Motor Racing: Hill drives back the shadows: As the grand prix season nears its final laps, Richard Williams in Estoril meets a man determined to be a champion in his own right

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HE HAS never looked more relaxed at a racetrack than he did at two o'clock on Friday afternoon, coming back to the pits in a saloon car, his overalls covered in dust, a couple of minutes after the biggest accident of his grand prix career. All the signs of stress were gone: the abruptness, the jerky movements, the dark suspicion that has grown like a creeping night-shadow behind the deep-set brown eyes. Surrounded by an anxious group of his engineers and mechanics, Damon Hill made the whole thing of turning a Formula One car upside down into a joke. You could see the tensions of the past two years dissolve as the relief washed through him.

Someone asked if it had been like the survivors always said, that when you were in such an accident, with the car flying through the air upside down, it seemed to happen in slow motion.

'Oh, sure,' he deadpanned. 'I had time to put it into neutral and switch the engine off, you know?'

A few hours later, he reflected on his instinctive reaction to the experience of colliding with Eddie Irvine's spinning Jordan and landing on his helmet in a gravel trap. 'Well,' he said, 'there's enormous relief when something like that happens and you get out in one piece. You can't help but feel glad to be walking about. As the car was coming down, I thought it was going to be a hefty landing. The only thing you can do is relax. But all I did was scrape my helmet on the gravel. And when I got back, everybody seemed very pleased to see me.'

It was more good news in a week when he celebrated his 34th birthday and learnt, after months of rumour and counter-rumour, that the dark blue helmet with vertical white stripes will be seen in the cockpit of a Williams-Renault again next season. In the face of a threat from the returning Nigel Mansell and from the Scottish prodigy David Coulthard, Damon Hill has secured his immediate future in a world where many people have queried his right to exist at all, other than as his father's son.

His mother has often remarked on how much he reminds her of her late husband. But it is the significant difference between Damon and Graham that has defined the texture of the son's life since the beginning of last year, when he earned promotion from the role of anonymous test driver to the number two seat in the Williams team, as the supporting cast to Alain Prost's bid for a fourth world championship title. Yes, people said, Damon was indeed like his father: short on natural talent, long on application. But where Graham had more front than Brighton, being a natural PR man supremely gifted in the ultimate Formula One art of thinking one thing and saying another, Damon seemed achingly direct. And therefore totally unsuited to life among the sharks.

For Damon Hill, the job of driving a grand prix car has often looked like an earthly version of purgatory, administered in instalments. It began with the immediate pressure to replace Mansell in the affections of the tabloids, which was rather like asking a boy soprano to sit in for Pavarotti. 'I knew it was going to be a very mixed blessing,' he said on Friday. 'But I told myself that I had to think positively, and that I'd rather have the attention than not. The upside is that you get a lot of praise. And you have to accept that if it goes badly you're going to get an equal amount of, um, appreciation for that. But remember that everything I've done, from the first time I sat in a racing car, has received an inordinate amount of attention, because of my father.'

As that first season went on, his body language spoke volumes about his ordeal, particularly when confronted by a forest of microphones but even, too, in the moments of triumph. When he punched the air on the podium, it looked not so much a gesture of joy as one of desperate relief. Something had been proved. But to whom? Himself, or his father?

'I've had a lot of fun out of being Graham Hill's son, and a lot of privileges,' he said, 'but when you're young you don't really want to be singled out. You want to be like everyone else. If you want to be noticed, you want it to be for what you yourself have done, not because of your parents. You can take that to a psychologist and work it out, if you want.'

He'd have beeen better off, he said, serving his racing apprenticeship in obscurity. 'But what the hell? Just about everything's happened to me so far, and if you can see it through then you're better off for it.'

He certainly hasn't enjoyed the constant scrutiny. 'In everyone's questioning there seems to be an answer that they're trying to extract from me. I'm a pretty stubborn person, and I don't like to be put up to things. If you push me, I'll refuse. I felt that there was a lot of 'do this, do that', and I was being expected to be somebody that I'm not ready to be, at least not in front of the whole world.'

