Hill driven back to the real world

Britain's world champion has been reduced to the ranks this season. Derick Allsop talked to him
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He lines up for a new season in Australia tomorrow with the No 1 on his car and professes himself content. There it is, all the vindication he requires. He is world champion and no one can take the achievement from him or erase it from grand prix racing's roll of honour.

And yet the emotions are apparently churning inside him, much as they always have done. He has no chance of retaining his title, which pains him, and you sense he is aware others are still waiting to see what he is really made of. Even now, Damon Hill must prove himself.

Hill and his supporters may not wish to see it that way, but then many of those who jumped on the Englishman's bandwagon last year would not know the difference between a Williams and a Wartburg. They are about to see the difference between a Williams and an Arrows, and within the Formula One community this is regarded as the true test of Hill's ability and application.

Some who complimented him on his "deserved" championship success last season did so through gritted teeth. The Ulsterman Eddie Irvine was honest enough to express what many more felt, that "we will know how good he is when he's in a bad car."

Hill, by his own admission, has spent his motor racing career endeavouring to convince a sceptical world of his talent.

"I felt for a long time I was trying to prove myself at Williams," he said. "First as a test driver, then as a race driver, then telling Frank Williams I could lead the team after Ayrton Senna died. Then they put Nigel Mansell in the other car, just in case, and I beat him. There was always this sideways look."

Williams, of course, remained unconvinced at the end of the 1995 season and negotiated the recruitment of a replacement, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, long before Hill won the 1996 championship. By the time he was informed his services would not be required this year, however, all competitive options had been closed off.

So now he has, if not a "bad" car, then one certainly incapable of intruding on matters at the business end of the grid. The Yamaha engine, in particular, is a source of acute concern for Hill and the drum-beating assertion of the Arrows team owner, Tom Walkinshaw, that a win is possible this year, has had his senior driver backing off.

Hill said: "Anything is possible, yes, especially if it rains because our Bridgestone tyres work really well in the wet. But when I talk about winning a race, I'm only talking about winning it on merit - going out there, qualifying high in the grid, outracing everyone and crossing the line first. Lucking into a win is not going to change anyone's perception of how competitive the team is."

Gaining fortunate wins is not something Hill is accustomed to, and herein lies the frustration he can no longer suppress. The imminent reality of his predicament has finally loosened a tongue held in check since Williams showed him the door.

"Yes, there will be frustrations," he said. "My record as a ratio of wins to starts and qualifying ratio [pole positions achieved] I think is second to Fangio. And it will be very frustrating to be powerless to stop someone taking the title. I felt I deserved the opportunity to defend it and I think I could have been going for a second championship if I was in the Williams."

Hill believes also he might have beaten Michael Schumacher to the championship in 1995 had Williams given him their undivided support "instead of stubbornly and rather stupidly and obstinately sticking to the policy of not getting behind one particular driver.

"What you saw at the end of '95 was a guy who was thoroughly disillusioned and thoroughly disappointed and confused by the actions and policies of the team. I put myself in it for the team, not just for myself. I'm pretty loyal and I expected more support.

"I think a lot of credit for the success last year has to be attributed to the work I put in and Adrian Newey [the team's estranged chief designer] put in to make us a more effective fighting unit at the racetrack, tactically and operationally, than in all the time I'd been with the team."

Hills' dismay over the stewardship and decisions of his former bosses, Frank Williams and Patrick Head, has been compounded by the latter's recent suggestion that an unproductive season would drive the 36-year-old into retirement.

"I don't take Patrick's comments too seriously," Hill scoffed. "I think he has been baffled by me for a long time and I still don't think he really understands where I'm coming from. I certainly hope to be around next year because I've still got some winning left in me and I want to explore the possibilities of winning another championship."

Those possibilities, he recognises, may have to present themselves elsewhere and Hill has only a one-year contract with Arrows. But he is similarly resentful of any suspicions that life in the slow lane will diminish his enthusiasm and commitment to the team's cause.

He said: "I'm going to invest a lot of myself in this season, and I've got a role to play here. There's no way I could do this without doing it wholeheartedly. I'm a conscientious person, I'm a hard worker.

"We have a steep hill to climb but we've got to go up. There's so much potential here. At least we know we can make more progress than any other team in Formula One.

"Tom won't want to have egg on his face this year and neither will I, but it is going to be very difficult, to start with, just to finish in the points, and that's the truth of the matter. I'm hoping my experience will give me an edge over some others who may have a more competitive package."

Hill is aware he will have to demonstrate that capacity to earn a return to the forefront of Formula One next year, which amounts to the perennial, dreaded challenge he thought he had left behind: the need to prove himself.

In the meantime, he will watch from afar as others compete for his crown and, he admits, he would take some delight in seeing Gerhard Berger, of Benetton-Renault, beat off the Williams drivers and his old nemesis, Schumacher.

"I really want Berger to win it and I think he could," Hill said. "They've improved the car, he's got the experience and what he's got now which perhaps he never had before, is the realisation that winning the championship will give him a warm feeling into his old age. I think it niggles with him he hasn't won it yet and he knows he's running out of chances. Once the seed is in your mind I know how it can grow.

"I've had that niggling thing taken from my mind, but although I'm not in a top-line drive at the moment I don't want to languish. I actually feel motivated by the situation.

"I'm excited by last season, but more enjoying the prospect of the new season. I want to enjoy it. I don't want to do it if it's heartache and painful. But I've taken disappointment before and I know I can handle it."