Hill trapped in an upward struggle

David Tremayne says the Williams No1 would benefit from some team support
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LAST season, Damon Hill ran Michael Schumacher, universally acclaimed as the best driver in Formula One, to within one point for the World Drivers' Championship. Cynically removed from the Australian Grand Prix by the German, Hill was a tabloid hero, the brave Brit battling against the odds.

Nine months on he has become a man tortured on the rack of his own desire to prove himself once and for all. Not just to the public and to a media that is beginning to doubt him again, but also to a team that does not appear to be bolstering his confidence. The innocent of Adelaide has, in two foreshortened races, gone from being the prat of Silverstone to the pariah of Hockenheim.

For all his success in the past two-and-a-half seasons - 11 grand prix victories, which is only three fewer than his father, who won the world championship twice - Hill is still haunted by a spectre of doubt and his confidence has been undermined.

That uncertainty manifested itself in the most public fashion when he and Schumacher slid on to the gravel during the British Grand Prix and when he spun out alone while leading the German race. But as he sets out for Hungary, where he won his first grand prix two years ago, Hill may wish that his team owner, Frank Williams, recalls the Spanish Grand Prix of 1981.

The Australian Alan Jones, who is still an icon to Williams, pushed one of his cars to the front for 13 laps. Then he locked up his brakes and spun. He finished a miserable seventh and the race went to Gilles Villeneuve driving a Ferrari as cumbersome as the Williams had been dominant.

Jones was not under anything like the sort of pressure Hill faced at Hockenheim, where the crowd was down on him just as factions within his team sometimes appear to be. But Jonesy was forgiven that faux pas because he was one of the boys - a daring, gutsy puncher of a driver who was growing with the team and helped them to periods of dominance. Everyone screws up from time to time, but some drivers are not allowed to forget their mistakes.

Hill was plucked from the footlights and thrust into a starring role opposite Alain Prost when Nigel Mansell quit Formula One for IndyCars at the end of 1992. He was the first new boy to graduate in a really competitive car since Jackie Stewart drove for BRM in 1965. From a lowly role as test driver he suddenly became a race winner.

The afterglow of that victory and the dignity with which he handled the aftermath of the Australian Grand Prix have faded. And with failure has returned the sneaking feeling that he got where he is through circumstance, not merit. It is this ghost, more than anything, that Hill is seeking to exorcise.

Frank Williams's candid commiseration with Benetton immediately after the British Grand Prix would have been unthinkable in the old days. The well-publicised visit of Jacques Villeneuve, the 23-year-old IndyCar driver who is Gilles' son, to Britain to test the Williams will hardly have helped Hill's comfort; nor will the young Canadian's speed in the car. Williams has a history of unsettling his drivers which seems to be repeating itself and it is possible he did describe Hill as a "prat" when talking to the Benetton chief, Flavio Briatore.

Carlos Reutemann rarely felt comfortable as Jones's team-mate, while Keke Rosberg, though he won the world championship for Williams in 1982, never felt he was forgiven for not being Jones. Mansell, for all his whingeing, had a point when he said he had to leave and come back before his contribution was really appreciated. And Prost, too, does not have only happy memories of his year at the team which brought them both another championship.

Maladroit driver psychology is not exclusive to Williams. Benetton is squandering Johnny Herbert's ability, for example, by failing to give him adequate testing and letting only Schumacher have the latest equipment, while Ferrari's relationship with Alesi is hardly buoyant.

If one is counting, the Williams car has let Hill down more than he has let it down, and the team is investigating the possibility that a faulty driveshaft contributed to his German crash. Hill, ever the team man, is adamant the car has improved.

Williams must put all of this behind them and meld a cohesive team again. Otherwise there is every likelihood that the light at the end of the tunnel will be the gravy train speeding Schumacher and Benetton to the championship crown that earlier this season seemed Hill's for the asking.