Motor Racing: Farewell to standard bearer?

Ronald Atkin samples supporter reaction to Hill's retirement talk
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THERE WERE hundreds of T-shirts being worn at Silverstone yesterday bearing the message "Go Damon Go". It seems Damon Hill is about to take that advice to heart, though the wearers of the clothing had something entirely different in mind when they bought it - like Hill winning this afternoon's British Grand Prix, for instance.

Hill's impending retirement was the talk of the place on qualifying day (a lady called Sonia on Radio Five Live was trilling about "the impending curtain on an illustrious career") and if Damon himself was saying nothing more about it, preferring to get on for the moment with his job of driving for Jordan, his supporters were not nearly so reticent on the subject.

Joy Cheshire strode through the entrance gates carrying a cardboard "Thanks Damon" sign in Jordan's yellow colours. Joy, from Sapcote, Leicestershire, is a long-time fan of Formula One and Hill. "I've actually got Damon's signature on my 1995 ticket," she said, producing it with a flourish from the bulky souvenir bag on her shoulder.

"This is a sad time but I definitely think he is doing the right thing. Now he owes it to his wife and children to be with them. They have supported him, now he has to give back to them.

"Damon has been a brilliant ambassador for British sport although the press are too busy knocking him when he is down and the way Williams kicked him in the teeth was absolutely dreadful." Joy recalled with a fond smile how her hero had nearly run her down at Silverstone 12 months ago. "He was on his motorbike and he had to jam on his brakes. All I could say was `It's Damon Hill'."

Richard Downing and his 19-year-old son Matthew, seated on the Copse bank beneath a large flag bearing Hill's name, were making their fourth visit to Silverstone from nearby Milton Keynes (or MK, as Richard calls it). Unlike Joy Cheshire, they are not members of the Damon Hill Supporters' Club, though Matthew said: "I used to be but I don't think I renewed it, did I?"

Three-day passes have cost Downing and son pounds 400, which is why they visit the Grand Prix only every other year. Mrs Downing has been left at home in MK. "My wife is a Silverstone widow," said Richard. "Because of us she has to be interested but she watches it on telly."

The Downings are philosophical about Hill. "If he feels he needs to go this time, we will support him," said Richard. "He isn't getting any younger and he's not doing as well as he was. It is better to go at this stage rather than hang on and be at the back of the field."

Matthew agreed: "I would be happy to see him go sooner rather than later because Nigel Mansell retired about four times."

With Hill's departure, Richard plans to switch allegiance to Eddie Irvine: "He's a British driver, plus he seems to be on the up at the moment."

"Plus he has got a bit of character and a sense of humour," Matthew added. "I could never support David Coulthard, he whinges too much."

Trevor Murdoch, a housing officer from Eastbourne, shared the Downings' concern about prices, though not their support of Hill. He and his 12- year-old son David were sporting Ferrari caps. "David was born in Italy and I lived there for 14 years, working as a teacher, a baker, a bit of everything," said Trevor.

It is the Murdochs' first grand prix visit and Trevor was shocked by the expense. "It cost us pounds 70 to get in, pounds 10 for a programme and they wanted another pounds 50 for two seats up there," he said, gesturing towards the North grandstand. "That's way over the top, I think, pounds 20 a bum, it's a lot."

Trevor is cynical about Hill's retirement talk. "I don't think he will go, he will carry on to the end of the season, which I would like him to do anyway."

David Murdoch is a supporter of Michael Schumacher: "Even when he was with Benetton." But Trevor is an Eddie Irvine man. "He is out-going but he is more of a gentleman as well."

By the time of qualifying in the afternoon, Silverstone was basking in warm sunshine but a foggy start to the day had caught short the early arrivals in shorts. Even the ticket touts had caught a cold with the weather, finding few takers for tickets as they shivered in shorts. Hot drinks rather than cold lager was what they were all looking for until the sun broke through.

The bulk of public support was for Hill, though one girl in a short white dress, wearing face paint in Finnish colours, bore a banner for Mika Hakkinen. The commercial aspect of motor racing, so glaring among the logo-bedecked drivers and their cars, is cheerfully aped by the spectators.