MOTOR RACING: Hill faces pounds 2m Jordan pay cut

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DAMON HILL needed a second glance but it confirmed his disbelieving impression and return to the sharp end of Formula One. His third place in practice for tomorrow's German Grand Prix was also a timely riposte in his negotiations for a new contract with Jordan.

Only the McLaren-Mercedes cars of Mika Hakkinen, the championship leader, and David Coulthard were ahead of Hill at the end of yesterday's session. Michael Schumacher, in his Ferrari, was fifth, Ralf Schumacher, in the other Jordan, 10th.

Hill's season has lurched from the modest to the downright indifferent and he has yet to score a point. That burden has proved heavier still these past two races because his team-mate has registered points in both.

Compounding his discomfort, Hill spun off in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and then expressed his frustration after the team miscalculated his laps in qualifying for last week's Austrian Grand Prix, where he lined up 15th on the grid.

Neither Jordan, nor their engine partners, Mugen-Honda, were amused by the public laundering of dirty linen. The mood changed dramatically yesterday, Hill savouring his work on the track where he has traditionally been strong.

Hill, who completed the day just 0.348 seconds down on Hakkinen, said: "It was very satisfying to see my name in the top three again. This is the most encouraging Friday of the season for me.

"And we're not kidding ourselves either. We did this with plenty of fuel in the tank. The car seems inherently good here and we are knocking on the door of being regular top six runners again. If you look back over a few races we have been building up this kind of momentum and I can see some light at the end of the tunnel."

A good result here tomorrow would palpably strengthen Hill's position more than any performance in practice. He has indicated his preference to continue driving with Jordan, who in turn have stated positively they wish to retain him and Ralf Schumacher.

Hill had an option to stay at the team, but the deadline for him to exercise that right lapsed a fortnight ago. Now the playing field has been levelled, the bargaining muscle is perhaps in Jordan's favour and they appear intent on taking advantage.

It is understood Hill's salary for this season is around pounds 5m, a huge slice of the budget a midfield team like Jordan are able to raise. If Hill is to stay, he may have to be satisfied with nearer pounds 3m for next season.

Eddie Jordan, the team owner, declined to discuss details of their on- going negotiations, restricting himself to uncontentious comment. "We want Damon to stay and we are hopeful we can reach agreement," he said. "We want to keep both our drivers. We feel we are going from strength to strength as a team."

Hill still has the option of retiring, or he might be tempted by the likes of the British American Racing team, or Stewart-Ford. He has also been linked with Williams.

He speaks enthusiastically about the potential at Jordan and a strong finish to the season would undoubtedly sharpen his appetite to race on, but more so if he can out-pace his young partner.

McLaren have yet to announce their driver line-up for next season, but Coulthard maintains there is no uncertainty in his mind, that he and Hakkinen will again be in tandem.

Coulthard has had to wait for confirmation as rumours of McLaren's approaches to other drivers have continued. A bid for Michael Schumacher he can appreciate; a supposed move for Jacques Villeneuve he finds less logical.

"I'll be glad when it is all announced and over with," Coulthard admitted. "But it's not something that has concerned me in the least. All I know is what I've been told by the team, and I don't believe they have lied to me.

"I am absolutely certain it will be the same pairing next year, just as I've always been certain it would be."

If there are no further doubts, it seems curious McLaren, and Mercedes especially, would not wish to make a statement here. The team say it is "imminent" and that just a few final details have to be sorted. But behind Coulthard's brave face and loyal stance must lurk a degree of unease.

"All I want to do now is focus on my racing," he said. "I want to win as many races as I can before the end of the season and try to at least finish second in the championship.

"I'm reasonably satisfied with the job we have done today and surprised a little bit about our advantage. But our concern on this circuit is reliability. It really pushes the engine to its limit and that could work against us."

Coulthard accepts Hakkinen now leads the McLaren fight against Michael Schumacher. On yesterday's showing the German may not be such a danger in front of his own crowd. The Ferrari had the straight line speed but not the grip through the twisting Stadium section. Another Ferrari-powered car, Jean Alesi's Sauber, was comfortably quicker.

GERMAN GRAND PRIX (Hockenheim): Yesterday's practice times: 1 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1min 43.946sec (av speed 145.417mph); 2 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:44.138; 3 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen Honda 1:44.294; 4 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas 1:44.546; 5 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:44.757; 6 E Irvine (Irl) Ferrari 1:44.780; 7 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams- Mecachrome 1:44.928; 8 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Mecachrome 1:45.186; 9 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Petronas 1:45.364; 10 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan- Mugen Honda 1:45.511; 11 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot 1:45.611; 12 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Playlife 1:45.943; 13 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Playlife 1:46.005; 14 M Salo (Fin) Arrows 1:46.163; 15 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart- Ford 1:46.257; 16 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot 1:46.484; 17 T Takagi (Japan) Tyrrell-Ford 1:46.743; 18 P Diniz (Bra) Arrows 1:46.903; 19 J Verstappen (Neth) Stewart-Ford 1:47.086; 20 E Tuero (Arg) Minardi-Ford 1:48.175; 21 S Nakano (Japan) Minardi-Ford 1:48.832; 22 R Rosset (Bra) Tyrrell-Ford 1:49.986.