Full house for the phoney war

Stan Hey at Silverstone seeks a cure for the verbal sideshow
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The Independent Online
SO IS IT real, or was it just done to pack the house? The apparent feud between the Formula One champion Michael Schumacher, of Benetton, and his nearest challenger Damon Hill, of Williams, has occupied almost as many acres of newsprint as those Northamptonshire fields now covered by race fans awaiting today's supposedly apocalyptic showdown between the two rivals.

So in terms of box-office, the issue of the row's authenticity is almost academic - it has already put bums on every available seat around the Silverstone circuit with a 90,000 sell-out crowd guaranteed for today after Friday's 37,000 and yesterday's 45,000.

This isn't to suggest that the two drivers have been complicit in any stage-managed fight - Hill, for one, has pointed out that his "clone" assessment of Schumacher was both taken, and translated, out of context from an interview done months ago. But neither are they entirely innocent of mischief, despite Schumacher's attempt to look like the school swot only seconds after he has slammed the desk-lid on Damon, the boy sitting next to him.

Both drivers will have been aware that because most of the grand prix teams are based in Britain, and because the British press forms the disproportionate bulk of Formula One's media circus, the run-up to Silverstone is a fertile time for the laundering of dirty linen.

It is no coincidence, for example, that the first rumour-mongering about driver line-ups for next year has surfaced this week after only seven races of a 17-race season.

So it would be easy to dismiss the Hill-Schumacher spat as the accidental by-product of people - both drivers and journalists - with too much time on their hands, and not enough ideas in their heads.

Certainly, the slapstick dialogue between the two men didn't merit the headlines it received. A petty bout of name-calling, a few unspecified threats and then a rather transparently engineered truce has been, superficially, the strength of it. Indeed, had the row taken place in a Glasgow pub, both combatants would have been evicted promptly for failing to come out of their corners. John Watson, the former grand prix driver, yesterday described the protagonists as "like puppies in a litter tumbling over each other".

The image is an apt one, and not just because it catches the banal inoffensiveness of Hill and Schumacher's remarks. It also correctly identified their tyro status on the grand prix circuit - it is less than five years since Eddie Jordan had both men passing through his team, Schumacher as a Formula One novice, Hill as a Formula 3000 workhorse.

While their twin ascents since then owe much to both drivers' respective abilities, there remains a suspicion that they are both being pushed into undue prominence by the departures of Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell.

Certainly the rivalries between these three found more than verbal expressions as an outlet, as testified to their frequent comings-together during races.

Prost's desperate and clumsy spearing of Senna entering the chicane at Suzuka in 1989 was more than reciprocated by Senna's "kamikaze" attempt to get into the first corner ahead of Prost or take him off, at the same circuit the following year. Mansell's supporters dine out on the wheel- to-wheel, eye-to- eyeball encounters the Brummie had with both rivals, irrespective of whether they were in the same team as him.

Compare this to the menu of Hill-Schumacher shoot-outs and, apart from the unsatisfactory end game at Adelaide last season and the recent allegation of Hill "brake-testing" Schumacher at Magny-Cours, you find very little red meat on the plate.

And yet the statistics continue to lie to us - of the last 23 grands prix, 20 have gone to either Hill or Schumacher, with the German taking 12 wins to the Englishman's eight. But the simple fact is that pit-stops, mechanical breakdowns and the new fuel strategies have robbed us of any great physical sense or memory of this rivalry, which is probably the real reason behind the feud we've been obliged to swallow all week.

Yesterday, after the rain had rendered the final qualifying session irrelevant, the two men exchanged a curt handshake at the press conference but avoided any eye contact. Indeed, while Hill spoke, Schumacher looked blankly out of the window, and then Hill waved to the fans in the stand as the German, attempting a joke about brakes, heard it fall with a thud.

So yes, Schumacher finds it difficult to hide his sense of superiority over Hill, and yes, Hill is just the sort of homely, dogged, blokish Brit to take more than the Michael out of a suave, cocky Germany. But until the circumstances on the track transform their mild antipathy into a vigorous, uncompromised battle to the line, we may have to make do with a phoney war not a real one. Silverstone will hope for action today, not more words.