Motor Racing / British Grand Prix: A buzz that became a groan

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ALL the cynical conjecture was rendered irrelevant when flame leaped from the rear of Damon Hill's car and it rolled powerless from the track to disappear in a cloud of white smoke. A question unanswered.

Had Hill been released from tactical restraints, was the lead he immediately established over Alain Prost and held until that fateful 43rd lap a simple reality?

We shall never know. 'I heard a bang and when I put my foot down there wasn't anything there,' Hill said. He was backed up against the steps of a mobile workshop behind the Williams-Renault pit, and you could see the pulses throbbing high on his lean jaw. He could hear the high-pitched whine of passing cars. He was still speaking when they played 'La Marseillaise' in celebration of Alain Prost's 50th victory.

The frustration. The despair. Nothing in the context of human suffering, but important enough in Hill's mind for him to pour out his feelings. 'I was going for it,' he said. 'When we were held up by the safety car I knew that to win I would need to drive the best 21 laps of my life, so when the power went there was a feeling of total disbelief. What I said couldn't be printed.'

By then mechanics were carrying away sections of Hill's disassembled car. A rare breakdown for Williams-Renault, the most technically advanced team currently at work in Formula One. 'It doesn't happen very often,' Hill added. He removed a red cap, and the light revealed traces of emotion in his brown eyes. 'It had been a good feeling to see the Union Jacks waving all around the circuit, but in the end I was only able to get a sympathetic cheer.'

Post-Mansell, this ambitious son of a famous father had found himself invested with more partisan responsibility than his record and experience warranted. Now there was only anticlimax.

When Hill surged from second place on the grid to head Prost into Copse, the crowd on a grass bank there were encouraged to believe that he was not driving under any constraints. As Hill began to extend his lead gradually there was a buzz of excitement, a sense of watching the real thing, not a contest that would end with a contrived finish.

Twice Prost closed on Hill. Twice Hill held off his French team-mate, showing much of the single-mindedness associated with his father. When the cars fell into temporary procession, Prost had another chance to impose his authority. Hill not only held him off but opened up a gap. Then the mishap. For a moment, spectators in the vicinity, seeing only the Williams-Renault livery, and unable to pick out the number, thought that it was Prost's car that had failed. A ripple of excitement turned to a groan. Hill was out of the race. His best chance, probably his only chance of besting Prost this season, had gone.

Walking back to the pits, Hill stopped for a pint at the British Racing Drivers' Club. His father would have approved of that. Also the resolve to put disappointment behind him. 'It had been a hard race and I was all souped up,' he said. 'Then it was all gone. There was nowhere to direct my energy. What happened today was infuriating. I felt angry, then disappointed.'

Interrogators were still crowding in. Cameras, microphones, notebooks and tape recorders. For a week he has lived under the weight of ludicrous expectation. Nobody expected the car to fail, but it did. Wonky valve gear or, with victory in sight, did he drive it too hard? 'They aren't made to go slow,' somebody said, thinking about the two processional laps. Hill smiled. 'You're right', he said.