BRITONS AT THE CROSSROADS

The burden of national expectation will fall on the Williams pair of Damon Hill and David Coulthard in Sunday's British Grand Prix at Silverstone . But, as Derick Allsop reports, for differing reasons both drivers face pivotal races in their seasons - and their careers
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DAMON HILL

A nation expects and the man himself expects. But should it? Should he? The world drivers' championship appears to be drifting beyond Damon Hill's reach and, we are led to believe, some of his remarks have caused consternation in the Williams-Renault camp.

Hill confronts the gnawing doubts about his prospects as vigorously as he competed against Michael Schumacher for last year's championship. He contends the team is united, and that his widely chronicled criticisms were not only necessary but taken on board. And he remains adamant he has the wherewithal to beat the German this weekend, and over the rest of the title course.

Sitting outside the Williams motor home, looking composed and affable, he seems an unlikely man to wield a big stick. But then there is the other side to his nature, when the dark eyes sink deeper and the frown delivers a clear warning.

That darker side was apparent after the Monaco and Canadian Grands Prix where Hill and his Williams were no match for Schumacher and the Benetton- Renault. It was no contest in France, either, though by then the Englishman had reined in the public rebukes of the team operation. He had made his point. Now they must respond as one, or abandon any championship aspirations.

Hill said: "I think sometimes it takes someone who is at the core of it to make it known that things are not all hunky-dory, and it's sometimes difficult when you're working in such a big organisation actually to gauge how things are going. I work at the sharp end of the thing and you just have to be more vociferous about things in order for it to get through.

"It seemed to me there wasn't the kind of fizz there to win the championship and I could have been completely wrong about that, but the point is my fears were completely borne out. It's not that I want to be proved right. I don't want that situation any more than Williams.

"People at Williams hate losing. They take a great deal of pride in their roles, working for a great team. It's their jobs and their livelihoods, just like it is mine. It's their car, so in that way we are united. They want me to win for them.

"I certainly do not want to have a bad relationship with Frank Williams and Patrick Head, or anyone in the team. I'm very keen that we are in this together, working to a common goal. That really is important to me. I like a spirit of co-operation. I like to avoid confrontation at all costs.

"But it's really important to show how strongly you feel about things. If I keep my emotions in check, it's easy to assume I don't feel strongly, but that's not true. It amazes me - the thought that people are not quite as determined to achieve success or don't feel quite so intense about that moment, and that moment is now.

"It's no good thinking sometime in the future it's going to happen, it's got to be now, but that's probably a fault of mine. I've always been the same."

This time last year Hill revealed that darker side in demanding to be taken more seriously. That is a message he feels has got through. Now he believes he is justified in demanding of himself the championship.

He said: "Last year I thought I was being overlooked and my contribution was being underestimated. But now it's not. The last year has proved me right in every respect. I've got what it takes to fight at the front. My pressure at the moment is that I want to win races and the drivers' championship. That's my goal.

"I've never shied away from setting goals and trying to achieve them. I don't think I expect too much of myself. It's important to squeeze everything out of yourself. Otherwise, you'd always be thinking, 'could I have done it better? Do I want to sit here, with my pipe and slippers, at the age of 65, thinking I should have tried a bit harder?'."

If he is to reminisce in old age about championship success he must make up an 11-point deficit and then leave behind an opponent assured the full No1 treatment by Benetton, who give priority to the drivers' rather than constructors' championship. It is not Williams' way to load their loyalties until and unless they deem it essential. Hill hints it may be essential now.

He said: "From a personal point of view, it is much better for a driver to have the full attention of the team in order to force things in the way that he believes is the right way to get results.

"On the other side of the coin, there's no way Williams are going to turn out a one-car team. It's quite clear it's Frank's objective every year to win the constructors' championship but I did help Williams win it for the last two years and while it's great for Williams, it's of no great consequence to me. I want to win the drivers' championship.

"I think there is an advantage in having the total attention of the team on the person who's going to deliver the results, and I think it's been proven on a number of occasions. The subject is in the air, I suppose you could say. It is something that needs to be carefully thought about. It's certainly worked at Benetton. You have to say, though, that some of the most interesting races have been when Prost and Senna were in the same team, or Lauda and Prost, or Mansell and Piquet.

That is actually what has been missing recently in Formula One, the big names together in a team. The trouble is, not many teams have the budget to have two such drivers.

"But you can still have great races with different drivers from different teams, and I don't see any reason why we should not have a three-man fight for the championship. It's not like anyone's got a big advantage. The whole season has been very close."

