Hill reveals the maturity of a champion

Click to follow

Formula One has completed its cycle of rehabilitation a safer and, it would seem, healthier place. Having negotiated the emotional hurdle of the San Marino Grand Prix, the sport relishes the prospect of an ever- more competitive season and possibly a new world champion.

Damon Hill's composed drive to victory in Sunday's race confirmed a maturity which is likely to serve him well. Williams-Renault have come into this year thoroughly prepared and Hill appears to have the temperament, as well as the ability, to exploit their technical advantage.

Michael Schumacher's vulnerability was again exposed when he lost control of his Benetton-Renault and crashed heavily. He remains stunningly quick but he is conscious his hold on the title is in jeopardy and he perhaps demands too much of himself. Schumacher may still be the most serious threat to Hill, especially through the summer, on fast, sweeping circuits. That, at any rate, is the feeling inside the Benetton camp.

Ferrari, too, anticipate a growing presence and, in Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger, they have drivers with pace and experience, though the former has still to win and dispel the suspicion that he lacks the consistency and judgment of a champion. McLaren-Mercedes, with Mika Hakkinen and Nigel Mansell, should also become stronger as the championship unfolds, but a realistic challenge for the title will surely be out of reach.

That leaves only two other logical contenders for the drivers' crown, and both have to shake off the No 2 mantle within their own teams. Williams's David Coulthard is patently fast, yet, with only 11 races to his credit, is inevitably prone to error. He might have been in the first two in San Marino and instead finished fourth. Johnny Herbert is discovering what all Schumacher's partners find - that the German has a rare talent and a team focused on his cause.

Williams are committed to a policy of equal status for their drivers, and Coulthard has the opportunity to race Hill and contest the championship. He heads for Barcelona on Sunday week, aware he can ill afford to permit the Englishman a third consecutive success.

The 24-year-old Scot said: "After each race my confidence has grown and I now believe the time has come to tackle Damon on equal terms. He has the edge because of his experience and he rarely puts a foot wrong.

"I'm now gaining speed in qualifying, which was my weakness, and I've outqualified Damon at the last two races. I've now got to keep it all together.

"I fully intend to give the public what they want and that's seeing Damon and me battling wheel-to-wheel at the front. It should have happened here but because I had a spin and a stop-and-go penalty it wasn't to be. It will come. There is no animosity between us. Damon fights fair and if I beat him I'm sure he'll congratulate me. Damon has proved he's a winner. Now it's my turn."

Herbert clearly has further to go. A podium place continues to elude him and an early spin left him out of the running. He finished seventh, two laps down.

Rumour has it he could be sacked if he does not produce satisfactory results by the season's halfway stage. He and his boss, Flavio Briatore, deny there is any such deadline, but both acknowledge the Englishman's performances must improve. Briatore said: "It's the same for Johnny as it is for any driver or anybody in any other business. You have to deliver the results."

Herbert, dropped by Benetton mid-season in 1989, his first year in Formula One, said: "I'm disappointed. I want to be more competitive and I know I can be a lot better. There is no target or anything, the only pressure is the pressure of my own expectations. I know I have to make my mark and make it quickly.

"Michael has not blown my mind and I'm totally focused on what I can do. I'm still convinced I can make the car competitive. I'm strong enough mentally to cope with being Schumacher's team-mate, and the team are behind me."