Hill has one chance left to climb the mountain

MOTOR RACING: Time is running out for the country's leading driver after a bad year for the British, argues Derick Allsop

Out of defeat, new hope and resolve: the old ethos is a pillar to lean on and no one is in greater need of support at the end of this Formula One world championship than Damon Hill.

Success at the final grand prix, in Australia, served to shore up Hill's self belief and, perhaps more importantly, his stature within the Williams- Renault team. They now have all winter to complete the restoration work.

Hill and Williams have been soundly beaten this year and the championship, as a contest, has consequently suffered. No combination was better equipped to challenge Michael Schumacher and Benetton-Renault, but too often that potential was squandered by driver or team, or both.

Mutual dissatisfaction undermined the Hill-Williams effort. He felt they did not afford him due consideration, they gave the impression they regarded him almost unworthy of the dynasty.

The contrast with Benetton, where Schumacher was the focus of the operation, compounded Hill's frustration, yet the more he spoke about it the more resentful and resistant Williams appeared to become. Alas for the Englishman, erratic performances tended to throw his claims back into his face.

And all the time Schumacher, a smirk seemingly fixed on his face, pounded out his superiority. He won his second championship by a distance and equalled Nigel Mansell's record of nine victories in a season.

The pick was probably Spa, where he mesmerised the field from 16th on the grid. His car control and judgment on slick tyres on a damp track were the stuff of greatness.

If the destiny of the crown was determined early, Formula One consoled itself with a spectacle worthy of the name. After the Belgian Grand Prix, we saw one of the most dazzling periods in the sport for years.

Overall, it has been a disappointing season for the British. David Coulthard found an extra gear too late to involve himself in the championship and still paid heavily for lapses of concentration. He loses the benefit of the Williams next season, moving to McLaren- Mercedes, but at least he has a job and time on his side. Johnny Herbert and Mark Blundell, released by Benetton and McLaren respectively, are seeking work and may never get further chances with top teams.

Eddie Irvine will feel 10 points and 12th place represent an unsatisfactory return and Martin Brundle's limited programme for Ligier-Mugen inevitably consigned him to a bit part.

Jean Alesi, who made a long-awaited breakthrough in Canada, Mika Hakkinen and Heinz-Harald Frentzen all presented, between the aberrations, further evidence of burgeoning talent beyond these shores.

The serious injuries sustained by Hakkinen at Adelaide were also a reminder that, for all the stringent safety restraints imposed following the tragedies of last year, this remains a perilous pursuit. By and large, the regulations have worked well and the new-found confidence in the pit lane has been bolstered by the quality of the racing in the later stages of the season.

Formula One is therefore optimistic about 1996. Schumacher may be a league above the rest, but he has to raise the level of performance and reliability at Ferrari to complete a hat-trick of championship wins. He embarks upon the task with a first run for the team on Thursday and continues in earnest, testing with a V10-powered car next week.

Benetton, intent on proving there is life and glory after Schumacher, have two possible contenders in Alesi and Gerhard Berger, and also get down to business next week, while McLaren, it has to be assumed, will be the stronger for not having to change engine manufacturers this winter.

The team bound to be at the head of the field are Williams, and Hill knows he cannot afford to misdirect what might be a final shot at the title. He has the car and he now has the experience to help carry him over obstacles - actual or imagined - within his camp.

One barrier will come in the shape of his new partner, Jacques Villeneuve, another ambitious tyro, but Hill has the momentum to leap clear. How soon the Great Race beckons again...

n Mika Hakkinen, who suffered severe head injuries in practice for Sunday's Australian Grand Prix, has been released from intensive care. He is expected to remain in hospital for another week.

The front of the starting grid 1996

FERRARI

Michael Schumacher

Eddie Irvine

WILLIAMS

Damon Hill

Jacques Villeneuve

BENETTON

Jean Alesi

Gerhard Berger

McLAREN

Mika Hakkinen

David Coulthard

JORDAN

Rubens Barrichello

Martin Brundle

STILL LOOKING

Johnny Herbert

Mark Blundell

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