Motor racing: Hill under threat from Frentzen

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The Independent Online
Damon Hill put on a brave, smiling face, but the body language betrayed his discomfort. Suddenly the controlled, orderly drive to the world championship and the road beyond paved with gold appeared in danger of sabotage.

As if he did not have enough on his mind, arriving here for Sunday's German Grand Prix with a title lead reduced to 15 points, he walked into a barricade of speculation that he is to lose his job at Williams-Renault next season to Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Hill confronted questions on his position at Williams with prepared resistance. "I'm not going to be drawn into discussing the conjecture about my future in grand prix motor racing. I don't feel I need to discuss it and I've nothing to say."

He did, however, say: "I've made it clear I'd love to stay at Williams. I've not really driven for any other team. I feel part of the team, and part of the success here has been brought about by my hard work and my being a good team member."

Frentzen, once rated by some ahead of Michael Schumacher as Germany's finest prospect, has long been linked with Williams and it is reported that the team's boss, Frank Williams, has negotiated a deal with him. That prompted a statement from Williams which scarcely discouraged rumours: "Jacques Villeneuve, having commenced a two-year contract with the team at the beginning of the 1996 season, is the only confirmed driver for 1997. Negotiations regarding the team's other driver for 1997 will commence in good time."

Williams have a knack of losing world champions and Hill would follow an illustrious line of drivers who, for various reasons, have left the team as the No 1 during the past decade: Nelson Piquet, in 1987, Nigel Mansell, in 1992, and Alain Prost, in 1993. The circumstances this time are different again and there seems no obvious reason to replace Hill with Frentzen or, indeed, any other driver apart from Schumacher, and he, it would seem, is not available.

Frentzen has had scant opportunity to demonstrate his ability with Sauber- Ford and is no nearer attaining his maiden grand prix win. Hill, with 19 wins - six this season - has a proven track record and, on the face of it, has done nothing to rock the Williams boat. It is possible stories of Hill's demands for a huge pay rise have not been well received at Williams, who in turn know they have the drivers covered and may see in Frentzen a bridge to BMW, one of the manufacturers mooted as partners to the team after Renault quit Formula One at the end of next season.

What is clear is that Frentzen, out of contract at the end of this year, would jump at the opportunity. He has had an offer from Jordan-Peugeot and promised a decision today, but earlier this week asked for more time. Frentzen, 29, said: "I have nothing to hide. I would like to go to Williams. If my manager is not talking to them he is not doing his job. I spoke to Frank Williams in 1994 and people have been telling me since that I am going to drive for Williams, but all I can say is I hope to be in Formula One next season."

If that is with Williams then Hill, probably armed with the commercially valuable No 1, would be welcome at the ambitious Jordan team.