Damon Hill's uneasy relationship with his own team is likely to be put under further strain, following the revelation that his boss, Frank Williams, apologised to the Benetton-Renault team following Hill's collision with Michael Schumacher in Sunday's British Grand Prix. Williams also branded his driver a "prat".
The stewards at Silverstone baffled most observers by reprimanding Schumacher as well as Hill for the incident, which put both drivers out of the race. The consensus of opinion inside the Williams-Renault camp seems to be that Hill was responsible for the crash.
After the race Williams personally delivered that message to the Benetton garage, and told members of the rival team: "I'm here because I want to apologise for what my driver did. He was a bit of a prat."
This latest controversy in Hill's campaign for the championship could deal a severe blow to his long-term prospects. It is understood his criticisms of the Williams operation at earlier races caused deep resentment in the team. Williams were further embarrassed by Hill's contention that Schumacher was "a clone".
Schumacher gave as good as he got in the pre-Silverstone verbal crossfire, and described Hill's ill-fated attempt to overtake him on Sunday as "a crazy manoeuvre".
Significantly the warmest applause from the spectators overlooking the incident was for the German, rather than for the home driver. Fifteen laps remained and Hill looked to have Schumacher flustered. Frank Williams doubtless takes the view a better opportunity would have presented itself.
Hill knows that he cannot be certain of his place with Williams next season, hence his endeavours to set up options, and his eagerness to convey the impression he is coveted by other top teams. Renault admit they would like a French driver, and anyone rocking the boat would become vulnerable. Patrick Faure, head of Renault Sport said: "We have reached the point where we are expected to win. The logical next step for us is to have a French driver winning for us."
Niki Lauda, the three times world champion, and now a consultant with Ferrari, suggested that Hill's actions may be counter-productive. "You can get yourself in the right car with the right money if you do it on the track," he said. "If you say you are talking to other teams you annoy your own team and it backfires on you."
Benetton understandably feel aggrieved that Schumacher was carpeted along with Hill, and the team's managing-director, Flavio Briatore, is taking legal advice on whether he should make a formal attempt to clear his driver's name. Briatore said: "We don't want to do anything against the Williams team and we have no argument with them, but this is not correct. Michael had nothing to do with it. Public opinion is saying it for us. It is 100 per cent that Damon was to blame. Even the English press say so.
"If Damon had not hit Michael he would have gone straight on. He was going too fast and the gap was not there anyway. This is the guy who wants to win the championship from Michael, but this is not the way to do it. This is bad for the sport."
It is thought the aerial shot of the incident suggested to the stewards that Schumacher did leave a gap and made no attempt to avoid the collision, and Hill remains adamant that was the case. He said: "Michael moved to the right and knew where I was. He was under pressure. He left the door wide open and I went for it."
The drivers who were involved in the decisive tangle in Australia last season confront each other again on Schumacher's home race, at Hockenheim on Sunday week. Hill received death threats there 12 months ago, but said: "I don't expect any problems. I have no wish for there to be any animosity but you can't ignore the stakes. I want to win the world championship, and he doesn't want me to win it. That makes it difficult being in each other's company."
Johnny Herbert will also be in their company in Germany. He was the beneficiary on Sunday, collecting his first grand prix win and removing any immediate threat to his position in the team. Briatore maintains that the English driver was always meant to be competing at Hockenheim but added: "Everybody in the team has to produce."Reuse content