Motor racing: New car fires Hill's optimism and ambition

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The Independent Online
He marched into the hall a mite starchily behind a brass band and stood uneasily beneath the explosion of bangers and sparklers, before completing the rehearsed ritual by declaring, "something's missing," from his new car. At which point the offending cover was peeled away to reveal the world champion's No 1.

Damon Hill and his new car, the TWR Arrows-Yamaha, were on public display for the first time at the Autosport International Show at the NEC, Birmingham, and he duly made all the other noises required on these occasions.

Optimism continued to shower the stage long after the firecrackers were spent, and Hill lit up his little speech about "state of the art machinery" by describing it as a "sexy little number," which excited him.

Hill's world has been in a state of excitement since his title success with Williams and he is understandably eager to get down to work. It remains to be seen whether reality will be as stimulating.

Arrows have yet to win a grand prix and, even with the leadership of Tom Walkinshaw, the much vaunted introduction of Bridgestone tyres, the Premier Division of Formula One remains an exclusive club and extremely difficult to penetrate.

Undaunted, driver and boss talked of potential, podium finishers and the possibility of victories before the end of the coming season, but away from the pomp and ceremony, Hill was circumspect.

The 36-year-old Englishman, who will be partnered by Brazil's Pedro Diniz, said: "I think it would be remarkable to win a race this year and I'm not expecting it to happen. I'm just hoping it might.

"It's not impossible, but there's no way I'm going to enjoy the level of success I had last season. This is going to be a very different experience for me, a very rude awakening. I won't have a clear road ahead of me."

Work on the car was held up for a month to accommodate Hill's long legs and famously big feet. Walkinshaw said: "I didn't realise he had size 111/2. But it was worth the effort and investment to make him comfortable."

Hill confirmed: "It fits like a glove." He said also: "I'll be glad when all the talking is over. I saw the finished car for the first time at 12.30 last night and it looks very neat. But it's only when we get to work that we'll know how good it is."

Hill and his team have just two months to prepare their "sexy little number" for the opening performance in Melbourne on 9 March. The first test, scheduled for Silverstone today, has been put back to next midweek because of the weather, and then the revamped team heads for Jerez and serious work.

Walkinshaw maintains that the combination of Hill's pace and experience, and the potential of Bridgestone, make "pulling off one or two wins," the realistic objective. "Damon is one of the two fastest drivers in the world," he said. "I'm not dreaming."

He did, however, concede: "The honeymoon is over. The first six months are going to be very hard. When I took over Benetton it was a shambles, so I am under no illusion as to the amount of effort required. This was worse by a country mile. But we made Benetton a good and competitive team, and that is our aim here."

While Hill has a job and a season to look forward to, his compatriot Martin Brundle must contemplate alternative employment. He has lost his place at Jordan-Peugeot to Giancarlo Fisichella, the 23-year-old Italian, who will partner Ralf Schumacher, the two-time world champion's brother.

Brundle, 37, insists that decision does not mean the end of his racing career, defiantly urging: "Don't write me off."

In the meantime he may have to settle for a consultancy and testing package and commentating with ITV.

Brundle has been busy advising on modifications to the Silverstone circuit, and promises the slow complex has been turned into a flowing driving test. Silverstone's grand prix track has been resurfaced using laser beam equipment, in their latest pounds 2m improvement scheme.