Motor Racing: Relieved Hill happy with a point well made

Catherine Riley watches the world champ enjoy his best day of the season
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The Independent Online
He has been called many things this week: sleepy, unmotivated, even demonic. Once again the pressure was on Damon Hill.

This time last year 90,000 spectators had braved the Silverstone queues and ticket prices to cheer the peoples' champion on his way to becoming world champion.

How things change. A new season, a new team and in Saturday's qualifying session Hill wrung 12th place on the grid out of his underpowered and misnamed Arrows, a far cry from last year's pole.

It had not been a triumphant or pleasant homecoming for Hill. A hand- made banner in the front of the Arrows motor home saying, "Damon Hill is Champ" appeared to be pretty much the extent of his team's backing.

Tom Walkinshaw, the Arrows' team manager, had given Hill a very public black flag at the start of the weekend, accusing him of not trying. Then yesterday Hill woke up to the news that Bernie Ecclestone, the most powerful man in Formula One, was going to ensure he got "a good drive" next season and that it would be in the sport's interest to see Hill going head-to- head with Michael Schumacher to recreate the Alain Prost-Ayrton Senna rivalry.

The other dark clouds over Silverstone yesterday were the ones which changed what had been a hot and sticky track on Saturday to a wet and slippery one on race morning. In an impressive display of sticking two wheels up to the opposition, Hill found his car turning in a performance worthy of the Red Arrows, the unlikely combination of the Yamaha V10 engine and Bridgestone tyres giving him the quickest practice time.

Hill may, to the outsider, appear a cold and brooding character, yet see him in the paddock laughing and smiling and you realise that his mask hides an intensely personal man genuinely perplexed and saddened by Frank Williams decision to release him last season. He is a man at ease with the crowds, and said on Saturday he wanted to give them something to cheer again.

Despite Heinz-Harald Frent-zen's relegation to the back of the grid, Hill was unable to benefit from a starting position of 11th.

The track and the weather, both have which had promised so much for Hill in the morning, conspired instead to provide a warm dry surface. By the end of the 15th lap a 13-second pit stop put Hill back in 18th, just over a minute behind the leaders.

At half distance, Hill was maintaining his stately progress around the track in 12th, but then he began to make progress. The departure of Johnny Herbert - followed swiftly by that of Eddie Irvine - meant home hopes were down to the one-time Williams team-mates Hill and David Coulthard.

Things were looking even better for Hill when race leader Mika Hakkinen's engine blew. Now he was seventh. The crowd sensed the world champion's first point of the season - their belief was willing the unreliable Arrows home, daring it to break down.

And then it happened. A place ahead of Hill, Shinji Nakano's engine failed him. Hill punched the air. The reaction of both spectators and driver to the chequered flag was as if he had taken first place. Sixth was a victory, of sorts. "I feel like I won something today," a delighted Hill said.

Down in the pits, Walkinshaw allowed himself a smile. "It was good to get our first point together and it's a good basis on which to start building."

And he had he spoken to Damon over the radio? "Yes he was a bit pleased." Again the smile.

Hill would not be drawn on all that had gone before, but said: "I would have done just as well without the criticism. It's great for the team. The best we could hope to achieve was a point, and we achieved our best."

Later Walkinshaw was rather less effusive. While not actually claiming credit for Hill's rejuvenation, he hinted as much when he said: ``Sometimes as a manager you have to do hard things to get the best out of people.''