Hill fights back with help from friends

BRITISH GRAND PRIX Williams supports troubled world champion while Hakkinen sets pace for McLaren-Mercedes in practice
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The Independent Online
Damon Hill embarked upon a restoration job on his reputation here yesterday, aided by some of Formula One's most distinguished figures.

As Hill responded to criticism from his boss at Arrows-Yamaha, Tom Walkinshaw, of his motivation and level of performance, Frank Williams, the man who sacked him last year, Bernard Dudot, the technical director of Renault, and John Barnard, his team's new designer, all spoke in support of the world champion.

Even Walkinshaw attempted to lift some of the tension he effectively created in the build-up to tomorrow's British Grand Prix by maintaining he had never said Hill was under threat of the axe.

He declared Hill had a future with the team and that he understood his No 1 driver wanted to stay. He did, however, repeat his demand that Hill produce the form "he is capable of."

Walkinshaw had, of course, achieved his objective. He had given Hill a public boot up the backside, the driver's pride had been suitably dented, and the rest of the team doubtless felt some of the blame for a miserable season had been lifted from their shoulders.

The immediate effect was inauspicious. Hill could manage only 20th place in practice, one behind his team-mate, Pedro Diniz.

Hill admitted he was "disappointed" to read Walkinshaw's comments but dismissed suggestions he had already agreed a deal with another team for next year. He said: "It's been a difficult year for Tom, as well as me, and sometimes the frustration is evident not only in the driver but also the team manager. We've got to do all we can to rectify the situation. But there's no problem between us.

"Tom is entitled to put a rocket up the backside of his drivers - every team manager does that. I've had much worse criticism from other team managers.

"My goal is to get back in the hunt for the world championship as soon as possible and I'd like it to be with Arrows if they can offer me the right package.

"I am giving it everything I can. I'm a professional and when I get in the car I want to give my best performance. I don't want to let anyone down, least of all myself.

"You have to drive yourself on and make the best of your capabilities. The extra motivation factor comes from being at the front. You can't fabricate it, you can't just sit there and pretend you are at the front.

"Money is not an issue. I want to win. I don't want to be 15th or 10th or even sixth. I want to be first. That's what makes me go, get fired up and want to race. I have given the team as much input and energy as I can. You can't do more than so much. The rest is how much you can get out of the car and engine. We are in this together as a team and it's up to us to get the best out of it."

Williams, who reportedly called Hill "a prat" after he collided with Michael Schumacher here two years ago, had a more glowing description for his former driver yesterday.

He said: "Clearly he is struggling with his car but we know he is a world champion, he's won 21 races, and that's all you need to say. It's probable there will not be a place for him back in our team next year, but certainly it is possible for the future. He's a great driver.

"Williams declined to comment on the observation of Dudot, who produces the engines for his cars, that Hill should have been retained and that had he been, they would be leading the championship rather than trailing Schumacher and Ferrari.

Williams did, however, have a dig back at Jacques Villeneuve, his main hope for the drivers' title, for suggesting the team had become complacent after a strong start to the season and concentrated too much on next year's car.

A third vote of confidence for Hill came from Barnard, who joined Arrows early this year after leaving Ferrari.

Barnard, who admitted he could do little to this year's Arrows than concentrate on safety improvements, said he had found Hill good to work with and felt this "friction" in the camp did not help the cause.

He went on: "It's difficult enough when you are struggling at the back, but this hasn't affected my relationship with Damon."

Arrows will not be involved in the main event tomorrow, but McLaren-Mercedes may be. Mika Hakkinen followed up his promising test here with a fastest time in practice yesterday.

Villeneuve, who needs to put his campaign back on track, was second and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, in the other Williams, was third. Schumacher, who leads the drivers' championship by 14 points, was a puzzled seventh.

Johnny Herbert was the best of the home contingent, fourth in Sauber Petronas. Eddie Irvine, in the other Ferrari, was ninth and David Coulthard 13th after spinning his McLaren.

BRITISH GRAND PRIX Practice times (after two unofficial sessions): 1 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1min 22.935sec; 2 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1:23.266; 3 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Renault 1:23.327; 4 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Petronas 1:23.581; 5 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 1:23.785; 6 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Peugeot 1:23.883; 7 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:24.132; 8 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Renault 1:24.203; 9 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:24.424; 10 J Trulli (It) Prost-Mugen-Honda 1:24.946; 11 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Peugeot 1:24.948; 12 J Magnussen (Den) Stewart- Ford 1:25.136; 13 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:25.360; 14 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford 1:26.035; 15 S Nakano (Japan) Prost-Mugen-Honda 1:26.270; 16 U Katayama (Japan) Minardi-Hart 1:26.446; 17 N Fontana (Arg) Sauber- Petronas 1:26.640; 18 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford 1:26.785; 19 P Diniz (Bra) Arrows-Yamaha 1:26.797; 20 D Hill (GB) Arrows-Yamaha 1:26.810; 21 T Marques (Bra) Minardi-Hart 1:27.066; 22 J Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell- Ford 1:27.923.