Motor Racing: Hill linked with McLaren move

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The Independent Online
As if in preparation for a Formula One schedule without Friday practice, the paddock here yesterday was occupied by renewed conjecture about Damon Hill's future - and Michael Schumacher spent the afternoon with his feet up.

Schumacher, the outgoing champion, crashed heavily during the first practice session for tomorrow's Belgian Grand Prix, badly damaging his Ferrari and putting it out of action. He hobbled away with a sore knee and had no inclination to commandeer the car of his team-mate, Eddie Irvine. "I was just going too fast," the German said.

Speculation that McLaren- Mercedes might take Hill, the likely next champion, from under the noses of Williams- Renault was also gathering pace. The Englishman has repeatedly stated his wish to stay at Williams, but Frank Williams is reluctant to give him a hefty pay rise as well as the privilege of driving the best car in the business.

However, Hill's negotiating position may be strengthened by McLaren's interest. The former champions are said to be under pressure from Mercedes, the team's engine partners, to employ a German driver. Heinz-Harald Frentzen has already been linked with the equation and now Ralf Schumacher, the younger brother of Michael, is also apparently wanted by Mercedes. He impressed both McLaren and Mercedes personnel in a recent test with their car and, of course, carries with him considerable commercial potential.

Ron Dennis, the managing director of McLaren, is apparently less enthusiastic about running a novice and is thought to have suggested that Hill, complete with the coveted No 1 of the world champion, would serve them better. The theory is that Mika Hakkinen would have to give way, but the other driver is David Coulthard, and within the organisation there could be objections to having two Britons.

Hill remains guarded about his negotiations, although he does say he feels his bargaining power will be enhanced by securing the world championship. He is confident that objective will come closer in tomorrow's race. He was seventh quickest yesterday, yet content not only with his work but also with the opportunity to drive on this, the outstanding circuit on the Formula One tour.

"It is tremendous and awe-inspiring," Hill said. "You have to put more faith into the machinery and yourself at a place like this than anywhere else. My only worry is the weather. So far it has been sunny which means tomorrow it will probably rain."

Hill's team-mate and only rival for the championship, Jacques Villeneuve, was introduced to the splendours of Spa and responded with the third- fastest time, behind Gerhard Berger's Benetton-Renault and Coulthard's McLaren-Mercedes.

The Canadian said: "It is not easy to learn, but it's a great track. It's the best in Formula One. There should be more like this." Both drivers maintain that their relationship has not been strained by their championship duel. "He does joke about my age," the 35-year-old Hill said. The senior partner resists the temptation to retaliate with jibes about the 25-year- old's somewhat eccentric dress sense. He prefers, he explained, to stay focused and that businesslike approach should enable him to negotiate the closing stages of the season successfully.

Schumacher's inability to negotiate the circuit yesterday morning was a salutory reminder of the hazards here. He was fortunate he lost control on a relatively slow section, leaving the track at about 80mph.

The car smashed backwards into a tyre barrier. He was examined for half an hour at the circuit medical centre and then retired to the team motor home to rest. His team manager, Jean Todt, said: "Nothing is broken and hopefully he will be in a condition to drive tomorrow."

Schumacher said: "What happened is a real shame because the car was very good in the quick corners and I could take Eau Rouge flat. Unfortunately, I made a mistake and lost control of the car.

"When I hit the tyres my right leg hit the steering wheel and broke it, and that was how I hurt myself. Now I will put myself in the hands of my physiotherapist and plan to be back to normal for qualifying."

That error has seemingly done nothing to devalue Schumacher in the eyes of Gianni Agnelli, the patriarch of the Fiat organisation. He has stated the No 1 driver is worth even more than the $25m (pounds 16m) he is being paid this year. Schumacher and the rest will have less work to do for their money at race meetings in future if the plan agreed by all the teams except Williams, McLaren and Tyrrell, is implemented. Practice will be restricted to Saturdays and an extra grand prix will be added to the championship.

Those opposed to the scrapping of Friday practice claim safety will be compromised but Flavio Briatore, the managing director of Benetton, said: "There will be enough time to prepare on the Saturday. This will improve the show, concentrating practice on one day, and might throw up more surprises for the public."

BELGIAN GRAND PRIX (Spa-Francorchamps, tomorrow) Leading times after yesterday's opening practice session: 1 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault 1min 53.706sec; 2 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren -Mercedes 1:54.342; 3 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1:54.443; 4 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:54.754; 5 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford 1:54.984; 6 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 1:55.101; 7 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:55.281; 8 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:55.333; 9 M Brundle (GB) Jordan-Hart 1:55.385; 10 R Barrichello (Br) Jordan-Hart 1:55.645; 11 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Ford 1:56.318; 12 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1:56.417.