Home stretch for Hill

BRITISH GRAND PRIX: David Tremayne expects the best of British to reinforce his world title standing
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Every racing driver wants to win at home. But it is as fashionable as it is self-protective for them to deny it puts them under greater pressure, though most would disagree with Nigel Mansell's comment that a home crowd can be worth tenths of a second off the lap time. It might work for a tennis star such as Tim Henman having a crowd behind you to help you recover from mistakes and get your game together, but drivers are too remote from their audience, wrapped in carbon-fibre cocoons and protective headgear, and carried round the circuit on the fragile ribbon of their own velocity.

In Canada, Jacquesmania rocked Montreal; in France, Olivier Panis's every move went under the microscope. Neither delivered. With the British Grand Prix this Sunday, it is Damon Hill's turn in the Silverstone spotlight again. The Englishman did what his father, Graham, never managed when he won the race in 1994 after Michael Schumacher was black-flagged for overtaking him illegally on the parade lap.

But Hill made a mess of it last year with an ill-judged overtaking manoeuvre at Priory that landed both of them in the dirt and brought the wrath of his team owner Frank Williams upon his bowed head. Hill reacts tersely at mention of that faux pas, but now that he is on target this year for a World Championship title, nobody is more aware of the expectations of his British fans, especially after the disappointment of Wembley.

"There is an awful lot of razzmatazz that goes with racing at the British Grand Prix for a British driver," Hill said. "And when I go to Silverstone you can rest assured I will be doing my darnedest to give everyone a British victory. But there is no question the pressure is greater at your home event: the attention from all the media, the attention from the fans making it a tough weekend. The place is transformed on a grand prix weekend: every muddy bank is covered with flags, fans are cheering you on, and it is really something that I look forward to."

Hill goes into the 10th round of the World Championship as victor of his past two races, and four before that. On present form the only man likely to keep him in sight is his Williams-Renault team-mate Jacques Villeneuve, who lies 25 points adrift as they dominate the championship table. Both have tested regularly at Silverstone, as have McLaren, who made big strides forward there recently, and Benetton, who have yet to recapture their past form in the days when Michael Schumacher called the shots.

Schumacher, the reigning world champion, won the Spanish Grand Prix in dramatic style, but since then Ferrari have been more a limping nag than a prancing horse, and are in turmoil after the accusations of incompetence levelled at its sporting director, Jean Todt, in France last weekend. Todt is smart enough to ignore pressure in Italy and also to lead Ferrari from the wilderness, but it now seems clear that this will take longer than even the once-patient Schumacher was allowing for. To add to his woes, Ferrari have not tested at the revised Northampton track. Barring disaster, Hill should have it made.

Jackie Stewart, who will return full-time to Formula One with his own team in 1997, understands the pressures Hill nevertheless will face. "It's old hat to say your national grand prix is a very important one, but it's still true. It's where you've begun and where you've seen all your heroes race. Of course it means something special, and a lot of the people who either started you off or were part of your early years all come to see you.

"I never felt any extra pressure because it was the British Grand Prix. But it was nice afterwards, when we were taken round on the back of a vehicle, when everybody came on to the track. And they all went back immediately, as if they'd just come on to pay their respects."

Since the display of Mansellmania in 1992, circuits have been threatened with dire consequences if there are further invasions, but for John Watson, the first man to receive the modern-day treatment from delighted fans, the experience is still one that provokes bemusement. Wattie, bless him, was just too self-effacing to understand what all the fuss was about when he won the 1981 race for McLaren.

"Racing in your home grand prix, there is a lot more pressure," said Watson, who now commentates for Eurosport. "All I wanted to do was hide in the motor-home and then rush to the car. Some people have the ability to deal with it, but it was something I wasn't good at. The desire to win your home grand prix is one of the most important aspects of any driver's career. That year I was third in Spain and second in France. And I kept thinking of good old Ted Rogers on that game show, 3-2-1. Looking back, I think that I was predestined to win that particular day.

"It was an unbelievable experience. I sensed I might win it, but what made it special was the support I felt all round the circuit. I experienced something which, to me, will remain special all my life: people who came there giving a totally natural outpouring of joy. They came across the barriers and I said to Jacques Laffite, who finished second: 'Jacques, what are these people doing?' And he said: 'John, they're cheering for you.' I couldn't cope with the sudden adulation."

For Stirling Moss, the uncrowned king, none of this was ever a problem. "The British Grand Prix was always very important. But I wouldn't call it pressure when the media was interested in you; I would call it beneficial because obviously they were on your side. Racing at home motivated me even more."