Motor racing: Hill tipped to replace Alesi at Benetton

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Moves are afoot to keep Damon Hill in a leading team next season, with Benetton-Renault the favourites to sign Britain's championship leader. Negotiations going on behind the closed motor-home doors of the Formula One paddock here could place Hill alongside Gerhard Berger at the Anglo- Italian team and switch Jean Alesi to Jordan-Peugeot.

Bernie Ecclestone, the sport's impresario, wants this year's world champion in a competitive car to defend his crown, and Hill, released by Williams- Renault in favour of Heinz-Harald Frentzen, remains favourite to take the title ahead of his team-mate, Jacques Villeneuve. Conjecture about the future of Hill and others has almost overshadowed the main event here - an Italian Grand Prix which could decide the championship.

Alesi, the volatile French-Sicilian, fuelled speculation of a split with Benetton with a characteristic outburst after being outpaced by Berger at recent races. He said: "I want to be a racing driver, not a taxi driver. With this car I lose all possibility of showing what I can do."

Flavio Briatore, his flamboyant boss, retorted: "He'd be better off watching Berger's times and shutting up." Yesterday, after the first practice session here, Alesi said: "Formula One is always a lot of rumours and the reality is I have a contract for two years with Benetton. The situation is very clear."

Briatore acknowledged both his drivers were contracted until the end of next season but would not rule out the possibility of his signing Hill. Would he be interested in Hill? "Yes and no," he replied. Does he believe Alesi will be driving for Benetton next season? "I never believe anything in Formula One," was his equally enigmatic response.

Hill would certainly be interested. McLaren-Mercedes no longer appears a viable option, and Benetton obviously represent a more attractive proposition than Jordan and the new Stewart-Ford team.

Ecclestone is already on record as saying: "It would be a pity if we lost Damon. If he wins the championship, I'd love him to stay in Formula One in a top team to defend it. He's a great British hero and if, for instance, he was tempted by IndyCars, it would be a coup for them and a loss for us."

The tricky part would be assuaging Alesi, who is patently not happy at the threat of being relegated to Formula One's "second division". Fixing a financial solution might be the easiest part.

Commercial forces make all things possible in this game and Renault, for instance, may be willing to consider means of keeping the champion's badge of honour, the No 1, in their final year of Formula One. While their engineers are apparently disenchanted with Alesi, Hill is hugely respected for his developmental input.

One way or another, Eddie Jordan's team are likely to be the beneficiaries of the Formula One merry-go-round's latest spin. Jordan confirmed yesterday he would be "delighted" to have Hill on board.

Michael Schumacher, the outgoing champion, suggests that record will be put into perspective next season, when Hill drives a car other than a Williams. The German said: "I think we will see what he is really like, and he has the opportunity to prove he is better than some people think, and maybe it will be a surprise."

The other driver in the equation is Schumacher's 21-year-old brother, Ralf. The younger Schumacher has had impressive test drives with McLaren, who have first call on his services for next season. If they do not take up that option, Jordan, who have also spoken to him, would almost certainly sign him.

Schumacher Snr, fastest in unofficial practice, said: "I have been surprised how well Ralf has done considering his age and experience. He can't do more than he has done to step into Formula One, but what team is another matter."

Ron Dennis, McLaren's managing director, said: "Formula One for any driver is an extremely pressurised environment. Being Michael's brother increases the pressure."

Hill found relief from the pressure of the past weeks out on the track yesterday and insisted events had not affected his confidence "one iota". He said he had not seen Frank Williams but the reception within the team had been warm.

Not that Villeneuve sees any need to offer his partner a comforting embrace. The Canadian said: "I don't care what has happened about Damon. That is not my business. I have not told him I'm sorry because I've done nothing. Why should I? I'm here to do a job. But there's no reason for what happened to affect our relationship."

ITALIAN GRAND PRIX (Monza, tomorrow) Leading times after yesterday's opening practice session: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1min 24.399sec; 2 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:24.667; 3 G Berger (Aut) Benetton- Renault 1:24.829; 4 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:24.988; 5 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1:25.055; 6 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 1:25.335; 7 D Hill (GB) Williams -Renault 1:25.620; 8 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford 1:25.973; 9 P Diniz (GB) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1:26.350; 10 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Ford 1:26.706; 11 M Brundle (GB) Jordan-Peugeot 1:26.751; 12 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:26.968.