Head's heart wants Hill to win justice

Williams' technical director really does want his British driver to secure the world title on Sunday, says Derick Allsop
Click to follow
The Independent Online
If Damon Hill fails to win the Formula One world championship on Sunday, Will-iams will doubtless be portrayed in some quarters as the villains of the piece. Or more specifically, their two bosses, Frank Williams and Patrick Head, will be.

Having sacked Hill and replaced him with Heinz-Harald Frentzen for next season, it would, after all, seem logical for the team to prefer Jacques Villeneuve to take the title in the decisive Japanese Grand Prix. Their engine partners, Renault, and various sponsors would certainly rather like to display the No 1 next term.

The erosion of Hill's championship lead from 25 points to nine has aroused suspicion among the more jingoistic. Head's assertion that the British driver was "too slow" in Portugal met with anger, indignation and retaliatory letters in the specialist press. Those directed to Williams' technical director have been filed with Hill's broken parts. He was not exactly accused of treason, but pretty much as good as.

These literary headhunters may be surprised, if sceptical, on hearing his response, but should perhaps hear it anyhow. Head said: "I would be very sad if Damon did not win it because we had a six-year association and virtually all of it has been pleasurable. I think he deserves the championship. He's won more grands prix this year than any other driver and I hope he gets the championship.

"I have not had as close a relationship with Damon in the latter part of this year and I think he probably feels I have not been one of his strongest supporters, and that is one of the things I have to deal with. But in terms of providing the best possible equipment to both drivers, we have done everything to that end."

By Hill's own admission, the clutch problem which affected his car late in the Portuguese Grand Prix had no bearing on the outcome. Villeneuve was already in the clear and prolonging the title contest.

"The point I tried to make at Estoril was that Damon allowed a 15-second advantage in the middle of the race to slip away. I did not mean Damon was slow, just that he was going too slowly to win that race. Maybe he was unlucky in traffic," Head said.

"But when somebody is leading the championship, he tends to be more conservative in the later stages, as Alain Prost was in 1993. Damon seems to have gone into his conservative mode, whereas Jacques is in a no-lose situation.

"Overall, Damon has been quicker and Portugal is probably the only race where Jacques has genuinely been the quicker. I didn't expect Jacques to be in a position to win the championship and thought Damon would be stronger right through the year. I thought it would have been over before Portugal, let alone Japan."

Williams will feel the trend vindicates their decision to drop Hill. It is understood they would have preferred to unload him before this year, but had run out of options. Hill undermined his positive response in the first half of the season by declaring he would be "footloose and fancy free" at the end of it.

The remark smacked of disloyalty and was interpreted as a blatant attempt to up the ante. Williams, still unconvinced Hill would be able to resist Michael Schumacher in a more competitive Ferrari, decided to take up their option on Frentzen's services, which also came considerably cheaper.

Head admits they took "a stab in the dark" with Villeneuve, but Williams believe the self-assured, developing French-Canadian has proved he is not fazed by Schumacher, his audacious manoeuvre to pass the German at Estoril illustrating as much.

Williams and Head approved of that. "I do like to see the car have its neck wrung," the latter said. "There have been many races when Damon has extracted the maximum from the car, but our decision has to lead you to conclude we would like to get more out of it.

"Only around the middle of next year will we see if we were right to sign Heinz-Harald. It's not just a case of beating Schumacher. We're looking to gather stronger weaponry, and at the time we decided to opt for Frentzen and not Damon we clearly felt that was the better course."

Ironically, Hill has only to caress the Williams around Suzuka's figure of eight circuit to become champion. A point will be enough, even if Villeneuve wins the race.

The gentlest of treatment cannot guarantee reliability, however, and Williams are acutely conscious they must be seen to be scrupulously fair to their drivers this weekend.

For only the third time this season, they are taking four cars. The other venues were Monaco, where a team can easily lose two cars in an aborted start, and Silverstone, which is just up the road from the team's Oxfordshire factory. Head said: "Imagine the situation if both drivers had a bump, the race was stopped and both came running back to the pits for the spare. How would we be able to decide who should have it?"

Head and the team's chief designer, Adrian Newey, are further additions to the team effort in Japan this week. Had the championship been decided, they would have been back at base, working on next year's car.

Testing after the Portuguese Grand Prix gave the team the opportunity to make rigorous reliability tests. "That problem Damon had in the race was not actually with the clutch, but the disengagement mechanism," Head said. "It was a seized bearing, so we've tested a bearing and various other things."

The nuts and bolts of business, however, are another matter. And all the public demonstrations of even- handedness might also be considered to provide the perfect cover for a discreet tweak somewhere to give Villeneuve, and Williams, the No 1 next year.

The cynicism comes as no surprise to Head, a veteran of much Formula One conflict and controversy.

"I don't think it makes any difference to us who wins," he said. "Sometimes there is an advantage to be gained by your position in the pit lane, but that is decided by the constructors' championship and we won that. I think the drivers' championship matters more to our partners and sponsors than it does to us."

Williams have lost three previous champions - Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and Prost - in the last nine years, and although the circumstances in each case have been different, Head said: "That means either we are incompetent or we are not that concerned. Others can decide which they think it is."

The team that has, this season, equalled Ferrari's record of eight constructors' championships can hardly be described as incompetent.

Comments