Motor Racing: Hill `not driven by money'

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The Independent Online
Damon Hill reacted strongly yesterday to accusations from Alain Prost that he had let him down just as the Frenchman believed a deal had been agreed.

"We had talked at length and I believed we had a firm deal," Prost said. "Then I was suddenly called to say he had been offered a drive with Jordan. It was as if he was expecting me to give him more money than we had already agreed."

Hill, his anger rising, said: "Why does everyone think I'm so into money? If that was the case I would have taken Sauber's offer. I'm sick and tired of all this. What I wanted was the right environment, and ultimately I didn't think I would get that at Prost with a French team, a French engine and a French team-mate. I called Alain last Tuesday and told him I wasn't going to drive for him.

"It just makes me mad because there are very few people who are prepared to ask for the facts. I'm driving for Jordan next year because that offers me the best chance of doing what I want to do, which is winning races. I've been looking for a long time for the right environment to let me do that, and that's where I've found it."

Just the previous day, Eddie Jordan had been smiling like a cat immersed in cream as Prost stood quietly fuming in the paddock. Hill's options had been decreasing, with McLaren deliberately making a low-key offer, Sauber signing Jean Alesi and Arrows lining up Mika Salo, and his talks with Jordan have run parallel to those with Prost. He met in Belgium with representatives of Mugen-Honda, Jordan's 1998 engine supplier, and then with Hirotoshi Honda himself, before fate gave the situation a nudge.

When Hill's Yamaha engine exploded at Monza, Tom Walkinshaw, the Arrows team head, left early leaving Hill, who had missed the helicopter connection, to seek a ride home on Jordan sponsor Brian de Zille's private jet. Jordan, his technical director Gary Anderson, and Benson & Hedges marketing director Nigel Northridge stepped aboard to find Hill there, and by the time the plane touched down in Oxford, a basic deal had been agreed.

The situation was clouded by Jordan's legal action to try and retain the services of Giancarlo Fisichella, which Jordan now says he expected to lose. "Damon and I needed to be together in the same place at the same time.

"There were a number of things to be sorted out by virtue of the fact that we'd already called the court case and needed to know exactly where we were, but the Fisichella thing had to run its course and that didn't occur until Monday evening."

Jordan denied that any pride had been swallowed, following the slap in the face last year when Hill turned him down and opted for Arrows. "Humble pie doesn't come into it," Jordan said. "In Formula One things change so dramatically and quickly. What does come into it is being at all times alert to take the best opportunity when it arises."

The pounds 5m deal is for two years, and Jordan added: "We desperately, desperately needed a driver who was going to gear us and steer us to be able to win races. Damon has the experience to do that. We've hired him to win races. We've hired him to win championships. No other reason. We are in a position where we have a new dawn in front of us. If we cannot win races next year it will be a very, very bitter blow for us."

On Friday Hill, 37, had joked: "I'd just like to thank Eddie for continuing his policy of investing in youth." But his mood was not helped yesterday after team-mate Pedro Diniz had blown him off to dominate the morning practice. "We went in the wrong direction on set-up," he said, "and Pedro clearly went in the right direction."

Hill made amends in the afternoon when momentarily he was second fastest on a circuit on which Bridgestone's tyres proved highly competitive. But it was Jacques Villeneuve who stole the limelight. "He has a team that is clearly better than Ferrari, and everything he needs to win the World Championship," observed Jackie Stewart before the session, "but he's just not using his head."

But when it mattered Villeneuve did just that to grab pole position from Mika Hakkinen in the dying moments. His Williams-Renault team-mate, Heinz- Harald Frentzen, backed him with fourth place, but Bridgestone runners Jarno Trulli, who recovered brilliantly from an engine failure for Prost, and the Stewart duo of Rubens Barrichello and Jan Magnussen, lie third, fifth and sixth respectively. Hill was seventh, marring his chances with a spin on his last qualifying attempt.

It was another disastrous day for Michael Schumacher, who was only ninth for Ferrari. The German's championship prospects have slumped since Monza, and he may find himself praying that Bridgestone's promise pays off today.