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Hill keeps mind on main point

The planes of Damon Hill's face remained set like a poker player's yesterday, betraying none of the inner tension that he will undoubtedly be feeling as he prepares for the final push to the top of a mountain twice conquered by his father, Graham.

He spoke quietly of his feelings before Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix, which will decide the outcome of a world championship that seemed his for the asking at the mid-season point. Outwardly he appeared calm and confident, as if he had not fluffed similar chances in the recent races in Hungary and Italy, and by his own hand prolonged the fight until this final stage.

Shrugging thoughts of the championship from his mind has not been easy, he admitted, in the weeks since his failure to capitalise on early advantages at both the Hungaroring and Monza. "I would be lying if I said that it hadn't taken a conscious effort not to be thinking about winning the championship," he said. "Now I'm here I know I can go into my race routine, and things take care of themselves from that point onwards."

Jackie Stewart, three times the world champion, recently advised Hill to adapt a "pretty damn canny" approach if he found he were unable to lead Sunday's race, and Hill pondered the tactics he would employ to defeat his team-mate and sole rival, Jacques Villeneuve. "I certainly have to take into account that the championship is paramount. To win another race would be great but not as great as winning the championship, so there is a little bit of weighing up to do in mind whether I want to take more risk and tackle it with a view to winning the race, or to ensure that I finish in the points in order to win the title. But I'm always nervous about taking a cautious approach because sometimes that throws up other difficulties."

He admitted that easing his concentration had proved his downfall at Monza, and added: "The best position to be in in any grand prix is in the lead. You are much more in command of what's going on. But if I'm running in the points I'll be very, very happy and will concentrate on finishing there."

His ace is the knowledge that Villeneuve must win without his rival scoring a point, whereas all he needs is sixth place. It is a strong psychological advantage.

"Jacques has the pressure on him. There's no way he can win the championship unless he wins the race. Whereas at least I have some options. But there's always pressure at a grand prix, and the thing for me is that I know that I can become world champion on Sunday. It's a motivating factor as much as anything."

Suzuka, a fast, twisting circuit that rewards daring and improvisation, has given Hill his greatest and lowest races. In 1994, he beat Michael Schumacher fair and square in dire conditions. Last year, he crashed ignominiously. He loves the track. "It's tremendous, and I'll never forget that race in 1994. It was one of the most difficult I have ever done, and one of the most satisfying. And this race will certainly live up to expectations of being The Event."

Although he detests the idea that his entire career has distilled to this one point on which achievements of the past will be judged, he is sufficiently rounded now to accept the focus the world has placed on his performance this weekend. He smiled. "My whole purpose has been to win a championship, by winning races, and I have the opportunity on Sunday to do that. I expect that there will be a lot said after Sunday... I hope that most of it will be saying that Damon Hill is world champion."