Schumacher on high horse

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The Independent Online
Damon Hill's recurring nightmare became fact yesterday as his dream of a 19th pole position slithered away, together with the rear-end grip of his Williams- Renault, on his last lap of the Hungaroring circuit.

Earlier in the afternoon he had temporarily been fastest, until his team- mate Jacques Villeneuve threw down the gauntlet and then Michael Schumacher established a new benchmark lap of 1min 17.445sec. Villeneuve regained the initiative by a hair, but Schumacher took it back with 1:17.129, and that was the time all three aimed for as rising temperatures and deteriorating grip set up the final shoot-out.

The Canadian's last attempt almost came to grief with a slide at the top chicane which left Hill and Schumacher to fight it out. There was but 27 seconds of the hour-long session left as the Briton crossed the start/finish line to begin his last lap; 12 seconds later the German followed him. Neither succeeded, leaving Schumacher in the prime slot.

All weekend the Ferrari's track behaviour has given the lie to suggestions that the Prancing Horse is a colt that still needs breaking in. Certainly, Schumacher's ability to push it into untrodden territory by carrying phenomenal speed into corners, and then maintaining that amazing momentum, endorsed for the umpteenth time the level of his talent. But on this occasion it seemed that the red car was helping rather than hindering him.

"We made some significant changes prior to Hockenheim," he said. "I thought that they would pay off there, but it has turned out the other way round. They are better on a high downforce circuit. Hockenheim was a disaster, but here the car has been reasonable. I can keep the tyres together and it looks quite promising for the race. I was very pessimistic at the start of the weekend, but then I was very optimistic at Hockenheim!"

Hill's face reflected the level of his disappointment. "There was nowhere in particular that I was losing time. I don't think I had the best balance that I could have had in the car, and I never felt like I'd done a real peach of a lap. But the important thing for the race is that we have enough information and set-ups to give us options."

Confirming Ferrari's upswing, Eddie Irvine took fourth place, a long way off the leaders' pace but ahead of the gripless and disappointed Benetton duo of Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger, and the McLaren-Mercedes of the similarly troubled Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, who sandwiched Johnny Herbert's Sauber-Ford. Herbert was one of the happier drivers, revelling in the improvement from the latest version of Ford's hitherto disappointing V10 engine.

As Damon Hill moves closer to the World Championship summit, he finds himself contemplating yet another tough climb this afternoon. It is bad enough for him that Schumacher thrust himself to the fore and stayed there, but the Hungaroring is to overtaking what the Atlanta mayor, Bill Campbell, is to media relations.

Thierry Boutsen was a nice enough bloke yet hardly a racer in Ayrton Senna's class, but he kept his Williams-Renault ahead of the Brazilian's McLaren-Honda for the entire 77 laps of the 1990 race. The Belgian simply avoided being pressured into any mistakes, and the Hungaroring stymied Senna's legendary ability to overtake. "I'll be starting on the dirty side of the grid," Hill said, before underlining his determination not to settle for mere championship points. "I have the car and the opportunity to win. Trundling round collecting points doesn't appeal to me. This is a tight circuit and a long race, and Ferrari reliability has not been that good. Anything could happen."

In all likelihood the start will settle the outcome, and recently Hill's have been poor. "It's getting more difficult getting the cars off the line these days with the way that the engines are," he agreed. "They don't have quite the same torque characteristics of the 3.5-litre engines, but we are working on that..."

Schumacher, too, has had his problems. "For sure the start will be important. We have done work on this, but we have not finished it. We hope it's gonna work." Upbeat and cheerful, the world champion has the scent of another victory.