Motor Racing: The joke backfires as Hill hits the wall

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The Independent Online
HUMOUR IN Formula One may be a commodity rarer than racing drivers' largesse, but in the opulent surroundings of Monaco's Yacht Club on Thursday evening Eddie Jordan found himself revelling in it.

Basking in his new-found status as Tourism Sporting Ambassador for Ireland - an appoint- ment that evokes thoughts of Sir Les Patterson - the colourful team owner threatened to arrange for the tax man to make a quick visit to Damon Hill's Dublin home. Whereupon Hill, alluding to Jordan's taste for opulent Sunseeker powerboats, countered: "I gather that the Irish are now establishing a Navy. I can't see much future in it myself, but I suppose they might consider invading Ibiza."

But by Saturday morning the smiles had faded. Flashback to Monaco 1998, when the team struggled with recalcitrant machinery prior to a race in which, as Hill recalled in his after-dinner speech, he had spent a singularly uncomfortable afternoon fighting for a lacklustre eighth place. Now Jordan's body language spoke volumes as Hill, who had been quick on Thursday, trudged haplessly back to the pits, his yellow car left in a crumpled mess after a high-speed visit to one of Monaco's unforgiving walls. Jordan's manner was a stark contrast to the absurdity of the unctuous gratitude which had been heaped upon his drivers after they had deigned to attend the dinner organised in the name of Pearl, the insurance company which helps to pay their telephone-number salaries. But this is F1, of course, and nowhere magnifies its quainter idiosyncrasies more than Monte Carlo. Forget fantasy football; this is where fantasy life begins.

Since Hill's famous victory at Spa last August reversed Jordan's ailing fortunes and thrust it towards the top three, expectations within the team have changed. And such is the pressure in F1 these days that every lost lap hurts.

If Hill sought consolation it is doubtful that he found it in the suspension- breaking incident which also cost David Coulthard time that same session, or when even Michael Schumacher came to grief. Monaco is the track that demands most of the drivers, where even the smallest mistake usually carries a weighty penalty in terms of bent suspension or damaged wings. In this Principality of precision, talent such as Schumacher's becomes most visually apparent. Yet even he was not immune to error.

The German made only a minor miscalculation as he brushed the low kerb on the inside of the Ste Devote corner but he could only sit and watch, a passenger, as the Ferrari was thrown across the road, where it crashed head-on into the tyre wall. Only moments earlier he had been the hero after improving on his fastest time. Monaco, where the muzzled guard dogs look like Hannibal Lecter clones, takes no prisoners.

But where Hill would be condemned to struggle for the remainder of the day, Schumacher was quickly back into the flow, flirting once again with the barriers at Casino Square and Portier. When the poker chips were down he stamped his authority with breathtaking regularity throughout qualifying. His first three runs saw him pushing the pole position boundaries ever further as McLaren struggled to find the perfect set-up for Mika Hakkinen and Coulthard.

Bit by bit Eddie Irvine continued his own impressive progress which had seen him on the pace all weekend. Relations between the two might be strained of late, but the Ulsterman thrashed his Ferrari round less than half a second slower than the team's star, no mean feat.

But just when an all-Ferrari front row seemed established, Hakkinen came low out of the sun with a time that shaded Schumacher by six hundredths of a second, and ignited a momentary controversy. Had he set his best lap under the yellow caution flags, which oblige a driver to back off? Certainly Schumacher thought so.

"On my last run I had to slow down at Tabac corner because of yellow flags, so I could not improve," he said, his inference clear. But officialdom thought otherwise and, with Coulthard dragging himself into a late third place ahead of Irvine and Rubens Barrichello in the Stewart-Ford, the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, permitted himself a small smile of satisfaction. The job might have been done late, but it had been done well.

"I saw the flags," Hakkinen confirmed. "That's why I raised my arm and slowed down a bit. It probably doesn't look like that because I am sitting in the middle, on pole position. But I did slow down."

"Getting pole at Monaco is like winning a Grand Prix," Dennis said. But if neither of his drivers can prevent Schumacher from winning the real race this afternoon, the Monaco GP may well prove a crucial turning point in the World Championship. Though it is only the fourth of 16 races, another victory here for Schumacher and Ferrari would well and truly put McLaren on its back foot during the long slog through the summer months.

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