Hill reaches personal Rubicon

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The Independent Online
For all the hype that has been invested in the great confrontation between Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, there was a curious lack of tension in the air here, the scene of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost's greatest battles. However one might wish it to be, this is not such a clash of the greats.

Hill qualifies well - though he left his front-row charge perilously late this time - but recently has raced on auto pilot. Like a boxer wobbling after a flurry of punishing body blows, he is refreshed by intervals between rounds but seems to tire during the fight and to greet with the relief the bell that protects his shrinking advantage. The early season flow has gone. If this really was a boxing match, Villeneuve would be ahead on points. At Monza and Estoril he came out fighting but seemed unable to land a killer punch.

"The lad does get demoralised rather easily at the moment," said one leading observer, but how can one quantify the devastation of Frank Williams's decision to axe him in favour of Heinz-Harald Frentzen? Ever since, Hill has wavered as if he had only narrowly escaped the count of 10.

Suzuka has all the trappings of Nigel Mansell's campaign at Adelaide back in 1986, with the nation rising early to will on its hero. England expects, and all that. "I hope for the sake of everybody in Britain that Damon does it," said Tom Walkinshaw, Hill's new boss at TWR Arrows. "He certainly deserves it, because he's paid his dues. But motor racing is a fickle animal."

Frank Williams, a latter-day Enzo Ferrari to whom the machinery is more important than the men who drive it, displayed all the emotion of a sphinx when asked why he had discarded Hill. "I am not going to answer that question," he said. "I never have and I never will." No doubt he feels he had good cause to expel a man who has scored the majority of the points that won his team constructors' championships in 1994 and this season. But under duress even his mask slipped. "It would be incorrect of me to say that I have any personal feelings about which of them should win, " he said. "All I would say is that Damon has worked with Williams for more than four years in grand prix racing."

Twenty grands prix victories, 20 pole positions and 19 fastest race laps later, Hill has to draw what meagre satisfaction he can from that.

There is a well-spring of goodwill for the reserved Englishman, with his brooding eyes, stiff upper lip and occasionally wobbly chin, just as there is admiration for the precocity and determination of Villeneuve, with his cheerful cockiness, the wrinkled jeans and the untucked denim shirt. The sheer insouciance of his challenge has made Hill seem less commanding by the race, and the Englishman had to suppress his insecurities and embrace his destiny.

Back in 1994 he did precisely that here to crush Schumacher in the rain, and a light shines in his dark eyes at the recollection. Some drive simply to beat others, but Hill's first rival has always been the inner man and he has constantly pushed himself to see just what he is capable of achieving. In Japan that day, the result was greatness.

"I don't think it was so much winning, as the fact that I drove on a completely different level. In what I would call a sort of twilight zone of driving. You were just offering yourself up completely to your instincts. It was fantastic. Just an awesome feeling. The satisfaction from having won that was tremendous."

In qualifying yesterday there was little sign of that form as Villeneuve outran Hill. "Winning is the only option for us," the Canadian said as he took pole position. "This is a very difficult track to overtake on so I need a good start and I'll take it from there. Hopefully Damon will have battles with other drivers." Schumacher, third, grinned knowingly at this.

"It's fine for me, I'm exactly where I want to be, on the front row," Hill said defensively, needled as Villeneuve and Schumacher chattered next to him. "As long as I can see Jacques, everything will be looking good. It was always going to be close but I was confident I had a car that could do it and wanted to be sure I didn't end up giving myself problems at the end. I was quite happy to save it up until then."

His ability to win races has been proved a score of times, but it is a while since he has ventured into that twilight zone. Today in Suzuka he must again cross his own personal Niagara to claim the title. Wise counsel says never violate your own nature, but in discovering whether it truly is within him to be a champion, or just another nearly man, Hill needed to look ahead, not behind or down, as he stepped across the tightrope.