Motor racing: Hill strengthens his bargaining position

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By DERICK ALLSOP at Hockenheim

THE HECTIC schedule of back-to-back races completed, time now for some serious negotiations and no one will relish the opportunity more than Damon Hill.

Britain's former world champion, under pressure to prove his worth to Jordan, responded here on Sunday with fourth place in the German Grand Prix, delivering his first points to the team.

His manager says that by the time Hill reports for his next racing duty in Hungary on Thursday week, he hopes to have a new contract in place for 1999.

Jordan have been coy about the state of play with Hill, making optimistic noises about an agreement yet scarcely camouflaging the face they do not wish to pay him another pounds 5m. What is more, there is a feeling among Formula One's hierarchy that some wages are again escalating out of control.

Hill, at 37, is the sport's senior citizen. Younger, less experienced drivers are itching for the chance to demonstrate their ability in better cars, and the Jordan is now emerging as one of the better cars.

The form of Ralf Schumacher, his team-mate, has compounded Hill's plight. The 23-year-old Schumacher put the team on the scoreboard with points at Silverstone and Zeltweg, and outpaced his partner in qualifying here. However, he was undone by an ambitious but misguided two-stop strategy in the race, while Hill picked up the team's standard and gleefully frustrated his old adversary Michael Schumacher in the process.

Hill has been tormented by bouts of self-doubt this season and would consider retiring gracefully rather than expose himself to the prospect of humiliation. But Sunday's composed performance will have bolstered his belief, revived his enthusiasm and perhaps made others reconsider his value.

His option to stay at Jordan has lapsed, leaving the team to decide if they wish to exercise theirs. They understand they do not have to pay him the same retainer next year and patently would prefer not to. They want to invest more of their money in technical development, which they claim is to the long-term advantage of team and driver alike.

Ultimately, the buck could pass to the team's sponsors. If they feel Hill - who has been linked with Williams and the new British American Racing team - is a necessary ingredient of their marketing strategy, then they may offer to foot the extra bill.

With Ralf Schumacher's management intent on exploring options elsewhere, notably at Williams and Sauber, uncertainties appear to hang over both Jordan's drivers. But the team owner, Eddie Jordan, said: "We won't lose both our drivers. That definitely will not happen."

Now that David Coulthard, runner-up here to his team-mate, Mika Hakkinen, the championship leader, has been confirmed at McLaren-Mercedes for next season and Eddie Irvine has again committed himself to Ferrari, Johnny Herbert is endeavouring to safeguard the United Kingdom's quota of Formula One drivers.

He has been knocking on doors at Williams and Stewart-Ford with greater intensity since his fall-out with Sauber and his team-mate, Jean Alesi, in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

Sauber maintain Herbert could stay next year and so does Alesi, who already has a contract. But what about the French-Sicilian's ultimatum: "It's him or me next year"? The mercurial Alesi shrugs his shoulders and says: "That was three weeks ago."

l President Nelson Mandela will meet the head of Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone, on 19 August to discuss plans for a South African Grand Prix next year. Last week, the South African cabinet approved legislation that would outlaw all tobacco sponsorship as well as smoking in public places. The draft law will come before parliament later this year.

Ecclestone has been known to award races to countries where tobacco advertising is banned, but usually demands greater financial guarantees from the governments involved. South Africa is one of 17 countries that have lodged guarantees for the existing 16 dates on the Formula One calendar. The last grand prix staged in the country, at Kyalami near Johannesburg, was in 1993.

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