Schumacher; eases the pain for Hill

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The figure reduced to a devastated wreck, draped over the barrier so early in the day, would have had every reason to join the mass of humanity bound in frenzied celebration at the end of an Italian Grand Prix that will be forever fabled in this land.

As the faithful paid due homage to Michael Schumacher in recognition of his victory in this, his first race for Ferrari at the cathedral of motor racing, Damon Hill was giving thanks for a merciful deliverance to the verge of the world championship.

The title loomed tantalisingly for Hill when he fought off Jean Alesi with a conviction many, including the Frenchman, suspected he did not possess to take the lead on the first lap and pull clear. Better still for the Englishman, his Williams-Renault team-mate and only rival for the crown, Jacques Villeneuve, was slipping back to fifth place and out of contention.

Then, at the start of the sixth lap, Hill was plunged into despair. He struck a tyre barrier at the second part of the chicane - ironically called Variante Goodyear - the impact wrenching the steering wheel from his grasp, bending the suspension and sending him spinning out of the race.

He scurried from his stricken, exposed car, seeking refuge behind the crash barrier, but could find no escape from his self- inflicted grief. It was as if the trauma of his banishment from Williams would not let go, condemning him to incessant torment.

Lap by lap, however, the hurt eased. Villeneuve, too, hit tyres at a chicane and although the damage was not terminal, it cost him unscheduled time in the pits and cast the hope of any points beyond his reach. He finished seventh, his prospects of the championship all but extinguished.

Hill remains 13 points ahead with only two races remaining. Villeneuve must beat his partner by at least four points at Estoril, Portugal, on Sunday week, to make the final grand prix, in Japan, a decider. The only result at Estoril that will guarantee the Canadian any chance is victory.

Down in the Williams garage, they were smiling away to "Always look on the bright side of life" and Hill was catching the mood. The demise of Heinz-Harald Frentzen, his replacement next season, perhaps helped as well. The German dumped his Sauber-Ford into gravel.

"I could have finished it off today, but at least Jacques has not capitalised," Hill said. "I'm lucky to escape with the same lead in the championship. I was having a really stonking good race. I made a good start and I was aggressive.

"I was pushing beautifully and the car was really stretching its legs. I could offer no explanation for what happened, other than I did not concentrate hard enough and it was my mistake."

Hill, who had agreed with other drivers to the placing of tyres at the chicanes, continued: "I can't blame anyone for putting them there. I clipped the tyres and it yanked the steering wheel out of my hands. I was kicking myself. This was probably the easiest race victory I could have picked up. That's what really hurts most.

"I threw it away and can't blame anyone but myself. I'm disappointed for the team. Now I've just got to get my head down. There's no point looking back."

Villeneuve will probably look back on his collision with the tyres as the moment his championship challenge was effectively terminated. "I bent something on the front and the car changed completely," he said. "We just had to hold on hoping to get a few points, which we didn't."

Hill's decisive treatment of Alesi, who had somehow speared his way from sixth on the grid to first, ought to have bolstered the championship leader's hopes of earning a move to Benetton-Renault at the French-Sicilian's expense.

A first win for the team by Alesi might have redressed the balance, but he soon had the intimidating sight of Schumacher in his wing mirror and the German patiently tracked him to the pit stops.

Alesi went in first and the extra two laps of fuel in the Ferrari's tanks proved crucial. Schumacher, with characteristic authority and judgment, found sufficient pace to wrest the initiative.

As he re-emerged from his stop, the explosion of approval from the grandstand confirmed he was still ahead of the Benetton, which was coming into view off the parabolica. Alesi may have once been their darling, one of their own, but Schumacher was now the Ferrarista and all the passion of the tifosi embraced him.

A gap of four seconds stretched gradually and unerringly. A slight tremor went through the gallery when the outgoing champion's loss of concentration drew him into a brush with those unforgiving tyres, but he managed to hold on to the steering wheel and complete his mission 18 seconds in front of Alesi. It was his third win of the season, his 22nd overall, and the first by a Ferrari driver here since 1988.

Finland's Mika Hakkinen, who bent the front wing of his McLaren-Mercedes hitting a tyre early in the race, made an exhilarating recovery, charging through the field to finish third.

Martin Brundle and Rubens Barrichello gave Jordan-Peugeot an excellent return with fourth and fifth places, while Pedro Diniz, denounced as "an idiot" by Villeneuve on Saturday, had the enormous satisfaction of denying the Williams driver sixth position and the remaining point on offer.

The most contented man of all was Schumacher. He had chosen this, of all days, to announce his wife, Corinna, was carrying their first child. "To win also makes it perfect," the father-to-be said.

Of the scenes at the end, when thousands of flag-waving supporters spilled on to the track and gathered beneath the podium to hail the imperious German, he said: "It's crazy. I've never seen emotion like it. It is only possible in Italy. I have goose bumps everywhere."

Johnny Herbert, in a Sauber, finished ninth, but Eddie Irvine, in the other Ferrari, and David Coulthard, in a McLaren, were forced into retirement.

Italian Grand Prix

1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1hr 17min 43.632sec

2 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault +18.265sec

3 M Hakkinnen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +1min 06.635sec

4 M Brundle (GB) Jordan-Peugeot +1:25.217

5 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot +1:25.475

6 P Diniz (Bra) Ligier-Mugen-Honda +1 lap

7 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault + 1; 8 J Verstappen (Neth) Footwork-Hart +1; 9 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Ford +2; 10 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha +2. Did not finish: 11 R Rosset (Bra) Footwork-Hart 36 laps; 12 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 23; 13 P Lamy (Por) Minardi-Ford 12; 14 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha 9; 15 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford 7; 16 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 5; 17 G Lavaggi (It) Minardi-Ford 5; 18 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault 4; 19 O Panis (Fr ) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 2; 20 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1.

Drivers' championship

1 D Hill (GB) 81pts

2 J Villeneuve (Can) 68

3 M Schumacher (Ger) 49

4 J Alesi (Fr) 44; 5 M Hakkinen (Fin) 27; 6 D Coulthard (GB) 18; 7 G Berger (Aut) 17; 8 R Barrichello (Bra) 14; 9 O Panis (Fr) 13; 10 E Irvine (GB) 9; 11= H-H Frentzen (Ger) and M Brundle (GB) 6; 13 M Salo (Fin) 5; 14 J Herbert (GB) 4; 15 P Diniz (Bra) 2; 16 J Verstappen (Neth) 1.

Constructors' championship

1 Williams 149pts

2 Benetton 61

3 Ferrari 58

4 McLaren 45

5 Jordan 20

6 Ligier 15

7 Sauber 10; 8 Tyrrell 5; 9 Footwork 1.