Motor Racing: Schumacher gets back on track

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The Independent Online
DAMON HILL and Michael Schumacher shook hands just before final qualifying here yesterday for the Grand Prix of Europe, 'ending' the war of words the German had waged during the previous days as he lambasted Hill and his driving ability. And when the pair of them took to the track for the final shoot-out for pole position, Schumacher was able to reassert himself after being upstaged by Hill on Friday and during yesterday morning's untimed practice.

Hill had set the ball rolling as cool weather conditions promised faster lap times, but his efforts were almost immediately frustrated when he was baulked by the French driver Paul Belmondo, driving a Pacific. Belmondo failed to see the fast- arriving Hill in his mirrors and spoiled his lap. Hill then backed off, let Belmondo get well ahead and tried again - only to have exactly the same thing happen again. 'He was a very magnetic personality,' Hill said later.

As Schumacher waited for the traffic to clear, it was left to the Brazilian Rubens Barrichello to place his Jordan temporarily on pole position, until Johnny Herbert celebrated his new berth at Ligier by going fastest. That signalled another flurry as Nigel Mansell, Gerhard Berger and then Schumacher went to the top of the timesheets.

The session wasthen interrupted by three incidents as Mark Blundell and Andrea de Cesaris crashed heavily, and Jean Alesi locked his brakes and spun into a gravel trap. None of the drivers was hurt.

When the track was clear again Hill stamped his authority once more with a lap in 1min 22.892sec, until Schumacher wrestled his Benetton round a fraction faster, stopping the clock in 1:22.762 to throw pole beyond anyone else's reach.

'I certainly chose the right time to go out,' he said. 'And the car is going better after we found a broken engine mounting bolt was affecting the handling yesterday.'

Hill tried once more, only to meet more traffic and then have a minor moment as he overshot the new Senna chicane and bounced across the gravel. 'It's obviously vital for me to be on the front row,' he said. 'But it is more of an advantage to be on pole position, so Michael has helped himself. There is not a long drag up to the first corner, so I think it is going to be very difficult to steal an advantage. The start will be vital.'

All of the drivers anticipate difficulty overtaking, as nobody will willingly concede the correct racing line for fear of coating their tyres with dirt and slowing themselves up. Whoever leads at the first corner could have a significant advantage.

The spat between Schumacher and Hill initially overshadowed Mansell's return. On Friday, the 41-year-old Briton was clearly content to play himself back in after his self-

imposed IndyCar exile, rather like a spurned lover tentatively ingratiating himself once again with an old flame. But yesterday, we began to see the old Mansell again, as he qualified third. Afterwards, though, he was candid when he said: 'I'm not quite quick enough to win at the moment. I will be watching and following. But we'll see what happens. It has been a big challenge to get back up to speed.'

The real surprise this weekend has been the speed of the young German Heinz-Harald Frentzen, fourth on the grid in the Sauber whose Mercedes engine will almost certainly be seen in a McLaren next year. Barrichello outpaced Berger for fifth place, Ferrari's V12 engine being less suited to this type of track, and Herbert continued his promising form by taking seventh position after his defection from Lotus.

At lunchtime, there had been a little bit of window dressing in the Formula One store as Hill and Schumacher met publicly in the pit lane to forgive and forget. After they had shaken hands for the photographers, they parted with smiles. But given the premium placed on a good start, the bets are that their truce may only last until they get to the first corner this afternoon as the battle for the world championship heats up.

Richard Williams, back page

(Photograph omitted)

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