'Stupendous' Schumacher

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The Independent Online
Motor racing


reports from Spa-Francorchamps

Formula One managed to turn one of the great races into another court room wrangle here yesterday, but this time Michael Schumacher left with the victory his brilliance in the Belgian Grand Prix merited.

By Damon Hill's own admission, Schumacher's drive, carrying him from 16th place on the grid to the 16th win of his career, was "stupendous." It was a masterpiece of car control, courage and judgment in changing conditions, a performance to rank alongside the best of Ayrton Senna. Hill, however, complained about the German's blocking tactics in the crucial, middle part of the race, and the Englishman's team, Williams- Renault, registered a protest "against Schumacher's behaviour but not the result."

The stewards, who disqualified Schumacher here last year for an infringement of technical regulations, confirmed the result should stand, although they gave the Benetton-Renault driver a one-race ban, suspended for four grands prix. Schumacher responded by declaring his intention to appeal, saying: "I don't see any reason for it."

The world championship contenders, severely reprimanded and warned as to their future conduct after colliding during last month's British Grand Prix, found themselves at close quarters again following Hill's pit-stop for wet weather tyres. As the rain fell, Schumacher gambled, just as Senna often did, and stayed out on slicks.

Handling the Benetton became precarious, yet for three laps Schumacher protected his lead, resisting Hill with a combination of aggression and expertise. Hill felt that aggression, in the corners, was unacceptable and Williams contended Schumacher weaved on the straights.

Hill eventually overtook Schumacher, only to yield the lead on the next lap. The rain had eased and by the time Hill had changed to slicks his arch adversary was more than half a minute clear. It ought to have been a decisive advantage, except that the rains returned, and the safety car brought them together again. The race eventually swung beyond Hill's reach when he incurred a stop-and-go penalty for speeding in the pit lane at the last of his five visits.

Hill had to push himself to the limit to take second place from Martin Brundle, in a Ligier-Mugen. He achieved that on the final lap, collecting the six points that placed him 15 behind Schumacher in the championship.

The race was studded with stirring contests and incidents, a rare gem among the pebbles of the recent past, but the euphoric sense of a glitter occasion was dulled by the acrimony that followed.

Hill said: "If the stewards think banging wheels is acceptable, we'll do it, but if the rules do not prevent drivers using cars as instruments to prevent other cars overtaking, in other words to forcibly drive at another car, then the rules are wrong, aren't they?

"I've told Michael what I've thought of his driving and don't want to spoil a great race. Anyone who comes from 16th to win should be congratulated, but I feel I could have won but for a bit of bad luck."

Hill reminded Schumacher that Formula One cars were not go-karts. Schumacher replied that Hill should try them, they were fun. Hill also contended the stop-and-go penalty was unfair. Schumacher, enjoying his rival's discomfort, asked him if he thought the same last year, when the stewards stripped the German of his win and gave it to Hill.

The senior Williams driver was not alone in bemoaning his misfortune. Jean Alesi propelled his Ferrari into the lead at the start and Johnny Herbert, in the other Benetton, briefly wrestled him out of it.

Alesi was soon forced to retire and the Englishman spun under pressure from David Coulthard's Williams. Coulthard went away from Hill until his gearbox failed him. Hill, having started eighth, was in front. He conceded the lead to Schumacher between their first pitstops but was 14 seconds ahead again when the elements presented that critical examination of their wit and skill.

Brundle, giving Mugen their best result in Formula One, had to settle for third, his disintegrating tyres no match for Hill's sixth set. Heinz- Harald Frentzen, driving a Sauber-Ford, was fourth, Mark Blundell, in a McLaren-Mercedes, fifth, and Rubens Barrichello, of Jordan-Peugeot, sixth. Herbert missed out on the points in seventh.

Eddie Irvine, in the other Jordan, and his pit crew were lucky to escape injury when petrol spilled on to the car and burst into flames. Mechanics swiftly doused the fire.