Hill aims to pile on the pressure

Motor racing

reports from Spa-Francorchamps

Another arena, another ball game. Damon Hill, the no-hoper last time out, senses the force is now with him and the pressure on the world champion and championship leader Michael Schumacher, as he seeks confirmation of his revived title prospects in Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix here.

Hill's victory and Schumacher's retirement in Hungary, 12 days ago, brings them to this, the most spectacular circuit on the tour, separated by just 11 points. The mood in the Williams-Renault camp has changed just as dramatically.

Their English driver, contracted for another year by the team, said yesterday: "Michael is in the position now where he could possibly lose the title, which looked pretty secure till a fortnight ago. Eleven points is a fairly slender lead and he will be feeling a little more twitchy.

''It's important for us to pile on the pressure. Williams are working flat out to make improvements and I'm working hard, testing hard, focusing on winning every race."

Hill's ability to sustain the pressure carried him all the way to a final race decider last season, momentum generated after Schumacher's disqualification at this track.

"Spa is even more crucial than Hungary," Hill said. "That was a situation where if I lost I could virtually discount the championship. Now I have to win to keep up the momentum and if I do that I believe we will have reached a turning point. Instead of a mountain to climb it will be a bit more of an easy slope for the rest of the season. I have a lot of inner pressure to perform. The momentum will build with us."

With seven races remaining, the bookmakers have Schumacher at 5-1 on, Hill 3-1 against. Hill suggests a few bob on him might not be wasted.

"I have invested my entire career on myself to win the championship,'' Hill added. ''It has taken me a long time to position myself to take a stab at it. This is the culmination of 10 years' racing."

Hill's concentration on that objective this season will not be dissipated by Schumacher's declaration that his rival will be favourite next year. The German reasons that he cannot expect to be champion in his first season after switching from Benetton-Renault to Ferrari.

Psychological ploys have long been part of their duel and Hill declines to fall for this one. He said: "This year is taking all my attention. That's Michael releasing a bit of pressure because he's taken a lot of money from Ferrari and they will be expecting value for it. They put him in at great expense to put Ferrari on top."

He is unmoved by the plight of David Coulthard, now seeking alternative employment after being replaced at Williams by Jacques Villeneuve. Hill said "I wouldn't be honest if I said I had sympathy with anyone in Formula One. It's a hard game and the rules apply to me as to anyone else. It's a reminder of how ruthless the sport can be. Every driver has to perform. It's still early days in David's career. He's 24. I was driving Formula Ford at his age."

The cash-strapped Pacific Ford team were last night involved in emergency talks over their latest crisis, which arose following a dispute with the suppliers of their engines last season.