Hill set to prove a point with home advantage

BRITISH GRAND PRIX: A victory at Silverstone would be a welcome fillip for the championship leader, says Derick Allsop
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The championship beckons and the chances are that by tomorrow evening Damon Hill will have advanced a significant step closer to its embrace. Here at the British Grand Prix, however, the continuing quest for the title is but a part of the story.

Almost as important as the master plan, though, is the sub- plot. It has nothing to do with points and tables, everything to do with pride, stature and atonement.

Hills' mission is targeted for this circuit, this race, this crowd. The objective is to demonstrate to his own country that he is a champion of substance.

It is, paradoxically, not easy to do that in the best car and the Williams- Renault is the best by a margin that shames the other teams and frankly devalues Formula One as a contest and spectacle. If you win you achieve no more than is to be expected; if you do not you are a mug.

That is where you need, again paradoxically, a strong team-mate to help you out by giving you a fight. Jacques Villeneuve has yet to prove he is among the strongest at this level. So, six times out of nine this season, Hill has won the race, usually without breaking sweat.

All logic suggests he will win again tomorrow, but winning alone may not fully satisfy him or the gallery. He won here two years ago, yet only after Michael Schumacher had become embroiled in a conflict with officials and was given a stop-go penalty which effectively put victory beyond his reach.

Twelve months ago Hill had Schumacher within his reach only to fumble and both drivers were propelled into a gravel trap. The Englishman was roundly castigated over the incident and even his own boss, Frank Williams, was reported to have called him "a prat" when delivering a personal apology to Schumacher's team Benetton.

Hill has been burdened with this baggage ever since and it is to his credit he has come so far, modifying opinion along the way. But the spectre of Schumacher still hangs over his path and, in his perfect world championship, he would be seen to beat the man he is deposing, and above all he will be seen to beat him at Silverstone.

After their farcical performances in Canada and France, Ferrari are due a serious effort and have been testing a range of improvements designed for the quicker circuits in this second half of the season. If the car has any prospect of being competitive, Schumacher will exploit it.

Hill's campaign for credibility bears distinct similarities with the one that eventually carried Nigel Mansell to the championship four seasons ago. The difference is that while no one doubted Mansell's pace, many have questioned Hill's.

Other contemporary drivers will tell you: "He is still not regarded as particularly fast," which is either a betrayal of rampant envy or a dreadful indictment of Formula One. The truth probably covers an element of both.

What Hill has learnt, especially through his experience as Alain Prost's team-mate, is that it makes sense to win at the slowest possible pace. Mansell occasionally showed that kind of restraint, but more often than not drove the wheels off the thing and was undeniably more exciting, at times even terrifying, to watch.

Mansell also had trouble convincing the world he was the best around, yet he did have his spectacular victories against the great champions of his time - against Prost, against Nelson Piquet and, most impressively of all, against Ayrton Senna.

Hill has only one truly great driver to contend with, and although he can never hope to be considered the equal of Schumacher in terms of pure talent, he could elevate himself in the consciousness of the public by defeating the double champion in head to head combat.

Those contemporaries who wonder about Hill's speed also remain uncertain about his ability to race from behind. Starting from the front row of the grid is a considerable advantage and he has generally made the most of it, his maturity and judgment keeping him clear of trouble and complication.

When, however, he has been sucked back into the pack, whether by error or freak of circumstance, he has been prone to compound his plight. Spain was a classic case in point. While he floundered in the wet, Schumacher sailed into a different ocean.

It is because of days like that, and at Silverstone last year, that Hill would cherish a little more than just taking the championship.

Despite the reservations about Hill, his opponents acknowledge he is "doing a good job" and has played his part, as test driver and then race driver, in the development of the Williams. Patronising? Delivered through clenched teeth? No matter. He is doing a good job and has contributed to the making of that fabulous car.

Formula One is never a level playing field and the champion is not necessarily the best. Schumacher apart, all the others are difficult to evaluate.

Gerhard Berger, the most experienced current driver, is even reluctant to state, categorically, that Schumacher is the best. "It is always a bit difficult to say because maybe there is someone at Minardi who is the best and you don't know," he reasons and, although the Austrian patently has a problem giving the German his due, the point is valid.

