Motor Racing: Hill delivers speedy response to Schumacher: British driver sets fastest time in first qualifying session for Grand Prix of Europe and dismisses German's attack as 'ill-conceived and immature'

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The Independent Online
ON AND OFF the track, Damon Hill's response to Michael Schumacher's verbal aggression was controlled, precise and perfectly delivered. Hill outpaced Schumacher - albeit by only seven one-hundredths of a second - in the first qualifying session for tomorrow's Grand Prix of Europe here, the opening joust of their three-round contest for the Formula One world championship.

In normal circumstances that would have been signficant and satisfying enough for the Williams-Renault driver. However, Schumacher's publicly expressed contempt for Hill has sharpened their rivalry. Worse still for the German, he was edged into third on the overnight grid by his compatriot, Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Hill, savouring the moment, dismissed the Benetton-Ford driver's tirade as 'ill-conceived and immature'. He went on: 'It is a half-baked attempt to destabilise me, but he will have to try better than that. I would rather not drag the championship down in that way by trying to diminish the reputation of the opposition. I think it is sad.

'For too long, Formula One has arrived in the situation of having two protagonists seemingly hating each other's guts. I think it is sad for the sport, especially in the season when we have lost a great champion in Ayrton Senna. I would have preferred, for this reason, the last three races to be a clean fight, a sporting fight.

'There really is no animosity between us. I have got respect for Michael but he is a young man and has not been in this position. Neither have I, but I hope to be able to carry myself with some dignity and not resort to undermining the reputation of the competition.

'It is not a pressure situation. There is nothing more thrilling than to be in close competition in Formula One. You have to draw more from yourself and that's when you really find out about yourself and what you are capable of doing. That's when you get the most satisfaction.'

Frentzen, rumoured to be on his way to McLaren next season, armed with Mercedes engines, put his Sauber at the top early in the session and Schumacher, returning from suspension to defend a one-point title lead, was unable to displace him. Hill achieved that and stayed in first place. Schumacher's second run failed to lift him above third.

Rubens Barrichello and Eddie Irvine, the Jordan-Hart pair, were fourth and fifth, while Nigel Mansell, hoping to justify his recall by Williams, was sixth. Schumacher's car proved distinctly less competitive than it had been during the morning practice session and he remains optimistic he can claim the potentially vital advantage of pole position. Hill conceded: 'It's close, I'll say that, but we're on the right side. This is first blood to Williams, to Renault and to me.'

Mansell, easing back into the Formula One routine, anticipates improving his position today, the way he did when he competed at the French Grand Prix, in July.

Improvement is the earnest intention of the other British drivers: Martin Brundle, 13th in a McLaren, Mark Blundell, 14th in a Tyrrell, and Johnny Herbert, 17th first time out for Ligier.

GRAND PRIX OF EUROPE (Jerez, Spain) First qualifying times: 1 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 24.137sec (ave speed 117.75mph, 189.46kph); 2 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Mercedes 1:24.184; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:24.207; 4 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan- Hart 1:24.700; 5 E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Hart 1:24.794; 6 N Mansell (GB) Williams-Renault 1:24.971; 7 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:25.079; 8 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:25.182; 9 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Peugeot 1:25.275; 10 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Renault 1:25.384; 11 A de Cesaris (It) Sauber- Mercedes 1:25.407; 12 P Martini (It) Minardi- Ford 1:25.812; 13 M Brundle (GB) McLaren- Peugeot 1:25.942; 14 M Blundell (GB) Tyrrell- Yamaha 1:25.995; 15 G Morbidelli (It) Footwork- Ford 1:26.048; 16 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Footwork- Ford 1:26.094; 17 J Herbert (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:26.241; 18 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:26.304; 19 M Alboreto (It) Minardi-Ford 1:26.744; 20 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Mugen Honda 1:26.973; 21 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse-Ford 1:28.042; 22 E Bernard (Fr) Lotus-Mugen Honda 1:28.047; 23 D Brabham (Aus) Simtek-Ford 1:28.388; 24 H Noda (Japan) Larrousse-Ford 1:29.041; 25 D Schiattarella (It) Simtek-Ford 1:30.069; 26 B Gachot (Bel) Pacific-Ilmor 1:30.099; 27 P Belmondo (Fr) Pacific-Ilmor 1:31.162; 28 J Verstappen (Neth) Benetton-Ford 1:35.441.