Is Damon a great Briton?

Damon Hill has long had to live with claims that his success has been down to the superiority of his car. Nigel Roebuck believes the world championship leader now merits comparison with the best of British
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If you were not a Nigel Mansell fan, the 1992 British Grand Prix at Silverstone stands as perhaps the most disagreeable motor race ever run in this country. It was not that the day was marked by tragedy, for there was no accident of consequence, but that the uglier face of contemporary sport showed itself for the first - and so far only - time in motor racing.

Mansell was on a roll that summer. Driving the Williams-Renault FW14B, the only car with computerised "active" suspension in the field, he had a car more manifestly superior to its rivals than had been seen since the years of Mercedes-Benz domination in the mid-Fifties. Arriving at Silverstone that weekend, Mansell had won six of eight grands prix in 1992, and was clearly on course for the world championship.

He was, emphatically, the people's champion, if not the paddock's, and the bulk of the crowd was squarely behind him, almost daring him to lose. One of the very fastest drivers the sport has seen, Mansell invariably found something extra at home, and qualifying times confirmed that no one, not even Ayrton Senna, was going to threaten him.

In truth, it was a consummately boring race, and quite unlike Mansell's mesmeric wheel-to-wheel defeat of Nelson Piquet at Silverstone five years earlier, but, as is increasingly the way of it these days, the result mattered more than the event. As he stepped from his broken car, a few laps from the end, the great Senna was jeered, and when Mansell took the flag, hordes of spectators spilled over the debris fences on to the track, wallowing in a glut of what some charitably called patriotism. It was only by luck that dozens of them were not mown down by following cars.

Mansell started first, and finished first, that day. At the other end of the grid was one Damon Hill, driving for a Brabham team then in its death throes. Hill ran at the back all afternoon, and finished 15th, four laps behind, stone last, unnoticed.

One year on, his fortunes had picked up. By now Mansell, unable to agree terms for a renewal of his Williams contract, had flounced off to IndyCar racing in the United States, and Hill was the Brit on whom the fans' attention was focused. Alain Prost had replaced Mansell as the Williams-Renault team leader, and Hill had been picked to partner him. On the face of it, he was an illogical choice for the most sought after drive in racing, having run but a couple of grands prix for Brabham. As well as that, at 32, he was 10 years older than the typical Formula One rookie.

What he had, though, was considerable experience, not only of many years' racing in the lesser formulas, but also of working with Williams, for, while racing for Brabham, he had also been employed by Frank Williams as test driver. "Here I was, running endless test miles in the best car," Hill said, "and having to race the worst one. Believe me, I knew what I was missing, and never more than that day at Silverstone. I could only dream of one day being in Mansell's position."

As a test driver, Hill impressed Patrick Head, the Williams engineering chief, and when Mansell's departure left a vacancy in the team for 1993, Head advocated his promotion to the race team, arguing his lap times were consistently on the pace, his technical feedback good. In terms of continuity, it also made sense, for Prost, the incoming team leader, had no experience of Williams.

Thus, a slightly disbelieving Hill was signed, and by the time of Silverstone was a potential race winner. After qualifying second to Prost, indeed, he led the majority of the race, before halting with engine failure 18 laps from the finish. A year later, he won, after a period of upheaval and trauma for Williams. Prost had retired, and Senna, who replaced him for 1994, was killed at Imola, only his third race for the team. By July, the residues of shock still lay over the whole of Formula 1, and at the core of the drama was Hill, whose team-mate had been lost, whose Williams leadership he had been obliged, after only 20 grands prix, to take up.

The scenes were emotional when he won at Silverstone, but quite different from those after Mansell's triumph. There was less frenzy by far, which was fitting for a man very different from his predecessor at Williams. Mansell's best relationship in motor racing was always with the crowd, which he unashamedly courted, but Hill is quieter, more controlled, more English, perhaps.

There is an extrovert side to his personality - putting a guitar in his hands is like putting Clark Kent in a 'phone box, as he demonstrated at the post-race party - but phlegmatic is his usual way, and his team likes this about him. Mansell, wherever he was, had fresh problems flown in daily, which became wearisome over time, as Frank Williams acknowledged. "A great driver," he said, "but a hard man to like."

For Hill, by contrast, the team's affection is obvious, but there lurks an impression, even now, that his talents at the wheel are underrated, this perhaps a legacy of the manner of his arrival in the team, the promotion from mere test driver. Many a rival has pointed out, sometimes churlishly, that virtually throughout his grand prix career Hill has had the best car at his disposal, but in 1996 few could suggest that it has flattered him. This season his driving, his whole approach, has reached a new level.

"I've been astonished," Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's leading power broker, said, "at the way Damon has raised his game. He doesn't have the natural talent of Michael Schumacher, but then neither does anyone else. What he's done is grow into a truly mature grand prix driver, and it's irrelevant that he's got the best car - the successful drivers have always had bloody good cars. You can't win all those races with bad cars, whoever you are."

All those races, indeed. From 60 grand prix starts, Hill has 19 victories, a strike rate which betters all in history save those of Juan Manuel Fangio and Jim Clark.

Peter Collins, James Hunt and Mansell, together with all-time great drivers like Stirling Moss, Clark and Jackie Stewart, at some point won their home grand prix in the course of distinguished careers, but Hill's late father, Graham, despite taking two world championships, as well as victories in the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Indianapolis 500, somehow never captured the race he most wanted. "I feel," Hill said, when he won in 1994, "that this has filled a little hole in the family record."

Now, with seven victories from the last 10 races, he goes to Silverstone once more, and for the first time as heavy favourite, not least because Schumacher, unequivocally the best driver of the moment, is this season in a Ferrari neither truly competitive with the Williams-Renault, nor conspicuously reliable. This weekend the British Grand Prix crowd positively expects a Hill victory, and this, all things being equal, he should deliver. A riot, however, is not anticipated.