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Hill's Estoril record negates FIA safety work

Damon Hill last week set the fastest time of the winter testing in Estoril, Portugal, taking his Williams Renault FW17 around the circuit in a lap of 1m20.95s - just three tenths of a second slower than Gerhard Berger's pole position lap in September last year - and 0.3s faster than the previous best recorded by Michael Schumacher in his Benetton-Renault.

Hill set his time last Tuesday on a day when Johnny Herbert suffered serious gearbox trouble on his Benetton-Renault and when Mika Hakkinen ran the McLaren-Mercedes MP4/10 without its difficult "midship" wing for the first time. The result was an encouraging 1m23.31s lap, McLaren's best lap so far. Hill suffered an engine failure that afternoon, but the following day Williams was still in command as David Coulthard completed a race distance of 81 laps with a best lap of 1m22.51s. Coulthard did not try to beat Hill's best time because of windy weather. That same day Schumacher had his last runs in the Benetton Renault but could do no better than a 1m23.76s and suffered a gearbox failure after 44 laps.

Williams and Benetton then left Estoril while McLaren stayed on to test on Friday.

Overall, therefore, Hill recorded the fastest lap of the winter with Schumacher second quickest (1m21.29s) and Jordan's Eddie Irvine third fastest (1m21.64s). Coulthard's best was a 1m21.77s, ahead of Rubens Barrichello's 1m22.29s and Mika Salo's impressive 1m23.10s for Tyrrell. Gerhard Berger's Ferrari could do no better than a 1m23.25s and Hakkinen's McLaren did no better than 1m23.31s. Next up was Ukyo Katayama with a 1m23.37 in his Tyrrell followed by Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Sauber-Ford, clocked at 1m23.63s, and Johnny Herbert's Benetton (1m23.78s). No-one else broke the 1m24s barrier.

These times give us some idea of what to expect in Brazil at the weekend, although conditions varied greatly during the three weeks of tests.

The other thing to have emerged is that, despite all the regulation changes in the last few months - including the reduction of engine size from 3.5-liters to 3-liters - the F1 engineers have already gained back most of the ground lost as a result of the FIA changes. All the teams have been forced to spend enormous sums of money to build completely new equipment and yet these are not a great deal slower than before. The FIA will argue that the lap times would be a lot faster if it had not acted, and this is undoubtedly true, but the governing body must now begin to investigate further ways in which the cars can be slowed - without imposing similar financial burdens on the teams.

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