Motor racing: Happy Hill throws down his marker

After Arrows-Yamaha announced Damon Hill's replacement for next season, the defending champion looked to be without a drive. Now he appears to have found one, writes Derick Allsop from Zeltwig, Austria.
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The Independent Online
Damon Hill will end a summer of speculation this morning and confirm his move to Jordan next season. Neither party would comment here yesterday as Formula One assembled for Sunday's Austrian Grand Prix, but Jordan said they would be making a statement today regarding their drivers for 1998.

Since they have decided not to appeal against a High Court verdict in favour of Benetton over the services of Giancarlo Fisichella and Hill has no apparent other option, their marriage of convenience seems set.

Hill, who is parting company with Arrows-Yamaha at the end of the season, rejected an offer from Jordan at the end of last year and rebuffed another approach last month. Prost remained a possibility, but when the French team pulled out of talks, renewed discussions with Jordan became inevitable.

The world champion had cause to declare himself "relaxed" here last night. He cut his 37th birthday cake, albeit a day late, and savoured the fact that he had been fastest in the familiarisation session for Sunday's race and clearly had a contract in his back pocket.

He gave a clue to that effect when he said: "It's nice to be able to concentrate on the driving and really enjoy it. I'm looking forward to getting stuck into this weekend and I'd like to give the team a win for all the hard work they've put in this season."

It would be a win on a circuit Nigel Mansell would barely recognise. Forget the new facilities and stands, they change all the time. The difference here is that the heart of one of the world's great sporting arenas has been ripped out.

The Osterreich-Ring was a spectacular circuit, carved into rolling hills and forests. It was worthy of mention in the same breath as Spa. When the old Silverstone was dormant, the Austrian Grand Prix track was the fastest in Formula One. Mansell made his debut here in 1980. Seven years later, he returned to complete a century of grands prix and won the race. The world championship has not been here since.

On Sunday, the Austrian Grand Prix is back on the map, but in a new guise, and the modern generation of drivers, who explored it yesterday, will log it as just another modern circuit.

Gone is the sweep round the trees, reducing the length of the track from 5.9 to 4.3km (2.7m). More significantly, gone also are two super-fast, horseshoe bends which characterised the place. The Bosch Curve was an intimidating challenge on a par with Eau Rouge. Now it is just another right-hander. And the Osterreich-Ring is just another circuit. Except that it is no longer the Osterreich-Ring, but the A1-Ring, in deference to the sponsor.

The old circuit had been under pressure to make alterations even before that August weekend, a decade ago. Then, in practice, Stefan Johansson was fortunate to suffer nothing worse than shock after hitting a deer at 150mph.

Drivers are now resigned to racing on new circuits that are much the same as the next, tight, twisting concoctions that offer little opportunity for overtaking. David Coulthard, winner at Monza 12 days ago, says of the A1-Ring: "It is like Monaco with barriers."

Michael Schumacher of Ferrari, who heads the championship by 10 points from Jacques Villeneuve of Williams-Renault, will be content enough if it is like Monaco with rain on Sunday.

AUSTRIAN GRAND PRIX (Zeltwig, Sunday) Unofficial practice times: 1 D Hill (GB) Arrows-Yamaha 1min 12.553sec; 2 R Barrichello (Br) Stewart-Ford 1:12.589; 3 J Magnussen (Den) Stewart-Ford 1:12.823; 4 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton- Renault 1:12.956; 5 J Trulli (It) Prost-Mugen-Honda 1:13.025; 6 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:13.034; 7 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:13.095; 8 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Renault 1:13.108; 9 J Herbert (GB) Sauber- Petronas 1:13.251; 10 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Peugeot 1:13.261; 11 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault 1:13.368; 12 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams- Renault 1:13.524; 13 E Irvine (Irl) Ferrari 1:13.632; 14 P Diniz (Br) Arrows-Yamaha 1:13.762; 15 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:13.827; 16 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Peugeot 1:14.060; 17 S Nakano (Japan) Prost-Mugen-Honda 1:14.176; 18 J Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell-Ford 1:14.266; 19 U Katayama (Japan) Minardi- Hart 1:14.590; 20 G Morbidelli (It) Sauber-Petronas 1:14.591; 21 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford 1:14.887; 22 T Marques (Br) Minardi-Hart 1:16.502.

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