Hill's frustration is world-class

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The Independent Online
Motor racing

Damon Hill goes testing in Barcelona later this week hoping to brush up on his starting technique and perhaps needing to smooth over a few ripples with his team.

The British driver was again sluggish leaving the line in Sunday's Hungarian Grand Prix and had to settle for second place behind his Williams- Renault team-mate, Jacques Villeneuve, a result which narrowed the gap between them in the world championship to just 17 points. Hill could not contain his frustration, questioning his clutch system and his crew's decision to opt for a three-stop strategy when he preferred two.

All this on a day when Williams reaffirmed their pre-eminence in Formula One, and a maximum score in this race completed a record-equalling eighth constructors' championship success. Little wonder the comments of their senior driver had team personnel squirming.

Williams conceded they had to sharpen their act for this season and overall they have undeniably done so, a development acknowledged by Hill during the meeting here. He has criticised them in public before and they did not appreciate it. They are likely to be still less impressed this time.

It has to be said that man management has not been one of Williams' strongest suits, but then they take the view this is a man's game and they do not go for the arm-around-the-shoulder approach. They are particularly disinclined to embrace whingers. Williams' first world champion, Alan Jones, an Australian as hard as Ayers Rock, was their kind of driver. Keke Rosberg, too. And the ever mischievous Nelson Piquet.

You sense Villeneuve might fall into that category. He is patently not overawed or intimidated in his first season of Formula One. He is cool and confident, yet has no airs or graces; a regular Jacques the lad. He accepts victory and defeat with equal self-restraint: no big deal, no big drama.

The contrast with Hill is glaring. The 35-year-old, sensitive and intelligent, has endeavoured to improve his image and to that end hired a public relations consultant. Over the weekend here, however, he seemed more tense than for some time and his response to questioning betrayed as much. The old persecution complex appeared to have snared him.

It is possible negotiations for a new contract have deepened his anxiety. The grapevine suggests Frank Williams, who has on offer by far the best car, is unwilling to pay Hill more money next season. This latest airing of grievances by the championship leader can scarcely serve to strengthen his negotiating position with his boss.

Winning the title may also have limited influence on Williams. He would interpret that as further proof of the car's superiority. In any case, he is guaranteed the drivers' award already. Whether it goes to Hill or Villeneuve is of scant consequence to him.

Hill's best chance of a rise is to extract it from the team's major sponsor, Rothmans, or their engine partners, Renault, who are keen to have the No 1 on their car next season. If Villeneuve is champion, of course, the problem is solved. The Canadian is under contract for another year.

These considerations and others will be exercising Hill's mind this week. He should, above all, remind himself he again proved he was faster than his team-mate here and in fact drove extremely well, pushing hard without ever exposing himself to the ragged edge. He still has a healthy advantage with only four races remaining.

He says he feels he deserves to be champion and at the moment that is so. Seven wins to three testifies to his general command of the duel with Villeneuve. If Hill loses it now, he will deserve that fate, too. It would be a capitulation on the scale of Newcastle United's last season.

But that should not come into Hill's thinking. He needs only a clear head, a steady hand on the tiller and a modicum of circumspection. The goodwill of his team at this stage would not go amiss.