Motor racing: Hill's top-flight hopes rest with Benetton

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The Independent Online
Damon Hill's hopes of staying in the forefront of Grand Prix motor racing next season rest with Benetton-Renault after another leading team yesterday closed their doors to the world championship leader.

McLaren-Mercedes effectively rejected the Englishman's claims when they announced they had decided to keep Finland's Mika Hakkinen as the partner to Britain's David Coulthard. Early this week, Ferrari reaffirmed their faith in Northern Ireland's Eddie Irvine, so ending conjecture that Hill might move in alongside his old adversary and the outgoing world champion, Michael Schumacher.

Hakkinen has earned another contract at McLaren with impressive drives in recent races, confirming his recovery from serious injuries sustained in a crash at last season's Australian Grand Prix. Ron Dennis, the managing director of McLaren, said: "Mika's performances this year have only served to increase my belief in his potential. I have always felt he has the talent to be a world champion."

Hill, dropped by Williams-Renault, is left with only Benetton to aim for and, despite strong support from Renault, who are eager to display the champion's No 1 for their last season in Formula One, it may prove an elusive target. Jean Alesi, the driver who would have to make way, is under contract until the end of next year and is understandably resisting efforts to switch him to Jordan-Peugeot. Renault are believed to be willing to finance any settlement but Alesi could take his case to the Contracts Recognition Board.

If Hill fails in his endeavours to join Benetton, he must accept relegation to the "second division" with Jordan or possibly the new Stewart-Ford team. Already, it seems, destined for Jordan is Ralf Schumacher, the 21-year-old brother of Michael. McLaren's option on his services was relinquished when they chose to re-employ Hakkinen.

Before all that, Hill has some unfinished business in the championship, which he can mop up in Portugal a week tomorrow.