`I didn't see him. Our mirrors don't see that far back'

David Tremayne on the indignity suffered by Britain's world champion driver
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It is not unknown for reigning world champions to fail to qualify for races. Jody Scheckter suffered the indignity in 1980, and Nelson Piquet in 1982. But until Sunday none had actually failed to start in their first race as title holder. That unenviable fate befell Damon Hill, however, at the commencement of his season as bearer of the coveted No 1.

The depths of Hill's patience had been mined heavily throughout winter testing of his new TWR Arrows-Yamaha, and again in free practice and official qualifying here in Melbourne as a series of mechanical problems kept him back to 20th position on the starting grid. But nothing could quite prepare him for the ignominy of race day in Albert Park, when his car rolled to a silent halt as the rest of the field went out on its grid formation lap immediately before the start of the race.

"I lost the throttle, but I don't know exactly what happened," Hill said. The electronic throttle system's sensors detected a malfunction and automatically closed it down for safety reasons, leaving him no alternative but to abandon his car, but the precise reasons remained unclear. Where some might have stalked angrily away, Hill shrugged his shoulders and assisted marshals in pushing it to a safe position.

"It is always disappointing to retire, but even more so not to make the grid," he admitted as he kept the lid on his frustration. And he put his bravest face on a crushing disappointment that was a bitter contrast to the euphoric success at Suzuka in his last race outing last season, as he continued: "I believe that the team has real potential. We have got one race behind us and now we have to press on and continue with our testing programme. There is a lot of work to be done, but as I said, this weekend has shown that the team has great potential."

Not that much potential according to the bookmakers -William Hill are offering 5-1 on Hill ending the season with no points at all, 10-1 on him winning a single race and 200-1 on him holding on to his title

Hill's team-mate Pedro Diniz achieved a measure of consolation by finishing 10th, albeit four laps behind David Coulthard's winning McLaren- Mercedes, and a new airbox is scheduled for the next race in Brazil in two weeks' time, which will enable the asthmatic Yamaha V10 engine to breathe better and thus develop more power. A further modified version of the unit is in the pipeline for the start of the European season in April.

Meanwhile, as Hill smiled through gritted teeth and the team owner, Tom Walkinshaw, prepared for the post-Australian inquest, Hill's rivals concerned themselves with their own troubles. Old rival Michael Schumacher was asked, after finishing second, if he felt sorry for the situation in which Hill finds himself after his controversial departure from Williams, and replied with a trenchant "No." And as he added: "I didn't see what had happened to him, our mirrors don't see that far back," one was put in mind of Graham Hill's remark towards the end of his own illustrious career that you met a better class of people towards the back end of a Formula One grid. Damon would doubtless agree.