The British driver edged out his Williams-Renault team-mate, Alain Prost, by a mere 0.078sec at the end of yesterday's qualifying session. It is scarcely a comfortable margin on this 4.334-mile circuit, the longest in Formula One, yet it serves as testimony to his application. This was his first run in a grand prix car at this intimidating arena, its hazards vividly illustrated during the morning's unofficial practice session.
The Italian, Alessandro Zanardi, crashed spectacularly at 170mph climbing the hill from Eau Rouge, perhaps the most feared section in Formula One. The Lotus-Ford plunged into a barrier on the left, shedding all four wheels, then spun like a top across the track to the other side.
Zanardi was knocked unconscious and taken by helicopter to hospital in Liege. He was later said to be comfortable but was detained overnight with slight neck injuries. He hopes to be fit to drive another Lotus today.
Ayrton Senna, in a McLaren-Ford, slid off the track to within feet of the wrecked Lotus as he braked hard in the dust and debris scattered by Zanardi's accident. Stewards decided the Brazilian might have slowed more and issued a reprimand. The session was held up for more than an hour as the twisted metal barrier was replaced.
France's Philippe Alliot, in a Larrousse-Lamborghini, careered off the track at the same point in the closing minutes but was able to clamber from his cockpit uninjured.
This is the drivers' favourite circuit, a magnificent challenge hacked through the forests of the Ardennes. Here, though, was a reminder of its dangers. Martin Brundle captured the aura of Eau Rouge, a left-right shimmy at the bottom of a steep hill, when he said: 'I've never watched the cars go through there. I'd rather not. It's best not to.'
Prost led the way with his first run in qualifying but Hill kept his eye and his car on the road to take over with laps in hand. Michael Schumacher, in a Benetton-Ford, was a second and a half back, in third place, and Senna a further second adrift in fourth. Aguri Suzuki confirmed the progress of Footwork-Mugen Honda with fifth position on the provisional grid.
Hill said: 'This is definitely a heart-in-mouth type of circuit. It can be very intimidating. If you get it right, it gives you a thrill, but if you get it wrong, it gives you a scare. No one goes through Eau Rouge without a fright.'
Several drivers suggested that resurfacing of the track rising from Eau Rouge had diminished the grip and that they found it slippery off line. 'You certainly can't take it flat through Eau Rouge,' Hill added. 'Well, I can't, anyway.'
The fright made most impact on Johnny Herbert, Zanardi's team- mate. He contained his apprehensions and provisionally qualified his Lotus in ninth. The Englishman said: 'It's not easy to go out there and drive on the limit when something like that has happened, especially when you don't know the reason. He'd been involved in some wheel-banging with another car just before, so whether that had an effect I don't know.
'But you have to put it out of your mind and get on with it. I'm sure Alessandro will give it a go tomorrow. He'll have a stiff neck, though, that's for sure.'
The rest may also have stiff necks looking up at the times of the Williams pair. They remain as elusive as ever and it seems only unforced errors stand between the team and another success tomorrow.
Derek Warwick, 39 yesterday and 'keeping options open' vis-a-vis racing on both sides of the Atlantic, was 11th in the Footwork-Mugen Honda, just ahead of Mark Blundell, in a Ligier-Renault. Brundle, in the other Ligier, was 15th.