Schumacher supreme

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The Independent Online
FORTUNES, like lap times, change very quickly in Formula One. On Thursday Damon Hill was relaxed and expansive as he spoke of the satisfaction he was deriving from life as leader of the World Championship. By yesterday he was wringing his hands.

"It feels better," he had said initially. "How can I describe it? It's been more satisfying for me in the last two races than it was through last year. It's very satisfying."

He was dispassionate, but candid, about his main rival, Michael Schumacher, too. "I know he has a certain amount of arrogance, but I don't believe that he is impervious to criticism," he said.

"At the weigh-in in Brazil he was pushing the regulations, and effectively he stuck two fingers up at them. He is supposed to be representing the sport in the true manner of a champion. I wouldn't expect a champion to do that. And there are signs that he may be over-driving at present. It's a sort of immaturity, really.

"Inevitably Michael and Benetton are going to catch up," he continued, alluding to the technical advantage Williams enjoyed for the first three races. "You don't get these opportunities for long. We have a perceptible, but fine, advantage and we've got to capitalise on that now."

He could not have perceived then just how quickly his main rival would respond, for yesterday Schumacher once again stamped his authority on qualifying and left his competitors gasping in amazement as he recovered equilibrium to take pole position.

Throughout Friday, Hill and his team-mate, David Coulthard, struggled to set up their Williams-Renaults as the Ferrari duo of Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger made the running. But then Schumacher moved the goalposts again with a stunning effort.

"Yesterday the car was so bad," the German said. "But we improved it dramatically today. I expected it to be a close fight, not to be this far ahead." His run put him more than half a second clear of Alesi and Berger. Hill and Coulthard's frustrations continued, as they could only make fifth and fourth on the grid respectively, and their compatriots had mixed satisfaction too.

Sixth place further underlined Eddie Irvine's ability, but the Ulsterman's Jordan-Peugeot still clearly lacks the horsepower, let alone the reliability, to win. Behind him, Johnny Herbert is seventh, still finding his own set- up route at Benetton.

Things were brighter for Nigel Mansell as he reduced a two- second gap on his team-mate, Mika Hakkinen, to only a tenth of a second yesterday. "Our car has a weak front end and doesn't like turning into corners," Mansell said. "My driving style is to go deep into a corner before turning, but it just seems to aggravate the understeer."

Martin Brundle, though delighted to be back in F1 in the Ligier, and with 11th place behind Mansell, nevertheless expressed his distaste for the present cars. "I really hate them. In 1992, and to a certain extent in 1993, you could get the cars set up and then really attack a circuit with them. But now you just can't do that. I spent all Friday not so much trying to go quick as just trying not to spin."

On Thursday Hill had stressed his belief that he was ready to win the World Championship. By yesterday, Schumacher's speed had brought disillusion: "The party is over," Hill conceded. "At the moment we have been relegated to the bottom of the First Division."