Hill has mind and machine in tune for the title

Derick Allsop predicts a grand prix showdown between German and Briton when the season starts up on Sunday `Senna's supporters have told me they followed my progress and now will me to win'
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It is perhaps fitting that Damon Hill should find in the teeming city of So Paulo and among its embattled people, who still mourn the death of their favourite son, the emotional impetus to claim the crown they believed was Ayrton Senna's birthright.

Hill inherited senior status at Williams-Renault and so much more besides after Senna was killed in last year's San Marino Grand Prix. Almost 11 months on, the Englishman has first-hand confirmation of the expectations and supplications he also carries.

He arrived in So Paulo prepared for what seems destined to be another head-to-head encounter with the champion, Benetton-Renault's Michael Schumacher. Hill now goes into Sunday's Brazilian Grand Prix inspired by the responsibility of being the standard-bearer not only for Britain but for Senna's nation.

He said: "A lot of Ayrton's supporters have told me they followed my progress and now will me to win. It is a poignant start to the championship and an emotional one."

The 34-year-old son of the late Graham Hill, twice a world champion, has more than sentiment going for him. Despite the last-race collision, which yielded the title to Schumacher, Hill finished the 1994 season strongly, earning the respect and admiration of his adversary, his team and everyone else in Formula One.

He did not have the grand prize but he had the vindication he sought. His own conviction was reinforced and events over the winter, in testing, have indicated he and Williams could have the edge on Schumacher and Benetton for the start of the season. Hill now has the stature and machinery of a genuine championship contender.

He said: "I think those two races at the end of last season were perhaps a watershed for me, but I need to do that times eight to win the championship. It was good to show what I am capable of doing, and I think also the team has to feel comfortable that when the going gets tough, their driver can handle it. You tend to put faith in someone who has done it rather than someone who says they can do it.

"This weekend will hopefully show we have a performance advantage over Benetton, that we come into the first races a bit stronger than Michael. It's always very valuable to come out of the blocks quickly, though the story of the championship won't be decided here. But I go into this race with the solid intention of winning.

"My appetite has been whetted by the new car and testing. I am more experienced, so I've got more of the ingredients in place to be a stronger contender this year. I am very confident in what I am doing. I am favourite for myself and it would be wrong to have any other goal than to win the championship. I've been third and second the last two years.

"I've never been in awe of any driver and have never regarded drivers as particularly special, perhaps because my dad was a driver. But Michael and Nigel Mansell have done it, so in that respect I'm a lesser driver, and I want to change that."

Hill is banking on a physical and psychological tilting of the balance this season. He has responded to Schumacher's lead by improving his own training routine and believes he may have exposed the 26-year-old German's vulnerability in Australia.

"That was very encouraging," he reflected with undisguised relish. "It's good to see that nobody's untouchable, nobody's perfect. Anybody who thinks he is has got to be a fool. He was buoyant much of last season but not so much at the end. It will be interesting to see if he can handle the pressures. I feel I have already proved I can cope with pressure and I am enjoying Formula One more than I did last year.

"Physical fitness is also vital and we all know how much importance Michael puts on his fitness. There's only so much you can do but I feel fitter now than I've ever done.

"I can't forget what happened last year but I'd rather keep my personal feelings about Michael to myself. There's no grudge, but if there's any score to settle it will be done on the track, racing fairly."

One or two incidents last season would appear to suggest Hill may have some scores to settle with his team-mate, David Coulthard. The pair have taken advantage of the winter time-out to defuse a potentially volatile situation. For now, at any rate.

Hill said: "David and I get on famously now. Obviously he'll be one of my main rivals. He's been very quick in testing. I am quite satisfied to be equal No 1. That's how it's always been done at Williams. They are racers."

Coulthard concurred: "We've kissed and made up and everything's wonderful. It was tense last year. I'm confident we'll be a strong combination."

The 23-year-old Scot, with only eight grands prix behind him, acknowledges Hill is the more obvious Williams' contender for the championship, yet clearly plans a season of gathering momentum.

He said: "Of course I think I can beat Damon, but it's another thing proving it. If I didn't believe I could, there would be no point getting in the car. I am quite confident I can beat anyone out there."

Including Schumacher? "Damon was not far behind him at the end of last year. When Damon pushed him he made mistakes. You have to try and use all the tricks to get in front."

Schumacher underestimated Hill last season and is unlikely to make the same mistake again. He said: "I think Williams will be the main contenders. The drivers are very similar and it will be a hard fight.

"I am sure Damon will be tough from the start this year. We have had a few technical problems to sort out with Renault, which is normal when you have new engine partners, so Williams have the advantage."

Schumacher will require stern support from his partner, Johnny Herbert, a luxury he has not had these past two seasons. The 30- year-old Englishman is anxious to prove he has the stuff of front-runners and should help ensure a steady flow of United Kingdom drivers to the podium this year.

Northern Ireland's Eddie Irvine, driving a Jordan-Peugeot, could push the top teams and McLaren-Mercedes ought eventually to make their car both comfortable and competitive for Nigel Mansell. Mark Blundell might even have an impact at the first two races. Another British driver on hold is Martin Brundle, who is optimistic the wait for his Ligier-Mugen Honda will be worth it.

Everyone is predicting a competitive, sporting season. That would be nice. Some also predict a competitive Ferrari. Now that really would be nice.