Williams show true class

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THE ragged edge visible in Michael Schumacher's driving told its own tale yesterday, and confirmed the technical step forward that the Williams team have taken with revised cars for David Coulthard and Damon Hill. As the British pair praised aerodynamic improvements that have yielded greater stability in slow corners, Schumacher could only grit his teeth as he continued vainly to throw his Benetton at the Estoril circuit in an effort to dislodge them from the front of today's grid.

The world champion confirmed that he had been on the absolute limit of his car's performance. "There was nothing left today," he said. "I knew I could go a couple of tenths quicker, but I didn't really want to go out and it wouldn't have been enough."

Hill had capitalised on his greater testing experience with the new revised car to set the pace on Friday, but Coulthard turned the tables yesterday to take his second consecutive pole position and his third of the season.

"I'm especially happy," the Scot said, "because I wasn't particularly comfortable with the car yesterday and if Damon's trend had continued it's very difficult to pass round here. But I was able to get a nice, clean lap, push very hard, and it all worked well. I'm surprised how difficult it is to find a balance at this circuit, harder than it was at Spa and Monza." After Hill had responded to Coulthard's first attack to regain the initiative, Coulthard then lapped in 1min 20.905s, and when Hill came across the two Ligiers in the final stages of his response, the matter was settled beyond dispute.

Coulthard refuted suggestions that his new-found pace is the product of a revised driving style. "I've looked at the traces on the telemetry and have to say I haven't noticed a difference relative to Damon. The change for me is just that I had such a bad mid-point to the season because of my tonsillitis, and my training from Argentina onwards was just non- existent. To compete at this level without being fit is just impossible. Now I feel much fitter and, because my mind is sharp, I'm driving better."

With Gerhard Berger bravely pushing through to share the second row with Schumacher, two of 1995's forgotten men, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Johnny Herbert, line up on row three. Many find it difficult to believe that the German has not been snapped up by a top team for 1996 and his performance for Sauber again underlined his ability. Meanwhile, at a time when teams have been arguing over whether to run three cars in 1996, some paddock cynics have been moved to suggest that Benetton has effectively been running only one for the past three seasons. Herbert, the winner at Monza only a fortnight ago, provided his own riposte to Benetton's failure to pinpoint the suspension problem he had complained of on Friday, to jump up to sixth in the closing stages. His improvement pushed Alesi's Ferrari down a place, the Frenchman lining up seventh as Martin Brundle's Ligier separates the Jordans of Rubens Barrichello and Eddie Irvine. The heavily revised McLarens of Mark Blundell and Mika Hakkinen, however, have disappointed badly, with only 12th and 13th places.

Hill made it quite clear that there are no team orders within the Williams camp, light-heartedly asking Coulthard if he wanted to finish second. No, came the predictable reply, and Hill shrugged and said with a smile, "What can we do? I think we'll just have to race. That would be terrible, wouldn't it, judging by the way I've been racing lately..." As Coulthard seeks that elusive first victory, Hill knows that he cannot afford to be magnanimous, since this could be his last chance to keep the door open as the championship heads into the finishing straight.

"We are at a crossroads here, there's no doubt about it. This event could mark the beginning of a strong fight to challenge Michael Schumacher's lead or the point at which the title gets that little bit too far away. It's already a tall order to claw back the points. But I'm optimistic, I'm up for it. My head is in the right frame of mind and I feel good about driving. I'm looking forward to what's ahead."

Whatever that is, everyone fervently hopes that this time, on a circuit where overtaking is very difficult, Hill and Schumacher manage to keep out of each other's way. The last thing either of them needs is another inglorious premature evacuation.