Motor Racing / British Grand Prix: Williams pull a fast one: Andrew Baker joins the mechanics in the pit as Damon Hill's car is prepared for action

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FIVE minutes to go before final practice. In the Williams garage mechanics swarm over the cars, which are stripped of their bodywork. The hunched figure of Frank Williams prowls effortfully up and down in his wheelchair. Suddenly the engine of Damon Hill's car bursts into life. Anybody without headphones jams their hands to their ears - the racket is indescribable. Hill appears and wishes David Coulthard luck.

The circuit is opened and the first cars leave the pits. Coulthard and Hill, suited and helmeted, wriggle into their cars. Their race engineers, leaders of each team of mechanics, lean over the cockpits to talk to their drivers. All the team personnel wear headphones and microphones. Frank Williams, parked in front of a monitor, listens in.

Six minutes into the session, Hill fires up his car and heads cautiously down the pit lane. The pit is silent. Everyone is glued to the monitors.

Hill's first flying lap is quick, the fastest of the day so far. The mechanics smile and nod, but there are no histrionics. Sure enough, Gerhard Berger soon goes faster and the Williams cars are called back to their pit. Now the mechanics go into a well-rehearsed routine. One attaches a Hoover-like object to the car's radiators; another polishes the rear wing, removing any dead flies that might cause unwanted friction; another tests the temperatures of the tyre surfaces. Other operatives fetch fresh tyres and fit them - still encased in the 'blankets' that keep them warm - to the cars.

Coulthard remains in his car while all this goes on. Hill leaps out as soon as his car has been wheeled back into the pit and is at once talking with his engineer. His hands, parallel, flat, palms down in front of him, represent his car as he describes a particular corner. They sway from side to side as he visualises the track, then his hips twitch out to the left: the 'car' has kicked out of control. The engineer nods, thinks, then orders a junior to make an adjustment. Then the engines blare into life again and Hill leads his team-mate back on to the track.

But on this occasion they do not significantly improve their times. Soon they are back again. With 13 minutes of the session left, Hill is fourth, Coulthard sixth. As Hill climbs in for the last time, Frank Williams wheels himself to the rear of Hill's car. As Hill accelerates out of the pit, he can see his team manager's hawkish face in his mirror.

Hill's final lap is magnificent. The antennaed team applaud as Hill screams past the finishing line. Once out of the car, he stands, hand on hip, intent on the screen as Michael Schumacher's final lap unwinds. The German flashes past, three-thousandths of a second too slow: the Williams garage erupts. Hill lifts his wife, Georgie, in a bear hug, the mechanics do high fives, everybody cheers. Frank Williams smiles.

Almanack, back page

(Map omitted)

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