All weekend the Briton has been in strong form, aided on Friday morning when Prost spun and lost his running time because of a problem with the anti-lock brakes on his Williams-Renault. Hill ended that day fastest overall, and maintained the form yesterday despite Prost's best efforts. Perhaps crucially, Hill opted to keep the anti-lock brakes, where Prost preferred not to use them.
'I feel I have been building up for this over the past few races,' Hill said. 'I like to compete seriously in qualifying and have made a big effort to concentrate harder and drive quicker. I am very satisfied as today is very important to me. I feel that up to now I have been rather under Alain's shadow, but now I am glad that I have seen the job through.'
Despite Hill's speed, Prost starts as favourite to win his home race for the sixth time, and there has indeed been speculation that Hill might be prevailed upon to offer no challenge to his partner's chauvinistic aspirations. Ian Harrison, the team manager, scotched such stories. 'Our tactics are the same as they have been all season. Both Alain and Damon know that they are at liberty to compete with one another until the final 10 laps, when whoever is behind will be told to hold station,' he said. 'They are both too intelligent to indulge in anything that might jeopardise a strong result for the team.'
The surprise at Magny-Cours has been the speed of two other Britons, Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell, in the Ligiers, which use the same Renault engine as the Williamses. They line up together on the second row of the grid on the team's local circuit, where they have done a great deal of testing.
The speed of the Renault quartet leaves an unhappy Ayrton Senna only fifth after a major effort in his McLaren Ford, but the Brazilian, who has been competing race by race, has finally signed a deal to drive for the team for the rest of the year. The Frenchman Jean Alesi, who is in sixth place, is also more settled. Recent speculation has linked Senna with Ferrari, which suspended confirmation that Alesi will remain with the team. After Senna's talks had collapsed, the Italian team duly announced that Alesi had been signed for 1994 and 1995. He celebrated with some heroic driving which earned him his grid position ahead of Michael Schumacher's Benetton, and restored some of the interest in a weekend in which a fast-moving sport had seemed to be operating in slow motion as political wrangling continued behind the scenes.
If Max Mosley, the president of the FIA, the sport's governing body, had his wish, we would not be writing about the polemics that continue to haunt Formula One. On Friday, as the stewards again filed a report claiming all the cars to be in breach of certain technical regulations, he spoke out. 'If the media did not tell them, the public would not know about the problems,' he said disingenuously as he explained why he is now in favour of banning the computerised driver aids that he himself had been so keen to promote 12 months ago. 'We want the driver to perform the tasks that a driver should, not a computer. We have to stop development of that relatively small part of technology where the driver is being replaced by the computer. That destroys the whole purpose of the sport.
'Eighteen months ago I was wrong. I didn't see what is coming technologically in 20 years' time. Society may decide that it wants the 'personal train', the vehicle that will allow you to press a button and read a paper while it takes you to work. But we have to decide whether racing follows road- car development and gradually eliminates the drivers, or say that we want Formula One to remain a driver's championship.'
Mosley's cost cutting, while deeply unpopular with many teams (particularly Williams and McLaren) has generally been deemed a necessary evil. Though Williams recently announced significant new funding from Rothmans for the next two years, casualties have been Camel and Canon, both of whom announced this weekend that they will not be continuing to support Formula One.
For Hill, like all the other drivers, the technological argument will temporarily cease to matter when the green lights flash on at 2pm this afternoon. He will not care then if his Williams gives him what Mosley calls 'the ultimate white-knuckle ride', so long as it takes him first past the chequered flag. He has the scent of victory at present, and his first triumph at this level may not be far away. Logic continues marginally to favour Prost, but if not today, then perhaps Hill can make that vital breakthrough on his home ground at Silverstone in a week's time. Grand prix victor is a mantle he is ready to don.
FRENCH GRAND PRIX (Magny-Cours, 4.25km, 2.64 miles) Final qualifying times: 1 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 14.382sec; 2 A Prost (Fr) Williams-Renault 1:14.524; 3 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:16.169; 4 M Blundell (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:16.203; 5 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Ford 1:16.264; 6 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:16.662; 7 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton Ford, 1:16.720; 8 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 1:17.168; 9 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:17.170; 10 P Alliot (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:17.190; 11 K Wendlinger (Ger) Sauber-Ilmor, 1:17.315; 12 R Patrese (It) Benetton-Ford 1:17.362; 13 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork-Mugen-Honda 1:17.518; 14 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:17.456; 15 D Warwick (GB) Footwork-Mugen-Honda 1:17.598; 16 M Andretti (US) McLaren-Ford 1:17.659; 17 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Ford, 1:17.706; 18 J J Lehto (Fin) Sauber-Ilmor 1:17.812; 19 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:18.104; 20 T Boutsen (Bel) Jordan- Hart 1:17.997; 21 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell- Yamaha 1:19.143; 22 L Badoer (It) Lola-Ferrari 1:19.493; 23 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Ford 1:19.519; 24 F Barbazza (It) Minardi-Ford 1:19.691; 25 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Yamaha, 1:21.856. Did not qualify: 26 M Alboreto (It) Lola-Ferrari 1:29.130.