Motor racing: Verstappen waits on Hill's seat

Motor racing: Dutch driver favourite to step in at Jordan if former world champion announces retirement today
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JOS VERSTAPPEN, the Dutchman perhaps best remembered as the driver who escaped a blazing Benetton, has emerged as the new front runner to replace Damon Hill in the red-hot Jordan-Mugen team. Hill seemingly delivered his valedictory after Sunday's French Grand Prix and the team owner, Eddie Jordan, effectively accepted his resignation.

As yet, however, there has been no official confirmation of the former world champion's retirement from Formula One. It is expected an announcement will be made today, and if the 38-year-old Englishman does end his career, Jordan will hope to be in a position to name his new driver for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone on Sunday week. Jordan, along with the rest of the world championship teams, have an important test at the Northamptonshire circuit this week and would want to put the driver into the car immediately.

Verstappen appears to have moved ahead of the other obvious candidates, Finland's Mika Salo and Japan's Shinji Nakano. Salo has experience and is currently unemployed, but Jordan are apparently unconvinced he has the pace they are looking for. Nakano, their test driver, has limited experience and the team's declared objective is to finish the season with third place in the constructors' championship. For racing and political reasons, the 27-year-old Verstappen may well represent the best available solution. He drove for Simtek, Arrows, Tyrrell and Stewart after spending the 1994 season as Michael Schumacher's partner at Benetton, and more recently has been test driver for Honda. Mugen are an offshoot of the Japanese manufacturer, so the appointment of Verstappen could serve as an expedient piece of business for all concerned.

It would certainly be an opportunity for Verstappen to relaunch his career. He was hailed as one of Europe's brightest prospects when he was called up by Benetton, but as the acclaim waned he found himself clinging desperately to the coat-tails of the sport's premier category.

Jordan are anxious to maintain their impressive momentum in the championship, given another explosive surge by Heinz-Harald Frentzen's victory at Magny- Cours. Hill concedes he can no longer contribute to the cause. He was a forlorn figure in France, making the starting grid only on appeal after failing to achieve the necessary qualifying time, then having to pull out of the race with a sick car.

It would be cruel to demand one more grand prix of him, even at Silverstone, in front of a 100,000 gallery, many of whom have remained devoted fans, despite his indifferent periods of form and fortune over the past three seasons. Hill says he believes his fans will understand if he does not expose himself to the possibility of further indignity, and the backers of the British Grand Prix, the RAC, assured him of their appreciation of his plight yesterday.

An RAC spokesman said: "It will be very disappointing, of course, if Damon is not racing at Silverstone, but we will respect whatever decision he makes. He has had tremendous support at Silverstone and it would be great for the fans if he did race, but everyone knows he will have thought long and hard about this. It would be very wrong for anyone to put pressure on Damon to do something he didn't feel was right. We'd love him just to come along but frankly I'd find it remarkable if he were to turn up at the Grand Prix and not compete."

Hill's abdication leaves a vacancy as Britain's favourite racing driver. Ferrari's Eddie Irvine, of Northern Ireland, currently heads the home league, but David Coulthard's brief performance in the McLaren-Mercedes on Sunday, following an excellent qualifying performance, has given him a timely fillip.

This season the Scotsman has endured frustration, in the form of reliability problems and uncertain performances, yet he is adamant he can produce a roll through the rest of the year and lay claim to the number one slot.

Coulthard, who defied the worst of the weather to qualify fourth in France and then led until an electrical gremlin forced him to pull over, said: "That's the way the luck has been with me so far this season but at least there was plenty to encourage me. I've been the leading British driver in the championship for the last two years and although Eddie is ahead of me at the moment there are still nine races and 90 points to compete for.

"You have to earn the support of the fans, as Damon and Nigel Mansell did before him. Everybody loves a winner and you can't expect that kind of support until you prove yourself. That's what I would like to do and I believe I have every chance of winning races between now and the end of the season. Eddie is having a very good season, no question about that, but there's a long way to go and besides, he's not getting any younger."