Motor racing: Hill's agony should only last to end of season

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The Independent Online
Perhaps it just wasn't what Damon Hill expected yesterday. Certainly it was outrageously over the top, even by Monaco's standards: a parade of celebs and wannabe celebs in costumes you can only assume were discarded by Elton John and Madonna.

Sponsors' functions are part of a racing driver's job and Hill probably looked no less at ease than Sergei Bubka and Catherine Oxenberg, two other "ambassadors" of this commercial enterprise. Prince Albert, of course, had seen and done it all before.

Hill, however, had seemed especially restless down at the circuit and flaunting with the peacock set was patently not his idea of preparation for tomorrow's Monaco Grand Prix.

Formula One's reigning champion has much on his mind, and when he has it shows. Four races and no finishes adds up to a depressing start with Arrows-Yamaha, the more so when Williams-Renault, the team that rejected him, remain pre-eminent and Jordan-Peugeot, the team he rejected, have emerged as the coming force.

Being seen at breakfast yesterday with Eddie Jordan inevitably activated the gossips, particularly since this was Monaco's traditional rest day. There was irony, too, in the words of Patrick Head, who along with Frank Williams decided Hill should be replaced in their team by Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Head subscribes to the general belief that the 36-year-old Englishman will be a man in demand for next season. Hill has already indicated he intends to secure a competitive drive, be it at Arrows or with another team, and Head anticipates he will have his wish.

He suggests a potential destination for him could be McLaren-Mercedes who recently reached agreement with Williams over the transfer of their chief designer, Adrian Newey.

Head, Williams' technical director, said: "Damon is one of the best in Formula One, one of the top drivers in the world, and teams are looking for top drivers. I'm sure he'll be in a competitive car next season.

"Damon's a well sorted enough type of person not to want to spend his life in the middle and back of the grid. I'm sure he would rather be at home with his wife and kids than doing that.

"As he said himself, he will want to be in a more competitive situation and I expect him to be. Either Tom Walkinshaw will convince him he will have the car he wants at Arrows next season, or he will find it elsewhere.

"Now that Adrian Newey is at McLaren, it wouldn't surprise me if he had an opportunity there. Prost is another possibility, although their car is essentially a Benetton and it depends what their new car will be like."

Hill has been linked also with Sauber and Benetton, but the former are unlikely to meet his technical requirements and the boss of the latter, Flavio Briatore, Head suspects, may not represent an obvious soul-mate.

As for Eddie Jordan's camp: "If Damon had gone to Jordan, he would have been running at the front and possibly winning races," Head said. Jordan agrees.

One team apparently not preparing a bid for Hill in 1998 is Williams. Head professed himself content with the progress of Frentzen, who had his maiden victory at the San Marino Grand Prix a fortnight ago.

Head said: "We're happy with Heinz-Harald and I believe he'll be more involved in the championship situation from now on. He didn't panic when things were not going right for him. He's a together kind of guy and has a nice dry sense of humour."

Another experienced judge of these matters, Ken Tyrrell, added his supportive voice to Hill's cause. He said: "Hill is certainly one of the top three drivers in the world today, behind Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve."

Schumacher, Villeneuve, Frentzen and perhaps Johnny Herbert, quickest in practice on Thursday, are expected to be embroiled in the contest for pole position when business resumes today, an advantage nowhere more crucial than on these narrow, twisting streets.

Schumacher and Ferrari have yet to record a win this season. They may not have to wait much longer. Hill dare not even torment himself with such a thought.

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