Motor racing; Last laugh as Hill goes first

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THEY jeered here yesterday when Damon Hill's last attempt to improve his lap times sent him embarrassingly off course in front of the grandstands. But just as he shrugged off threats made by the FIA vice-president of marketing, Bernie Ecclestone, to ban him for life if he repeats his Silverstone faux pas, so the Englishman shrugged off the partisan crowd's behaviour and had the last laugh when Michael Schumacher failed to beat him to pole position for the German Grand Prix.

Their mutual antipathy has been dramatised into a great confrontation, but the truth is it has been a phoney war, and each driver has done his best to play things down. They wanted to share a classic car during the drivers' pre-race parade, where team-mates normally sit together, but this has been vetoed by Ecclestone, who, ironically, was the architect of their public handshake after their verbal spat in Spain last October. Ecclestone said: "It's against the rules. And anyway, they nearly sat together at Silverstone."

Schumacher added: "I thought it would be a good idea to show the outside world that there is not that kind of war going on between us. Certainly, we are not friends. And there have been one or two occasions when I didn't think things were quite good, but that's always going to be the situation in motor racing. It would have been a good sign.''

Hill is relaxed and has been boosted recently by the birth of his daughter and further confirmation of Ferrari's interest in him for 1996, while Schumacher has denied reports that he has signed to drive for the Italians next season. Asked about suggestions that he and Hill might even be team- mates next year, he replied mischievously: "I don't have a problem being in the same team, and I'm sure he would accept being the second driver.''

Responding to Ecclestone's suggestion that he might be banned, Hill said yesterday: "There are rules that apply and they haven't been changed. At Silverstone the inquiry said both parties were to blame. You can go back through a catalogue of events and see what penalties have been applied - unless Mr Ecclestone can apply his own. I don't think it works that way, and I don't want to pursue it.''

In fact, things have been easy between Hill and Schumacher so far this weekend. The Englishman took Friday's first round after a brief knock- down in the morning, when he spun into a gravel trap. The spectators, here in their tens of thousands to watch the local hero in action, indicated their feeling about the clash the two drivers had in the British Grand Prix by subjecting him to catcalls as he walked back to the pits. A philosophical Hill responded with a casual wave.

He recovered to set the fastest time in the afternoon, as Schumacher raged in frustration in the Benetton garage about his car's lack of pace. "There's been a lot of ribbing by the German fans, but mostly it's been good-natured," Hill commented.

In better weather conditions they fought again yesterday, Schumacher taking pole away from Hill's team-mate, David Coulthard, before Hill reasserted himself. The three were separated by one 10th of a second.

The Ferraris had been expected to shine, but the winner of last year's race, Gerhard Berger, only moved to fourth place late in the day. The Jordan-Peugeots of Rubens Barrichello and Eddie Irvine impressed with fifth and sixth places, ahead of the McLarens. The new-found speed of their Mercedes- powered cars has been a revelation, but Hakkinen in particular has suffered a high degree of mechanical misfortune which prevented him showing his form.

The Finnish driver put the challenge of Hockenheim into stark perspective when he said: "It's very demanding mentally, with its long straights where attention can easily wander. It's so fast it's unbelievable! The car is jumping and either side of you the trees look just like a big black wall because you are going so fast. You're going at more than 185 miles an hour for so long and then you see the chicanes coming. That's when the fear starts and you tell yourself not to brake until the last moment. You're fighting all the time against your fear.''

Beyond the personal battles conducted by every driver in the cockpit, the main conflict will again be that of Hill against Schumacher. It is one the Williams driver is prepared for. "It's going to be a very close race again," he said. "Another thrilling battle - hopefully to the finish.''