Motor racing: Hill running out of options

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The Independent Online
His team-mate Pedro Diniz may have overshadowed him by a hair's breadth as they lined up their Arrows-Yamahas in surprisingly competitive eighth and ninth places in yesterday's qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix, but the fires of publicity still blazed around Damon Hill with the revelation that his chance of driving for McLaren-Mercedes next year has gone up in smoke.

The Hill camp said that negotiations with McLaren have been going on in recent weeks, but on Friday Hill said: "After consideration of the terms of the offer, I felt that I was left with no alternative but to reject it, as it did not accord with what I had previously been led to believe from our prior negotiations, and as I did not consider that it demonstrated a serious commitment to me as a driver from McLaren-Mercedes."

They told a different version at McLaren, where the story is that there were no negotiations. Hill is said to have been made a straight take-it- or-leave-it offer of a $2m (pounds 1.25m) annual retainer with a bonus of another $1m per victory, to a maximum of four.

Ironically, Hill's startling performance in the Hungarian Grand Prix a fortnight ago may have led him and his manager, Michael Breen, into misreading the situation and playing an ill-fated game of hardball with Ron Dennis, the McLaren managing director and the man who once settled an impasse with Ayrton Senna over salary levels by the toss of a coin.

But 1997 has seen a dramatic collapse in the driver market - something that is unlikely to disappoint Bernie Ecclestone half as much as the prospect of losing Hill in a fully competitive F1 car - and only Michael Schumacher can command the telephone-number remuneration that Senna once enjoyed. The rest are left in an unseemly scrabble for the right drive, and to hell with dignity.

Insiders are convinced that Dennis had little more interest in Hill than he did this time last year, but that he put the offer to him at the behest of the Mercedes-Benz board, who liked the idea of having a big-name driver. Hill is said to have rejected the offer, and then been told, when he called Dennis to reconsider, that it had been withdrawn. Within minutes of Hill issuing his statement at Spa on Friday, McLaren followed suit by confirming that they will retain their present drivers Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard for 1998. Both, by inference, have settled for the downgraded salary deal, although Hakkinen's manager, the former champion Keke Rosberg, denies this.

Hill and Breen were putting a brave face on things in the paddock, promising an announcement "in the next few weeks", but the outgoing world champion looks a little bit like a gunfighter running short of the right calibre ammunition. However, whatever the circumstances surrounding his professional future, his driving merely served to underline the ability that brought him the world crown.

On a weekend when Tom Walkinshaw, the Arrows manager, bolstered his budget with a deal with Eagle Star, which entailed him watching qualifying yesterday before flying back for the 3pm kick-off at co- sponsored Gloucester Rugby Club, in which he also has a controlling interest, the Arrows-Yamaha again showed strongly when the track was wet. Hill was fourth fastest on Friday, and topped the times before the surface dried out yesterday morning. And it continued to surprise in the dry in qualifying.

But it was no surprise that Jacques Villeneuve took his sixth pole position of the season for Williams-Renault, nor that his hapless partner, Heinz- Harald Frentzen, again smudged his homework when his wild correction of a slide deposited him temporarily in the barriers.

Jean Alesi was the only man able to offer a serious challenge. The smile on his face as he exited the Jordan motorhome on Friday suggested that the mecurial Frenchman has confirmed his anticipated deal after throwing himself at Eddie Jordan's feet for a song, thus closing another door to Hill.

Behind them, Michael Schumacher lies a menacing third in the Ferrari, ahead of the Jordan duo of his brother Ralf and Giancarlo Fisichella. Hakkinen qualified a worthy fifth but later had his times disallowed for a fuel offence which cost his team a pounds 16,000 fine. This capped a bad day for the Finn after a suspension failure had pitched him off the road at 200mph that morning. Frentzen was left trailing in sixth, ahead of Diniz, Hill and Coulthard. Perhaps the Arrows' flight will persuade Hill to stay with Walkinshaw, but his strongest opportunity now appears to be the Prost team, where Alain Prost remains quietly keen to partner him with the sidelined Olivier Panis. Prost is the one man best qualified to quantify Hill, having been his team-mate at Williams in 1993.

Now that the McLaren carrot has disappeared, it may only be a matter of time before Hill is obliged to make a fundamental choice between the $8m that Sauber-Petronas are said to have offered, and whatever Prost can muster. The cynics are already suggesting that Dennis used him as a means of reducing his driver salary budget, and that Hill should have called Ron's bluff while he had the chance.

After all, two years after his final world championship Nelson Piquet swallowed his pride and went to Benetton on F1's first points-make-prizes deal. It reaped him 43 points, two victories and an extra $3m, or as much as his retainer with Lotus the previous year.