When Prost took his championship into retirement, Hill found himself confronted by an even more formidable team-mate. And one who, within three races, had died in an accident that shivered the foundations of Formula One. The fate of Ayrton Senna led Hill to question his vocation.

'I think every driver thought that. Of course it was a double tragedy, because it had happened to Roland (Ratzenberger) the day before. It's not something I really want to dwell on, but it made every driver consider whether they really wanted to do this. But you think to yourself, well, that's what I've planned to do with my life, and it's what I love doing, and if it wasn't car racing . . . I love to do something exciting. If there's no risk, there's no life. And Ayrton would not have been who he was if he hadn't done what he did in his life. In a way, his life was complete. Well, I'm sure he would have been looking forward to doing other things with the rest of his life. Of course he would. But . . .'

He believes that he and his fellow drivers won't really feel the full impact of Senna's death until the season is over. 'That's when you stop to reflect. At the moment we're trying to forget. I think most people still don't really believe it's happened.'

When Senna died at Imola, he and Hill were preoccupied by the threat from Michael Schumacher and the Benetton-Ford. Had they felt that they were against an illegal car? 'I'm not going to comment on that.' Well, had the Benetton's speed surprised them in the opening races? 'Yes.' A smile. 'You've got to hand it to them. They've put together a fantastic package, and Michael is a superb driver. It was infuriating that they seemed to be just a little bit ahead of us all the time.' A laugh.

The stain on Schumacher's six wins left by allegations of cheating has inevitably discoloured Hill's own four victories. His first, in Spain, came when Schumacher got stuck in fifth gear for more than half the race. His second, at Silverstone, came when Schumacher was penalised for an infringement of pre-race etiquette. His third, at Spa, came when Schumacher was disqualified from first place for a technical infringement. And his fourth, at Monza, came in the first race of Schumacher's period of suspension. Now, if he wins today's race at Estoril in Schumacher's absence, he will go into the last three races of the season only a point behind the 25-year-old German - but, just to complicate matters, teamed with Mansell, a man whose relationship with the limelight is unequivocal. 'Well,' Hill said, 'he can have it.'

And will Mansell's ability to attract publicity make Hill's life easier during the run-in to the title? 'Put it this way - if I was in the armed forces, I'd be working under cover. I'm a much more secretive type. He's said he'll support me, and he's got nothing to gain by potentially robbing Williams of a world championship. I don't think that would be appreciated. But I regard anyone in a racing car out on the track at the same time as me as an opponent. I just think that's the best way to approach it. He'll be coming back to show he's the great driver we know he is, and who can blame him? That's his make-up. But I'm here to end up with more points than Michael Schumacher at the end of the season. That's all.'

Mansell's return is not being viewed with widespread pleasure, either within the Williams team or around the paddock in general. He came back for one earlier race, at Magny-Cours, where he was outqualified and outraced by Hill, yet picked up a dollars 1m fee from Renault, who will be paying him the same amount for each of the remaining fixtures. If he gets the seat next season, Mansell will earn a total of about pounds 5m - about five times as much as Hill will be paid under the terms of his new deal. Unless, that is, Hill wins the championship, in which case the terms will be rather better.

Hill probably has a more trenchant view on the Mansell question, but his position prevents him from expressing it. That, and a growing mastery of Formula One's most vital skill: disguise and deception. 'I've learnt to disguise and deceive,' he said, 'but I will not tell a lie about something that I feel strongly should be put straight. Sometimes in this business, you're put in a position where you can't say what you want to say, which might happen to be the truth. It can be quite difficult like that. And there are some things that I feel uncomfortable concealing. But the more you're able to look on it as a game, the more you can relax. And although the stakes are very high, that's ultimately what it is: a game. Not the real world.'

On Friday night, after a bang on the head had brought a smile to his face, it was almost possible to believe that he meant it. He had better start believing it himself, since if he takes the championship he is likely to hear nothing but voices telling him that he has won a devalued version of his father's title. The end of the game is still a long way off, and those eyes will not always be so free of shadows.

(Photograph omitted)