Schumacher keeps piling the pressure on Hill

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The Independent Online
Motor racing

If it had been official qualifying it would have been gripping stuff. With the chequered flag in sight Gerhard Berger pushed his Benetton to the top of the timesheets, but in the very moment of his celebration team- mate Jean Alesi snatched away the plaudits by 0.072secs as unofficial practice for the Canadian Grand Prix drew to a close.

These times do not count for the starting grid, which will be consolation to Damon Hill, and an irritation to Benetton-Renault, who badly need a good result.

Earlier, Michael Schumacher had thumbed the new raised nose of his Ferrari at Damon Hill's Williams-Renault until Hill assertedhimself to end the morning a scant 0.034 ahead. In the afternoon Schumacher marginally bettered that to go fastest until the Benetton duo made their push.

It is early days here, of course, at the circuit named after the former Ferrari driver Gilles Villeneuve, whose son Jacques is attracting all the headlines. The track was dirty initially, and as the day progressed times were bound to fall, as they will again tomorrow as more rubber is laid down. But it was psychologically important for Hill to re-establish a status quo rendered soggy by the rain in Spain two weeks ago. There, as Hill foundered not once but thrice, Schumacher drove to a stunning success that raised speculation that the title fight is far from over.

With his engine failure while dominating the Monaco Grand Prix, and then the accident that took him out of the Spanish race, Hill has been forced to watch at least 14, possibly 20, points disappear. And the rise of Schumacher has struck a further chill note. The world champion's victory in Spain owed more to his brilliance in dire conditions than it did to any inherent superiority of the Ferrari, but the Italian team are nevertheless making great strides with every race. Schumacher has limited the points deficit to 17 despite the technical compromises that have been forced upon Ferrari by the late arrival of the new car at the start of the season, and its teething problems.

Now the Ferrari design is being honed further, and they are gaining momentum with each change. Paddock observers who a month ago would have bet only on Hill for the 1996 championship, are already beginning to evaluate the likelihood of Schumacher taking a third consecutive title. The protagonists themselves know that this race could prove to be the point around which championship fortunes turn. The psychological edge is delicate for both of them.

Villeneuve, eighth fastest yesterday morning, is bearing the pressure very well thus far, but it has not been easy living as the complete focus of national fervour starved since the heydays of the downhill skier Steve Podborski and ice-hockey player Wayne Gretzky. "There are times," he said earlier this week, "when I know how a mouse trapped in a cage must feel when I come to Montreal." Like Hill, Villeneuve is a championship contender, his work this weekend made more difficult by the burden of national expectation on his shoulders.

The presence of a Canadian Formula One star - the first since Gilles Villeneuve in 1981 - has been a massive boost to the organisers, who confidently expect a record crowd on Sunday. Yet such patriotic fervour may prove a double-edged sword. "If Villeneuve wins," a local observer remarked, "it will be as if next week's Fete de Nation has come early."

Last year the crowd invaded the track to celebrate Jean Alesi's singular success for Ferrari; if Villeneuve wins the organisers live in fear of a repeat, following the governing body, FIA's, action last week against the Imola circuit, which was fined $1m ($750,000 suspended on condition that there is no repeat in 1997 or '98) for the crowd's behaviour in swarming on to the track as Schumacher brought his Ferrari home in second.