Few could have envisaged, even two years ago, that Hill would become a world champion. He was No 2 to Senna when the Brazilian died at Imola and has grown into the job of leading Williams on the track. Now Britain awaits to acclaim a champion of substance.

THE TITLE RACES

Drivers' Championship

1 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 63 pts.

2 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 38.

3 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 26.

4 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 25.

5 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 14.

6 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLarenMercedes 12.

7 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 11.

8 G Berger (Aut) Benetton- Renault 10.

9 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 9.

10 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot 7.

Constructors

1 Williams-Renault 101pts.

2 Ferrari 35.

3 Benetton-Renault 35.

4 McLaren-Mercedes 26.

5 Ligier-Mugen-Honda 12.

6 Sauber-Ford 10.

7 Jordan-Peugeot 9.

8 Tyrrell-Yamaha 5.

9 Footwork-Hart 1.

Remaining races

14 July Britain (Silverstone).

28 July Germany (Hockenheim).

11 Aug Hungary (Budapest).

25 Aug Belgium (Spa-Francorchamps).

8 Sept Italy (Monza).

22 Sept Portugal (Estoril).

13 Oct Japan (Suzuka).

HILL v SCHUMACHER:

A TALE OF TWO SEASONS

How 1995 and 1996 compare

going into the British GP

GRAND PRIX 1995 1996

Hill Schumacher Hill Schumacher

Australia - - 1st ret (32 laps)

Brazil ret (31) disq 1st 3rd

Argentina 1st 3rd 1st ret (40)

Europe - - 4th 2nd

San Marino 1st ret (7) 1st 2nd

Monaco 2nd 1st ret (40) ret (1)

Spain 4th 1st ret (10) 1st

Canada ret (18) 5th 1st ret (41)

France 2nd 1st 1st ret*

*engine failure on formation lap

HOW THE BIG FOUR FARE

Williams-Renault

Damon Hill (GB). Age: 35. GPs: 60. Wins: 19. Championships: 0.

Jacques Villeneuve (Can). Age: 25. GPs: 9. Wins :1. Championships: 0.

The old champions have been able to recover their poise since Schumacher left Benetton for Ferrari and Hill has relished the opportunity to gather a momentum which seems certain to carry him to the title. The disappointing showing of his partner so far has left him virtually unopposed. The Williams car is the best by some distance and the team have sharpened their act, just as they said they would.

Ferrari

Michael Schumacher (Ger). Age: 27. GPs: 78. Wins: 20. Championships: 2.

Eddie Irvine (GB). Age: 30. GPs: 41. Wins: 0. Championships: 0.

Schumacher said all along he was embarking upon a two-year campaign for the championship and it is becoming apparent even he may require longer to make the Prancing Horse a genuine contender. After his magnificent win in Spain, he had to endure the shambles of Canada and France. That is Ferrari for you. Irvine can be reasonably satisfied with his performances considering his limited testing opportunities.

Benetton-Renault

Jean Alesi (Fr). Age: 32. GPs: 111. Wins: 1. Championships: 0.

Gerhard Berger (Aut). Age: 36. GPs: 189. Wins: 9. Championships: 0.

The reigning champions have been unceremoniously dragged off their perch this season, their performances saying as much about the man who left them, Schumacher, as about those who have replaced him. Even given that the team and its new drivers had to go through a "getting to know you" period, the season has proved to be a massive setback to all concerned. One man does not make a team, but...

McLaren-Mercedes

Mika Hakkinen (Fin). Age: 27. GPs: 72. Wins: 0. Championships: 0.

David Coulthard(GB). Age: 25. GPs: 34. Wins: 1. Championships: 0.

The long-promised improvement is showing some signs of materialising and occasionally their bright young drivers have been able to produce the pace to ruffle the feathers of the leading teams. As yet they have been unable to sustain a level of performance capable of putting them in contention for race victories. Regular points provide some consolation, but by no means satisfy team, engine manufacturer or sponsors.

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