MOTOR RACING: Hill has a champion's vote of confidence

The grand prix season begins tomorrow. Derick Allsop sets the scene for a British-based assault
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Like father like son and, much as Damon Hill prefers to be his own man, the very qualities which first put the family name on Formula One's roll of honour could again be rewarded with the world championship this year.

That assessment comes from Jackie Stewart, who succeeded Graham Hill as champion in 1969. Hill Snr was never regarded as one of the more natural drivers, certainly not as gifted as Stewart or Jim Clark. And yet he won the title twice, beating, among others, Stewart, in 1968.

Stewart now senses a similar scenario. Hill is up against Michael Schumacher, the reigning champion, the German accepted as the outstanding driver in the world. There could be serious competition, too, from David Coulthard, Hill's team-mate at Williams-Renault, but the Scot has the experience of only eight grands prix and the championship may be too much to ask of him.

So, as they line up here for tomorrow's opener, the Brazilian Grand Prix, Hill v Schumacher is the contest most anticipate and Stewart goes along with that - adding an honourable mention for Coulthard. As for the champion, he takes Hill.

Stewart said: "I don't think David Coulthard can be expected to win a world championship this year but I fully expect him to win at least one or two grands prix. I think he's totally capable of it and I think he'll be a contender for the world championship. Few drivers have been better prepared for Formula One. But it would be too much of a fairy-tale for him to win it this year.

"I think Damon is ready to do that. He had a very important year last year for his growth, his development, in some of the mistakes that were made, which he fully recognised, and I think he is a wiser man because he didn't win the championship.

"In a funny sort of way, he could be more comfortable with not having won it, but who wants to give that away? I could have said the same in 1986, excuse me, 1968 - dyslexia. I felt I was a better man in '69 because I didn't win it in '68.

"I was very impressed with the way Damon finished last year. Very like his dad. I wasn't sure whether he'd crack it, but a lot of people would have said the same of Graham. But he persevered, he channelled his resources in the best possible way and his drive in Australia was wonderful, and in Japan it was masterful under incredible pressures.

"I think Schumacher must still be identified as the best racing driver in the world at the moment. I don't think Damon would be upset with me for saying that, because he demonstrated that last year. But I think it will be an interesting year and I think Damon will win it."

Stewart, who had further championship successes in 1971 and 1973, believes Hill's team and Schumacher's triumph last time could be crucial factors. Williams have the expertise and have achieved both a high level of performance and reliability in tandem with Renault.

Benetton, having changed from Ford to Renault, are having to overcome understandable problems and are behind schedule. Schumacher may have too much ground to make up and discover, as Stewart did, that winning titles back-to-back is a tricky business.

Stewart said: "I think the fact that Michael is world champion is a bit of a weakness. He's had a lot to do and not that many drivers win it back-to-back. It can be done, and with all the resources Benetton and Renault have it's still perfectly possible. I won every second year. You've got to take your eye off the ball occasionally.

"Michael's going to improve and improve. He's only 26 and he's tremendously fit, probably the fittest grand prix driver. He's got a good head, he's a good thinker, very Germanic in many ways, which drives him very positively.

"Damon's strengths are that he has a tremendously good mental approach, while still being British enough to be flexible, rather than Germanic enough to be only single-dimensional. He also has the engineering resources of Williams behind him. He has Frank Williams, Patrick Head, Adrian Newey and a hell of a lot of good people there."

The United Kingdom will have anything up to six drivers at every race. Johnny Herbert partners Schumacher, Nigel Mansell is due to take over from Mark Blundell when McLaren-Mercedes have a car big enough, Eddie Irvine is in the promising Jordan-Peugeot, and Martin Brundle waits impatiently to take over from Aguri Suzuki at Ligier-Mugen Honda. Stewart, who raced in the halcyon days of British racing, envisages a golden year for the home brigade.

He said: "The British line-up is nice to see. We are the capital of motor sport and it's encouraging to have such a good crop of British drivers. I think they can all be successful in one form or other.

"Nigel will always drive hard and he will always be a competitor, a racer, and he will come through. Everybody assumed I was not a Nigel Mansell supporter, but last year I said it was good he was coming back and I said I thought he could win a race, which he did.

"Sometimes out of the cockpit he's not what everyone would like, but he's a winner and that's why he's made his fame and his money. I see no reason now why it's not good that he's back.

"You can't rule out McLaren because they have the background, the knowledge, the experience and resources, but the very fact they have to rebuild a car seems very strange to me. They did not win a race last year so this year is very important for them, especially now they have this tremendous deal with Mercedes Benz.

"Johnny is still a bridesmaid. I think the jury is still out on Johnny. We will have to wait and see what this season brings. I think he's got all the skills to achieve success, but there are some girls who don't get married.

"Martin somehow or other hasn't been able to qualify well and when you're that far back on the grid it's not a good thing. But he deserves to win a grand prix.

"Irvine is a dark horse. I don't think anybody believed Eddie would be faster, consistently, than Rubens Barrichello, but he has been, and I think Jordan are going to be in there, giving people a hard time. I think they could win one or two. I think any one of the British drivers could win a race this year."