Motor Racing: Hill puts safety first on approach to crossroads

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The Independent Online
They confront each other again this weekend, the world debating at what stage they are likely to have their next shunt, but last night Damon Hill stood shoulder to shoulder with Michael Schumacher, rejecting any suggestion they were courting tragedy.

Both compete in Sunday's Portuguese Grand Prix under the threat of suspension, the consequence of incidents in the previous two races, at Spa and Monza. They also collided at Silverstone, and, last season, at Adelaide. Their latest coming together, 12 days ago, prompted Formula One's marketing chief, Bernie Ecclestone, to warn them they risked killing themselves.

Hill, however, responded: "There's no one more interested in personal safety than myself, and, I believe, that goes for Michael, too. I appreciate Bernie's - sorry, Mr Ecclestone's - concern, and he was right to make that point, but we use our own judgement and I'm not interested in putting my any life in jeopardy, especially mine."

The Englishman, who took advantage of Schumacher's ban last season to prolong the championship to the final race, is equally insistent he seeks no assistance from the sport's judiciary this time. He said: "I want us to be able to fight it out on the track. Until you are actually in the situation where you face the possibility of a ban it's difficult to say what effect it will have, but I don't feel I'm a driver who employs questionable tactics. I know that begs the question of what happened at the last race, but I think I have answered that. I don't think it will affect either of us, but he's got the threat for another three races to my one, so he may have a bit of concern."

Hill's concern is that he trails Schumacher by 15 points with only five races remaining. He dare not slip further behind. The Williams-Renault driver said: "This is a crucial phase of the championship. It's the crossroads. It's an event which could mark the beginning of a strong, fighting challenge to Michael's lead, or the point at which the title gets just that little bit too far away. It's already a tall order to claw back those points."

Hill is depending on modifications to his car - a heavily revised rear section - to give him the edge over Schumacher and his Benetton-Renault. "It couldn't have come at a better time," Hill said.

Hill accepts he may again face stern opposition from his team-mate, David Coulthard, who seems ever more likely to join McLaren-Mercedes next season, Alain Prost having cooled on the idea of an active return to Formula One.

Ferrari, the other team, Coulthard has had talks with, are apparently leaning towards an Italian driver as partner to Schumacher. Rubens Barrichello formally withdrew from that contest by confirming he would continue to run alongside Eddie Irvine at Jordan-Peugeot.

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