Motor Racing / British Grand Prix: Public want Hill let off the leash

Click to follow
FOR a customer who pays upwards of pounds 50 to get into the circuit, pounds 5 to park, and more on a programme and fast food, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone may look a trifle thin.

This is based not merely on the absence of Nigel Mansell, who milked popularity with all the enthusiasm of a dairymaid on piecework, but a clear sense of the commercial deliberations that will determine whether Damon Hill can do his utmost to win.

It is no secret that Hill, hardly a greenhorn at 32, but in Formula One terms a comparative novice who is enjoying the immense benefits of superior technology, requires permission to take on Alain Prost, his senior partner in the Williams-Renault team.

People close to the sport accept this as quite normal procedure but from the public's point of view it is an unacceptable proposition that is bound to leave a doubt in the mind even if Hill gets his head and is first to the chequered flag.

Barring errors brought about by the sort of weather conditions that made life difficult for the drivers during the free practice session, some of them, including Hill, spinning off in clouds of spray, Williams-Renault are expected to continue their inexorable advance towards another world championship. Even allowing for Prost's brilliance, the mature judgements that have brought him back to the fore at 38 after a year's rest, this suggests a triumph of engineering. So where does it put Hill?

From the many hours Hill has spent testing cars at Silverstone (he was employed in that role by Williams-Renault 12 months ago when Mansell won for the second time in a row) he has the advantage of knowing more about the circuit than any of the other 25 competitors. Indeed, a popular supposition is that Silverstone is the one circuit around which Hill could see off Prost. This still leaves the question of whether he will be encouraged to attempt a victory that unquestionably would consolidate burgeoning status.

Another question is what would now be going on in Martin Brundle's mind if he, not Hill, had been engaged by the Williams team? Would he have gone for it, to hell with intrigue and tactics? In a faster, more efficient machine than he has yet driven, on the home track in front of an enthusiastic British audience, the chances are that Brundle would have been his own man.

This takes us back to 1986, when Mansell and Nelson Piquet drove for Williams-Honda. After 30 laps, the Briton was 28 seconds adrift of his Brazilian team-mate, who was considered to be the senior partner. Remorselessly, Mansell closed the gap, going on to win his first British Grand Prix after passing Piquet with a thrilling manoeuvre performed at 200mph along Hangar Straight. The way it happened was theatrical, but it was not staged. There was no suspicion of a prearranged plan to disfigure the reality of Mansell's success.

It was not in the script when Didier Pironi passed his senior partner in the Ferrari team, Gilles Villeneuve, who was also a friend, to win the San Marino Grand Prix in 1982. This resulted in a serious quarrel that was not resolved before Villeneuve was killed in the Belgian Grand Prix a short while later.

Contrived finishes are not new in motor racing, the idea being that the team is all when a world championship is at stake. But is it what the people want and will commercial considerations eventually erode their support?

To this day Stirling Moss cannot be sure that his Mercedes team-mate, the legendary Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio, allowed him to win the British Grand Prix at Aintree in 1955. If so, it was a touch of class. The act of a gentleman.

This other day Hill implied that he had plenty in reserve last week when finishing second to Prost in the French Grand Prix. Now it is Silverstone and he awaits his orders.