zanardi's accident. As the red Williams- Mecachrome began the ascent it slid lazily into a drift beyond its driver's control before spearing off to the right at the very point at which the road turned left. It did so at frighteningly high speed. Villeneuve later estimated it at 290 kilometres an hour. "At the time," he said, "I thought, 'Oh, this is going to hurt'."

Since Zanardi, the barriers have been moved back and protected by multiple layers of tyres, and these undoubtedly saved Villeneuve from injury. Sauber's Jean Alesi spoke for everyone when he said: "When you see a crash like that it is reassuring to know that good safety measures are in place."

They were tested again on Saturday morning, when Mika Salo crashed his Arrows heavily. He was able to drive in qualifying, after undergoing a precautionary brain scan.

Villeneuve had appeared disorientated when he stepped from the dusty wreckage, but when his race engineer, Jock Clear, called him immediately on the radio to ask if he was okay, Villeneuve came over the airwaves, as calm as you like, to reply: "Ten four." He was, he admitted, trying to take the corner without lifting his foot off the gas. And in the peculiar manner he has of describing his adventures as if they were beloved pets, he later added: "This was my best crash in F1."

They are an unusual breed, racing drivers.

Yesterday afternoon Villeneuve finally achieved his goal on his last run, descending the hill and then climbing up Eau Rouge to Raidillon without the hint of a lift. The fact that such bravery earned him only sixth on the grid, a full second and a half adrift of Hakkinen, who did not appear to be flat out through the corner, spoke volumes for the McLaren- Mercedes.

Hakkinen was another to crash on Friday morning after putting a wheel over a wet kerb, but it did little to diminish his pace. When it mattered, he and Coulthard were head and shoulders above the opposition as they waged their own private war. It seemed that the Scot had done enough after a convincing display, but then Hakkinen pulled just enough out of the bag to take his ninth pole of the season.

The world expects Schumacher, fourth, to win this afternoon if it rains, but Hakkinen remains quietly confident. When the sun came out briefly, it was greeted with the surprise normally reserved for an English cricket victory, and the forecast remains good. Better, possibly, than Schumacher's chances of a a record fifth Belgian Grand Prix victory. His cause was not helped when his best qualifying lap was cancelled after he failed to slow down for a yellow caution flag. If Hakkinen can maintain his advantage and beat Schumacher on the track where the latter is perceived to be at his most deadly, it could tip the psychological balance at a critical time in the world championship battle.

Amid the championship fight, Hill stands a better chance than he did a fortnight ago in Hungary, but the 1996 champion conceded: "The race is going to be down to tyre performance, but right now I'd say that McLaren have the best package. They will be very hard to beat."