Motor Racing: Hill beats Mansell to pole

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The Independent Online
DAMON HILL put Nigel Mansell's rumoured dollars 1.5m ( pounds 1m) retainer for his 'guest appearance' in the French Grand Prix here into perspective yesterday afternoon in a dramatic practice session that brought back to Formula One qualifying the uncertainty that has been missing since Imola in May.

After playing himself back in with the seventh fastest time on Friday, Mansell was right back on the pace yesterday as he was fastest during the morning's free practice session, and then deprived Michael Schumacher of his overnight pole position within minutes of the afternoon's official qualifying session getting under way.

That performance by the sport's prodigal son sparked off the most exciting qualifying session of the season. Hill took full advantage of a delay caused when the Dutch driver, Jos Verstappen, crashed his Benetton into the pit wall, and made lengthy changes to the set-up of his Williams. He then went quicker when the session restarted, only for Mansell to respond with a time that was faster still.

With five minutes remaining, Hill beat Mansell's time by a tenth of a second to claim the third pole position of his brief Formula One career. Mansell was the first to offer congratulation to his team-mate. 'Damon has done a fantastic job this weekend,' he said.

Hill said: 'On my second lap I hit a kerb and came in to try some different settings. I was careful to save my tyres, and it was a hairy lap, but in the end it all worked out well.'

Predictably, Mansell has been the centre of attention all weekend, and came to France with reaction to his pre-event comments ringing in his ears. Those he made about financial remuneration attracted derision in some quarters: 'I think we must all remind ourselves, very sadly, that during my career a number of my friends have passed away. The most precious motivation in life is life itself, and this isn't a game to be toyed with. Money is not the motivating factor, gentlemen.'

Some team insiders and cynics suggested precisely the opposite, however, muttering darkly about the dollars 1.5m which finally convinced him to run here. Even Senna, surely the more gifted performer, had to make do with 'only' dollars 1m per race in his heyday.

Mansell has done well to rise above the controversy that inevitably cloaks him, however. And while he cannot fail to feel some measure of satisfaction to have regained the seat that he lost in controversial circumstances, first to Alain Prost for 1993 and then to Ayrton Senna for 1994, he has had the grace not to yield to any temptation to crow.

The fight between the

Williams-Renault drivers capped an afternoon when Schumacher and the previously dominant Benetton-Ford struggled to find the devastating pace they had displayed on Friday, and when the heavily revised Ferraris of Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger pushed aggressively into the same time bracket as the leading runners to produce the closest grid of the year.

In a weekend when politics have taken a back seat to the racing, the Verstappen incident focused attention once again on pit wall safety, as the front left wheel and tyre from his Benetton was thrown into the television monitors used by McLaren. Fortunately, nobody was injured, but it was a close escape.

A win today for Mansell - his 31st from 182 starts - would undoubtedly strengthen his claim to a regular drive with his old team in 1995, and make up for the defeats he has suffered at the hands of the Penske team in the US this season.

A win for Hill could go a long way to his keeping his place next year. Even without victory, he could still be the man who could come out of this weekend best of all. Perhaps understandably, Renault Sport has been less inclined to accord his words the same weight they might have Mansell's, Prost's or Senna's when discussing their engine's performance, and Hill is known to have become frustrated recently by the lack of attention given to his feedback. But so far Mansell has echoed his sentiments, which should raise his stature in Renault's eyes once Mansell returns to the IndyCar championship next week.

Perhaps today's race will reveal whether the older Englishman's presence has really pulled the best out of the younger pretender, or whether the 1992 world champion's better Formula One days are behind him. On current form, very few are prepared to believe the latter.

(Photograph omitted)