One number vital to securing Hill's future

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The Independent Online
Motor racing

The Championship is on hold and so is any decision on Damon Hill's future. Events on the track in the Italian Grand Prix here have rendered activity off it pure sparring.

Hill remains in the equation for a drive with a top team next season, but no one is prepared to make a commitment until - and unless - he becomes champion, bringing him the commercial clout of the No 1.

That prospect was seriously undermined when he spun out of Sunday's race, but Jacques Villeneuve's problems more than compensated for error by the Englishman, who will secure the title in Portugal on Sunday week if his Williams-Renault team-mate fails to beat him by four points.

In the meantime, Hill's representatives, with, no doubt, a little help from Formula One's impresario, Bernie Ecclestone, will be pursuing discussions and endeavouring to lay foundations with Williams' rivals.

Benetton-Renault still look the best bet, perhaps the more so after Jean Alesi, the driver under threat, declared himself "happy for Ferrari's win" rather than disappointed at being beaten into second place by Michael Schumacher.

Renault are understood to be especially keen to carry the No1 in their final season of grand prix racing and would presumably be willing to involve themselves in any financial arrangement to settle the remaining year on the Frenchman's contract.

McLaren-Mercedes represent a possibility for Hill and if, as sources in Germany appear convinced, they are about to lure Williams' much-vaunted chief designer, Adrian Newey, both men would be happy to continue their partnership and friendship next season.

Against that, Mercedes would probably prefer a German in one of their cars rather than another Briton, while Finland's Mika Hakkinen reinforced his claims for a contract to stay alongside David Coulthard with a stirring performance which was rewarded with third place here.

The other major players are Ferrari, of course, or Team Schumacher as they have effectively - and, in fairness, you have to stress the word effectively - become. The German's second successive win for the Italians, and his third this season, was a further reminder of his sublime talent and vindicates the policy of building the operation around the world champion.

Ferrari, however, pushed Hill aside yesterday by confirming that Eddie Irvine will stay as the No 2 to Schumacher next year. "Ferrari strongly denies it is negotiating with other drivers and can only confirm that Schumacher and Irvine will be Ferrari drivers next year," Giancarlo Baccini, the team spokesman, said. "I don't think that Hill would be enthusiastic about teaming with Schumacher." Rumours of the possible sacking of Irvine were sparked by a run of nine withdrawals.

Meanwhile, Jordan-Peugeot wait in the wings, just ahead of Stewart-Ford. They would step centre stage if Hill's championship quest failed.

Whatever their chance of signing Hill or, alternatively Alesi, Jordan seem the team most likely to give Ralf Schumacher his first drive in Formula One, just as they introduced his brother, Michael, in 1991.