Motor Racing: Hill's feud with Schumacher provides fuel for thought

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Formula One's promoters will doubtless be relieved that although their World Championship appears to be a no contest, the two principals are doing their best to convey the impression they are engaged in a classic grudge match.

After Piquet and Jones, Piquet and Mansell, and permutations of Prost, Senna and Mansell, we now have Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill. The racing may not be as well-balanced - Schumacher proving resoundingly the superior in their last four meetings - but the animosity between them seems genuine enough.

Schumacher, the champion and title-race leader, could not settle for total domination on the track in Sunday's French Grand Prix - he also accused Hill of dangerous driving and hinted at possible reprisals.

All of which will do just nicely in the build-up to the British Grand Prix, at Silverstone, on Sunday week. If Hill, the winner there last year, required any further motivation to repeat the success and regenerate the championship, he has it now.

Hill contained his dejection at Magny-Cours and refrained from making comments about the Williams-Renault team operation that might have been construed as derogatory. The Benetton-Renault driver had extended his lead to 11 points and observers reckoned it was the beginning of the end of the season.

Now, however, Hill may respond to Schumacher's remarks just as he did at the end of last year when the German demeaned him as second rate. Hill won in Japan and was beaten for the title only after that controversial collision in Australia.

Schumacher apologised for his attack, withdrew the insults and shook hands on an apparent armistice, but the body language always suggested it to be a fragile truce. The cracks are now evident again, revealed in verbal exchanges before the race. During Saturday's press conference they managed to argue over the direction of the wind, Hill patently savouring what he considered a points victory. Then again, after hearing Schumacher at the post-race press conference defending refuelling stops, Hill began his reply: "I disagree."

Schumacher has indicated he intends to discuss with Hill Sunday's incident when the Benetton almost ran into the back of the Williams as they negotiated a back-marker. His opportunity may come during testing at Silverstone, later this week.

Of the two drivers, Schumacher should be the more anxious to ease the tension. He is the one with everything to lose. The championship is going his way and he has every prospect of enjoying the comfortable cruise denied him last time.

Williams should be stronger at Silverstone than at Magny-Cours but if Hill cannot outpace Schumacher there his championship aspirations will be crushed.

It will also be an important race for the other Williams driver, David Coulthard, a relieved third on Sunday but also a distant third. He was very nearly caught on the line by his fellow Briton, Martin Brundle, in a Ligier-Mugen. Magny-Cours is Ligier's home track, but even so...

Coulthard, extremely young to be driving for the top team at 24, is conscious that he has to raise his game if he is to keep his seat. He is hoping this podium place and an anticipated improvement in fitness after having his tonsils removed will prove the watershed in his season.

A British driver in need of a finish as well as confidence is Johnny Herbert, who again tangled his Benetton with another car early on. Not for the first time, Schumacher has almost single-handedly lifted the team to the top of the constructors' table.

Brundle's was probably the best performance by a British driver. He remains a formidable racer and Ligier clearly recognise the fact. He rejoined the French team resigned to sharing the grands prix with Japan's Aguri Suzuki but the schedules have now been revised to give Brundle a total of 11 races compared with Suzuki's six. Suzuki is due to return for the German Grand Prix a fortnight after the British, and the two rounds in his own country in October.