If that third man does emerge, he is likely to be Jean Alesi, of Ferrari, assuming the team's indifferent showing in France was a temporary dip.

Hill said: "Alesi was catching me in Argentina, and in Monaco and Barcelona he would have beaten me if he had finished, so the alarm bells were ringing with me a lot earlier than they were in some other places. They are being heard now, though. Nothing like a shock to the system to make people wake up."

The moment may be now for Hill but, at the age of 34, he is contemplating another five years in the rarified atmosphere of Formula One.

"I've only just started," he said. "It's not as though I was shot to stardom at the age of 21. I'm not starry-eyed about what I do, and that's enabled me to keep my mind on the job. But I don't think I'd want to be driving at 40.

"My dad would probably reluctantly have said he went on too long. People do not like to see their heroes not doing well. Alain Prost and Niki Lauda, people like that, have done it exactly the right way."

DAVID COULTHARD

It was the stuff of celluloid fantasies; called up by the top team at 23, preferred to a former world champion for his first full season.

But now, little more than a year and 15 races into his Formula One career, David Coulthard admits he is worried about his job.

This sport, perhaps like no other, chews young hopefuls and spits them out again. The trackside is littered with the remnants of shattered aspirations and Coulthard's one-year contract looks increasingly fragile.

The Scot came from the obscurity of testing to a place in the Williams- Renault line up after the death of Ayrton Senna, but retained it on merit. The team fought and won a legal contest with McLaren to secure his services, and chose him ahead of Nigel Mansell.

Seven races in to this campaign, however, Coulthard is still attempting to prove he is worthy of the drive. A brilliant display in Argentina has been over-shadowed by more modest performances, and he left France, 11 days ago, relieved rather than elated with third place behind Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill. In the championship table, he is a distant fifth.

It means the British Grand Prix takes on even more significance. It is an opportunity to ease the load and convince his employers that their faith and judgement were not misplaced. He does not seek sympathy or concessions, just results.

Coulthard, ever bright, ever straight, said: "I have to say on balance I'm disappointed so far. There are times when you raise your game and Argentina was one of them, but I've got to make that happen more often.

"I'm the least experienced guy in the top teams, but I've got to perform. If I don't, I won't be in the top teams. I'm here to do a job and I have 22 points fewer than Damon. You either do the job or you won't be in the car. This is a winning team and if I'm not winning then they'll find someone who probably can.

"I guess I am conscious of contracts and suddenly starting to think about what is going to happen, where the drivers are going to move to. I am very aware there is a pecking order as to who gets to move where from Michael down."

No driver in Coulthard's situation would have turned down the Williams seat, of course, and yet there is a growing and unavoidable suspicion that he might have been better off serving his apprenticeship in a lower or middle-order team.

Coulthard concedes: "I have thought about whether it would have been better for my career in the long term, and the answer to that is probably 'yes'. Everyone, except Damon, really, has started lower down. Even Michael had to work at Benetton before he had a car capable of winning.

"If Ayrton's crash hadn't happened, it's probably unlikely I would have got into Formula One. OK, I was testing for Williams, but I think it was 50-50 whether I would have got in at all. Even now, I guess, I feel anything that comes along I'll grab, whereas Michael will sit back.

"Frank Williams has never put pressure on me, apart from not letting me know whether or not I was going to be in the team. In Monaco, where I was pulling my hair out, he was fantastic. Even my father had disowned me. He thought I was a complete waste of time and would have had me back home driving the fork lift, loading the lorries. The team have been very supportive."

Coulthard is comforted by the conviction his performances have been inhibited by the effects of tonsillitis. The offending glands now removed, he is confident fitness and form will follow. "The tonsillitis really affected me badly," he said. "After a race I'd be lying in my bed and have no motivation to do anything. It was a downward spiral. I see this as the start of my season again."

Coulthard acknowledges he has little prospect of competing for the championship this season and realises he may, in the not too distant future, be asked to support Hill's cause.

He said: "It would be unlikely for me to win it, being realistic and given the experience the other guys have got. Michael makes very few mistakes, so does Damon. I would not find it easy to accept a supporting role, but if that's the position we are in, that's the position we are in.

"I'm an employee of Williams Grand Prix Engineering and as such I have to abide by certain rules, and if that's the order I'm given so be it. As long as I can challenge for the championship it won't come to that.

"I should have more points on the board. I'll be disappointed if I finish the season without a win. If Ferrari are able to win a race then I should be able to."

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