Motor racing: Hill now bargaining from a position of strength

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The Independent Online
Point made, now back to the negotiating table. Damon Hill and his aides are likely to be busy trying to conclude the business of booking him his next car before they head for the Belgian Grand Prix on Sunday week.

Hill's late misfortune in Sunday's race in Budapest, relegating him to the silver medal position that appears to have become the British preserve, will not have weakened his bargaining position as he endeavours to secure a place in next season's championship contest.

He has had talks with McLaren-Mercedes and Ron Dennis' team must be even more interested in his services. Now, however, they are likely to be pressed for a decision they intended to put off until later in the season.

Hill gave produced a champion's performance here and will sense the opportunity to strike a deal. One of his advisors said: "We hope to have things sorted out in two to four weeks".

McLaren and Mercedes have stated they wish to give David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen time to stake their claims for new contracts, but the incumbents will be conscious of the pressure being exerted by Hill. Both drivers were let down by their equipment on Sunday, when good results would have provided timely comfort.

Prost remain an option for Hill and they may be more willing to pay the $10m (pounds 6m) the Englishman is said to be seeking. Whether the team fit the criteria of potential title winners is another matter.

Jordan have suggested they might be ready to graduate to the front line and although Hill rejected them at the end of last year, the association could be revived. If Hill is hired by McLaren at Coulthard's expense, the Scot could find employment at Jordan.

Hill received words of encouragement from the head of Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone, who said: "I regard Damon as one of the leading three drivers in the world and I'm sure he'll get a top drive next season."

Ironically, Jordan-Peugeot were off the pace here, while Arrows-Yamaha were flying. However, Hill suspects this was his best chance of the year and is unlikely to regard them as genuine championship challengers for 1998.

Tom Walkinshaw, the Arrows team manager, does not argue with Hill's judgement. "I wouldn't cross him off my Christmas card list if he went to one of the super-teams," Walkinshaw said. "But Damon and I have a very adult relationship, which is not that usual in Formula One. We both want to see how things develop.

"I would expect us to be at the top end of the next group after the super- teams next year. We have made steady progress over the last few races and hope to continue in that vein. I believe we can be competing for the championship in three years.

"We have had to address a lot of matters this year and there will be more changes before next season. Hard decisions have to be made in this business."

John Barnard, Arrows' new technical director, has won the admiration of the team with his "eye for detail". He has split his staff into two divisions, one to work on this year's car, another to work on next year's. Walkinshaw says he is "comfortable" with his engine plans, which are due to be revealed next month.

Walkinshaw's involvement in other racing and business ventures has been cited as a weakness of his organisation, but he dismisses the criticism.

"I see myself as the admiral of the fleet rather than the captain of any one ship," he said. "I should have in place captains capable of commanding their ships and it's my job to ensure that happens."

Jordan were not the only unsteady ship on Sunday. Ferrari, who had hoped to put clean water between themselves and Williams-Renault, were listing in high seas.

Michael Schumacher damaged his new chassis in the warm-up session and, using the spare, was unable to capitalise on his pole position. Rapidly blistering tyres compounded his problems.

Jacques Villeneuve's victory and Schumacher's fourth place closed the gap between them to a mere three points. Although Heinz-Harald Frentzen had to retire after losing the filler cap of his Williams, he will have been hugely relieved by the conviction of his drive. He was the fastest man on the circuit and would probably have established a considerable advantage long before Hill's fateful throttle and gearbox troubles.

Schumacher will be eager to regenerate his momentum at Spa, a circuit that has had as defining an influence on his career as the Hungaroring has had on Hill's.

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