Motor Racing: The old Damon drives through the demons

David Tremayne sees Hill's grand entrance stall the exit talk; Hakkinen claims pole but the local hero sets the hearts racing
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THEY CAME in their thousands, faithfully wearing their Damon Hill caps and clutching their national flags, all desperately hoping for a miracle and the sight of their hero planting his Benson and Hedges Jordan Mugen-Honda on pole position. Instead, the home crowd witnessed yet another slugging match for the fastest qualifying time between Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher.

Strong leads were also played by David Coulthard and Eddie Irvine, but in placing himself sixth, right in the wheeltracks of his team-mate, Heinz- Harald Frentzen, Hill wrote himself something better than the cameo role he has played all season. His performance bolstered his pride and dignity, and for the first time in 1999 he looked like the man who won the world title three years back.

"The car felt really good and I enjoyed this qualifying session," Hill said with a dark smile. "I absolutely loved it through Copse corner - it was mind-blowing!"

It was a timely echo of the Hill of old, but however much the fans might have prayed for him to push to the fore, Silverstone was always going to be a battle between McLaren and Ferrari. The Woking team had dominated testing here last week, but Schumacher remained quietly confident. "The car is pretty good here," he said. "We know what we are doing, and I am pretty sure we are going to be right there in both qualifying and the race."

Hill was cheered to the echo when he set the fastest time within the first 10 minutes. But the fluttering Union flags and air-punching fists all around the track were a stark contrast to the deadpan faces on Jordan's section of the pit wall. Hill might be the people's choice, but all weekend it has not been difficult to discern the tensions beneath the superficial bonhomie of the Blarney Army.

Within moments Rubens Barrichello had thrust Hill aside with his Stewart- Ford, before himself being surpassed by Irvine. When Schumacher emerged it was a foregone conclusion that he would redefine the performance parameters. He did so by the dramatic margin of almost 0.9sec.

Through it all, the McLaren team played a waiting game, letting everyone else have their first run before Hakkinen and Coulthard finally ventured out. No sooner had Michael done the business than Mika did it better, with another 0.3sec lopped off the baseline. As Hakkinen then headed down the pit road to commence his second run, he found Schumacher squeezing past on their way to the exit. If that bit of gamesmanship was intended to intimidate or destabilise the world champion, it was futile. This time, however, the track conditions had deteriorated slightly and both aborted their missions, intent on saving tyres. "The first 20 minutes was the best time to be out," Hakkinen confirmed. "After that the track temperature just got hotter, and the wind changed."

Schumacher failed again on his next try, too, but then McLaren went on the attack. Despite the less favourable conditions Hakkinen pushed down to 1min 24.804sec and threw pole position beyond his rivals for the sixth time this season. Schumacher's response disappeared with a slide on his final run. "In the second to last corner I lost the back end," he said. "I was just trying to go quicker than the car could do. There was a little bit left in it, but certainly not enough to have taken pole."

Coulthard came up short, too, though he defended third place. "I'm disappointed at the gap between Mika and me," he admitted, "but in the circumstances I'm happy because all weekend we have never got the back end of the car stable under braking. My concern was making sure I hung on to third place."

Irvine settled for fourth. "I can't complain," he said. "I had too much understeer until we found the solution on my final run, by which time the track was slower."

Inevitably, this has been a tough weekend for Hill, emotionally and mentally, and at times his inner feelings seeped to the surface. When challenged that he had really been crying wolf these past weeks, he grated: "I'm not even going there. I'm not going to answer that question."

But none of the inner turmoil showed in his driving. Small slides on the tricky surface twice cost him a lap time improvement, but he looked like the Hill of old, shedding the worries that beset him out of the cockpit and just letting it flow. Barrichello might have regretted similar moments which prevented him doing better than seventh when he felt fifth was feasible, but nothing could detract from a job well done. But in getting it all together, Hill put his performances in previous races this season into true perspective.

Ralf Schumacher, Jacques Villeneuve and Jean Alesi separated the fourth local boy, Johnny Herbert, from team-mate Barrichello. The 1995 winner was closer to the Brazilian than he has been all season, and though rumours persist that it may be too late to preserve his job in 2000, Ford team insiders deny them strongly.

Irvine, meanwhile, could not resist commenting on suggestions that he might replace Barrichello next year in a straight swap between Ferrari and Stewart-Ford: "It's obviously a little story that's come from someone sitting in bed early one morning and wondering how he was going to fill a page," he said mischievously. "I'd say wait and see. As long as that person sitting in bed and thinking up the story was not Luca di Montezemolo, them I'm all right."

Ferrari's president made a rare appearance at Silverstone, and issued a gentle reminder who calls the shots within the team. Schumacher is said to be keen to see Irvine go, but di Montezemolo said: "Michael is a very good driver, but I am very strong on contracts and roles. His is to win races, and mine is to make the other decisions in the team."

No decision has yet been made about the Ulsterman's future, but another win would do him no harm at all. Both McLaren and Ferrari are confident, but as far as the crowd are concerned, only one man will matter this afternoon. But what happens if Hill finishes on the podium? Will he feel encouraged to continue, or will he quit in style? "I've always wanted to be competitive, to win," he said. "If I'm presented with a competitive situation, I want to do my best. But I do stand by the reasons I gave earlier for wanting to stop racing."

Another ambiguous answer, then. But that is just as much a part of the man as the lap that put him on to the third row of the grid.