Hill shows confidence in new car

Motor racing
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The Independent Online
The competitive zeal of Formula One motor racing seems to know no bounds. Not content with a 16-race world championship and endless test sessions in between, and through the winter, the promotions people have been endeavouring to out-do each other with a range of extravagant launches.

Benetton-Renault - appropriately enough as world champions - set the pace by unveiling their new car at a Greek amphitheatre in Sicily. Sauber- Ford, one of the young pretenders, adapted a futuristic musical to present their challenger. Ferrari stuck to their more formal, tried-and-trusted stage format at Maranello, the stable of the Prancing Horse.

Yesterday it was the turn of Williams-Renault to officially introduce the FW18, which has actually been running at Estoril since Monday, but what promotions department is going to quibble if it gets two bites of the cherry. Rothmans, as the main sponsor, organised a satellite link- up between the circuit and 13 locations around the world.

This nine to five day at the office - or the pits to be precise - required the team's drivers, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, to answer a series of questions - no doubt the same series of questions - put to them by interrogators in 20-minute hits.

In-depth stuff it was never going to be, but then this snappy, businesslike agenda appears to be consistent with Williams' approach to the 1996 season. Can't be doing with all that theatrical mularky.

By the time pictures from Portugal beamed into the Sports Cafe on London's Haymarket, the Williams pair had seen off Japan and New Zealand television stations, and journalists in Russia, Bulgaria, South Africa, Cyprus, Greece, France and Italy. Later it was on to Ireland, where Hill now lives, and two conferences in Canada, Villeneuve's homeland.

We had only the word of our host in Portugal it was a "sunny Estoril". The car was parked inside a garage, the two drivers, a mite uncomfortably, perched on it. Microphone headsets had replaced helmets.

Hill expressed himself content with his week's work in the FW18, 150 laps of pretty much untroubled motoring. "A very good sign, straight out of a box," enthused the Englishman.

Villeneuve, embarking on his first season in Grand Prix racing after winning the IndyCar series, still has to get his hands on the new car - perhaps the first recognition of Hill's seniority, which was a thorny subject when the Englishman had David Coulthard in tandem.

Since the Williams is expected to be the best car, in-fighting could again undermine Hill's challenge. This time, however, he has a cool dude response to just about every question. If the championship comes down to the two of them, he replied, it would show he had the right team and equipment.

Hill had been intrigued by the first pictures of what he called a "radical" Ferrari, but could not comment on the prospects of his old nemesis, Michael Schumacher, until the champion had exercised his new mount.

Villeneuve has driven 9,000 miles in last year's Williams, which is not hugely different from the new one, so he should be considerably better prepared than the hapless Michael Andretti. "I spoke to Michael and he wasn't very positive, but he didn't adapt and get time to prepare."

Hill, runner-up for the past two seasons, is 7-4 favourite going into the first race, at Melbourne, three weeks on Sunday, yet is determined not to allow pressures to furrow his brow this year.

He said: "This is my fourth season so it will be natural to assume I have a better chance purely because of the experience I've banked. I'm better equipped to deal with things. I've spent a great deal of time training, paying attention to detail and putting myself in the right frame of mind. I feel more comfortable and confident.

"I want to enjoy this season and win races, and hopefully the championship. I really want to achieve something to be proud of."