World in Hill's hands

Motor racing
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DAMON Hill finished nine thousandths of a second closer to the bull's-eye than his Williams-Renault team-mate and world championship rival Jacques Villeneuve as drivers chased a moving target in practice at Estoril yesterday, yet both were frustrated.

After the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, and sundry poor starts earlier this season, observers have learned to place less importance on Hill's starting position, and more on the place he occupies going into the first corner before gauging his prospects. But there was no doubting his satisfaction in taking his favourite place on the grid for the 20th time in 66 races, just before the rain that had threatened earlier in the session finally arrived in time to prevent the ultimate showdown.

"It was very, very exciting, and scary that it was so close," Hill smiled. "I don't know how much track nine thousandths of a second represents - a car length maybe. I had a good set-up and was happy with the car, and I got a good lap in. But I was under no illusion that Jacques was not where he should be when he was down in fifth place earlier on."

Once again the little Canadian was philosophical about losing out to his team-mate by such a minuscule margin. "It's very disappointing. I won't say the words I was saying in my helmet, but it was a tough moment. We were so close and there was still a run left, but then it rained.

"Nine thousandths is so small. If you knew what it was going to be you'd probably make that up, but then again you'd probably go off trying. But it's frustrating, like throwing a coin into the air. Yeah, it's tough."

Hill, too, had been ready for one final attempt to go quicker still. "I was about to go out when Jacques went out, and was all pumped up and ready for another lap..."

He has stamped his confidence on practice all weekend, with the smooth, purposeful driving of a man on a mission, whereas Villeneuve initially looked rougher and spun after pushing a little too hard during morning practice. With intermittent rain all weekend washing away rubber from the track surface - and therefore its hard-won grip - everyone has been scratching their head trying to determine the best chassis set-ups.

In the wake of the unbeatable blue and white cars Jean Alesi pushed up to third place while, following indications to the contrary during practice, Michael Schumacher's prediction that the Ferrari would like Estoril less than it did Spa-Francorchamps or Monza proved accurate in qualifying. The winner of the last two races will start only fourth, ahead of Gerhard Berger in the second Benetton and his own team-mate Eddie Irvine, who staged an impressive performance as he shadowed his team leader.

Another driver recently suggested that all Hill has to do to win the world championship this afternoon is to push Villeneuve off the track, and mischievously he did not deny that the thought had crossed his mind. He smiled as he tweaked a few tails and said: "Wouldn't I? I am leading the championship and I am determined to win it ... But I am against unfair tactics. I have seen championships settled in ways that I regard as unsatisfactory, and I don't want it to happen this time. I feel I can win it on merit, on driver performance."

This, after all, is the man who inherited his illustrious father's sense of fair play, and who once said: "Some people think motor racing should be like a boxing match. I am not one of them." Now he added: "If I am in the lead, I will defend my position vigorously. My situation is quite simple - I have to finish ahead of Jacques to finish the whole thing off. But I can still win the championship if I'm behind him. I do not want to resort to unfair tactics."

If he were to collide with Villeneuve, it would be by mistake rather than deliberate ploy. But as he touches the hem of the world championship, Hill knows that the time when any kind of mistake, let alone the awful gaffe he made at Monza, could be tolerated has long since past. Credibility demands that this afternoon he delivers the goods in style.

Hill's future, page 31