The cheers that greeted Hill yesterday morning, whether he was patiently signing autographs or emerging from the pit lane at full throttle, showed that the media campaign to turn him into the new Nigel Mansell has had some degree of success. Of the other 25 drivers, only Ayrton Senna generated a comparable buzz of excitement on the terraces. Now all Damon Hill has to do is win a race.
Which goes to show how ludicrous the whole business has become. Should Hill, with no wins from a mere 10 starts, be allowed to win the British Grand Prix, ahead of Alain Prost, who has 49 victories from 191 races? The question ignores the realities of Formula One racing. Not just the prime-time high-tech megasport that Formula One has become, but the combination of etiquette and practicality that goes all the way back to the earliest days of the world championship.
A designated No 2's job is to serve his team by supporting the leader. Thus did Peter Collins hand over his Ferrari to Juan Manuel Fangio at Monza in the last race of the 1956 season, when by staying put the 25-year-old Englishman would have ensured the championship for himself - and would have been the first of his countrymen to win it. Thus did Gilles Villeneuve sit patiently a couple of cars' lengths behind Jody Scheckter, his senior partner in the Ferrari team, at Monza in 1979, conceding the title to a less talented man without complaint.
Still, Hill's new fans - most of whom had barely registered his existence six months ago - are clearly of the opinion that he should be permitted to win the race that eluded his famous father. Perhaps Frank Williams and the policy-makers at Renault will think so, too - Williams, who is not a sentimental man, because it would get a lot of people off his back, and Renault because the UK represents an important market for their passenger cars, which might be damaged, however marginally, if a French conspiracy were suspected by people with an incomplete understanding of the way the sport works.
Something similar, with a post- war twist, was surely in the minds of the people at Mercedes-Benz at Aintree in 1955, when Fangio allowed Stirling Moss, his young team-mate, to become the first Briton to win the British Grand Prix. Fangio's natural sense of etiquette ensured that no one could ever be utterly certain he'd handed the race to Moss, although an editorial in Motor Sport accepted it with the sort of calm realism that is in short supply today: 'Those who watched the race with expert eyes will appreciate how much Moss has gleaned from Fangio,' it said, 'and how, had he wished, the invincible Argentinian could have won this race.'
Prost is currently 12 points ahead of Senna in the championship race - a useful cushion, but by no means conclusive. He still needs the points, and could certainly be forgiven. In France last Sunday, though, he did his cause no good at all in the eyes of purists by following Hill around for the first 26 laps of the race, only taking the lead when the junior partner went into the pits to change his tyres. That a three-time world champion, a man with more grand prix victories than anyone in history, leading this year's championship in the best car in the field, should be content to traipse around behind his novice No 2 in his home grand prix simply boggled the mind.
This, emphatically, was not the stuff of which great champions are made. To consider only his contemporaries, who could imagine Mansell or Senna being content to wait until their No 2 changed tyres to take the lead in front of their home crowd? Prost remains a miraculously fast driver, as yesterday's late charge for pole position showed again, but behaviour like that has won him little sympathy since he returned from last year's sabbatical.
As for Hill, the sight of him acting under team orders, apparently refraining from attacking Prost during the second half of the race at Magny-Cours, may have been misleading, even though it is the cause of this week's media furore. Prost, secure in the knowledge of those instructions and cruising to another 10 points, would certainly not have been pressing his car or himself. Hill needed only to stay close to his leader to convey, wittingly or otherwise, a sense of impatience, of thwarted ambition.
Hill is a pleasant and thoughtful young man who worked hard during his time as Williams's test driver and fully deserved his elevation into the race team this season. In terms of talent and experience, he is at present the ideal No 2. When Frank Williams and Patrick Head offered him a deal, it was on the understanding that he would help Alain Prost win the championship.
Those are the terms to which he put his signature, and to which he must stick, whatever the pressure from elsewhere, and whatever today's outcome, whether it turns out to have been decided around a table in the Renault boardroom, on the radar screens of the Met Office, or even on the race track.
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