Motor Racing: Hill shows desire with fastest time

Motor racing: Jordan driver surprises team with late flourish in practice session for tomorrow's Austrian Grand Prix
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The Independent Online
IT WAS Friday, and odd things have been known to happen on Fridays, but even Eddie Jordan could not take in what he saw. His was the expression of the man who won the lottery without buying a ticket. And yet there it was: Damon Hill fastest in practice for tomorrow's Austrian Grand Prix.

After the torment and prevarication during the build-up to his home race a fortnight ago, Hill decided to continue until the end of the season and here he was providing his endorsement of that commitment.

The achievement was rendered all the more remarkable by the sequence of events through the day. In the morning and afternoon stints, his Jordan- Mugen had made frequent excursions into gravel traps and on to grassy surrounds, and until the closing moments he was placed outside the leading group. Suddenly he had jumped to third on the time sheet and then, at the last possible opportunity, his name appeared above the McLaren- Mercedes pair of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard. Jordan, watching the monitor in the team garage, required a second take, and even then apparently he sought verbal assurance that the old eyes were not deceiving him.

Hill bounded out from the back of the garage to say: "Now I'm glad I decided not to quit. I'm delighted. The team have done a good job giving me more chance to fight at the sharp end. That's all I ever wanted. I thought at one stage I was taking up a new career as a rally driver because the circuit is very slippery, with a glazed surface, but we got rid of a few problems and got it working right. It's good to be at the top again. It's the only place to be, even if it is Friday.

"It felt good to be able to dig deep and take a few liberties. Not driving is a sobering thing but the past two weeks are now an old story and all I want is to help Eddie get the best possible position in the championship. If we can repeat this in qualifying we should be in a good position."

Jordan recovered from the shock to revel in the attention, even if he protested that being on top on a Friday subjected the team to unreasonable expectation. "Damon started the last lap just a second before the end and I thought he was going to slow down," Jordan said. "But he came on the radio saying he felt confident and that he was going for it. Of course we don't know what the other teams have been doing, but I do know Damon did that on old tyres and that he is buzzing again. He's good on circuits like this and Hungary.

"He had a problem before Silverstone and it was very hard for him. But he's sorted it now and Silverstone made a change. Even in his difficult times he had the biggest support of any British driver and that helped him. Now he wants to finish the season on a high and give Jordan a big send-off."

McLaren maintained they were unperturbed, suspecting Hill's car was low on fuel. "Our main competition remains unchanged," Ron Dennis, the team principal, said pointedly.

There were other interesting placings, such as Ricardo Zonta at fourth for British American Racing, while Eddie Irvine, newly elevated to the role of lead driver and championship contender for Ferrari, was ninth. Mika Salo, brought in to replace the injured Michael Schumacher, was a distant 16th.

Hakkinen, who leads Irvine by eight points in the standings, is palpably content McLaren's usually meticulous preparations are running to schedule. The Finn diplomatically contends his quest for a second consecutive championship is no easier because of Schumacher's absence, but he nevertheless admitted he sensed the opportunity, here and in Germany next week, to take a vice- like grip on proceedings.

"That's the plan," he said, unable to suppress a voracious grin. "I would like to take advantage in these two races and put myself in a strong position for the championship.

"We are definitely in a good situation. We are confident of improving all the time, for the rest of the season. We will continue development as long as possible. Hopefully, this year that can stop before the last race."

Ferrari will be hoping nothing should be read into their performance yesterday. Irvine has made waves in the camp since assuming his status of seniority and the team's hierarchy will be assuaged only by results.

Ross Brawn, Ferrari's British technical director, said: "It's unfortunate when drivers make comments outside the team, even if it makes good stories for the media. But now, as the Italians say, `he's got his bicycle, let's see how he pedals'. Eddie will have the 100 per cent support of the team and I do believe he can win the championship. If Eddie had a mental block with Michael maybe that has been removed. He should have won at Silverstone but we have also got to make sure we don't make mistakes. I'm sure he can win more races this year. It's up to Eddie to show what he can do."

Irvine said: "It doesn't feel any different. The job's the same - trying to beat the McLarens. I don't know if I can do it but it won't be for lack of trying. You've seen how difficult it has been for Michael and he's the best driver in the world."

Salo said he had been helped by Schumacher on the telephone and that he was content with his first day's work. "I am keeping his car warm for him and it should be in the top four."

Britain's Johnny Herbert was 11th in his Stewart-Ford.

Practice times,

Digest, page 31

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