Motor racing: Hill drives towards title with grand prix wins record in sight

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The Independent Online
Next stop Silverstone and all sorts of possibilities are opening up for Damon Hill. Not only the prospect of the world title drawing nearer, but also another landmark en route to a possible record number of wins in a season and the chance to make amends for the shambles of last year's British Grand Prix.

Hill's comfortable victory in the French Grand Prix here takes him to Silverstone on Sunday week 25 points clear of his Williams-Renault team- mate, Jacques Villeneuve, and 37 ahead of the reigning champion, Michael Schumacher. Williams should again be out on their own, probably even further out, on their home track and another 10 points beckon for the Englishman.

Hill has six wins already this year and, with seven races remaining, the opportunity and momentum to equal or even better the record of nine, which is shared by his compatriot, Nigel Mansell, and Germany's Schumacher.

Villeneuve was again a well-beaten second here, and appears incapable of generating a genuine threat to his partner. Benetton-Renault's Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger, third and fourth here on Sunday, remain even further off the pace, so it still falls to Schumacher to challenge his old adversary and give Formula One a desperately needed shot in the arm.

Hill, too, ought to welcome the chance to beat Schumacher, especially at the Northamptonshire circuit. He won there somewhat fortuitously two years ago after the first of Schumacher's clashes with the authorities.

Twelve months ago it was the two drivers who collided and Hill was widely condemned for his ill-judged assault. His embarrassment was compounded by reports that his boss, Frank Williams, had apologised to Benetton and described his driver as "a prat".

That incident and its consequences have rankled with Hill ever since. He had Schumacher on the ropes but knows he was in too much of a rush to finish him. He does not, however, believe he was entirely responsible for taking both of them out of the race. Victory this time would be all the sweeter.

Schumacher would undoubtedly welcome a race with Hill. The two grands prix since his momentous win in Spain have been laughable. On Sunday he had not reached the grid when his engine blew. He managed to contain his anger, but in Italy the team were under siege from the critics. "Ferrari, another disaster," screamed one headline. Others conveyed much the same sentiment.

Luca di Montezemolo, the Ferrari president, who squirmed through the latest debacle back in Italy, mustered a rallying call: "The team are serious and have the means to solve the problem. The most important thing is to remain united."

Then, by way of a public commitment and presumably a warning to his charges, he added: "I shall be at Silverstone and as many races as possible from now on."

Long-tormented Ferrari fans are not the only Formula One followers hoping Montezemolo can provide Schumacher with the competitive and reliable car he seeks. Without it the championship will tail off to its dreary, as well as inevitable, conclusion, and even Hill might find the satisfaction diminished.