Villeneuve's victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix, in front of more than 100,000 people at the Hungaroring yesterday leaves Hill 17 points clear of Villeneuve, his Williams-Renault team-mate, with four races remaining, a considerable advantage which ought still to ensure the Englishman the drivers' championship to add to the constructors' title his team secured so emphatically here.
However, the haunted countenance and the expressions of exasperation betrayed a vulnerability which will encourage Villeneuve, by contrast cocky and unruffled, to believe he really does have a chance of defying the odds.
With a maximum of 40 points available, the championship is now confirmed as a two-horse race. Jean Alesi, third here yesterday in the Benetton- Renault and third in the standings, is out of the reckoning. So is the champion of the past two seasons, Michael Schumacher, who hustled his Ferrari to pole but could not cajole it to the finish line.
Hill bemoaned an uncooperative clutch which, he felt, contributed to another tardy start, and "confusion" over his pit-stop strategy. He set off with a capability of stopping twice or three times. He said he and his team agreed to go for two, but the crew eventually instructed him it would be three.
All of which served only to deflect from his splendidly spirited drive. The fact of the matter is that he lost the race in the early stages. He suggested it got away from him in the first 10 laps. In truth, it probably went in the drag to the first corner. By then he was fourth, behind Schumacher, Villeneuve and, crucially, Alesi.
Hill, patently faster than Alesi, was unable to overtake on this twisted thread of a track and drifted further and further behind the front pair. Villeneuve, similarly frustrated by the Ferrari, was comforted by the knowledge he was still pulling away from his partner and might wrest the initiative from Schumacher at the first round of pit stops. That is precisely what transpired.
It did not work out for Hill that way, but fortunately for him Alesi veered wide at the end of the main straight, left the door open and the Williams drove through. Hill ate up Schumacher's lead and another round of pit stops relegated the German to third. A problem changing Villeneuve's right rear wheel cost him time and as Hill returned to the track after his final stop, with 14 laps to go, he trailed by seven seconds. The race was on.
Hill hauled himself within a second of Villeneuve and that was the way they stayed for the closing laps. The rookie driver summoned added resistance when he needed it, held his nerve and his line and an excellent job had been completed.
"I was pretty happy when Damon had a bad start," Villeneuve said. "Losing that time in the pits made things difficult. I had to get back into pushing mode late on. But I knew that unless I made a mistake it would have been difficult for him to overtake. We're fighting for the championship. I wouldn't have done anything nasty, but I wouldn't have left the inside open and said 'please go'."
Hill accepted as much, but could not contain his frustration. "I'm pretty disgusted with my start . . . I've been trying very hard to get Williams to provide me with a clutch that suits me . . . we agreed two stops would be best, it's so confusing."
He attempted to salvage some esteem by pointing out he had registered the fastest lap "so I can't be doing it all wrong", but the damage had been done.
In the Williams compound they were endeavouring to celebrate Villeneuve's third win of the season, another one-two and, above all, a record-equalling eighth constructors' championship, yet their senior driver had in effect thrown a spanner in the party works.
Patrick Head, the technical director, confirmed the team had decided to go for three stops. He suggested Hill's poor start may have had more to do with a lack of grip on that side of the track but admitted Williams might have fallen a little behind their main rivals in terms of starting technology.
The upshot of yesterday's events, Head acknowledged, was that his team face the prospect of an in-house contest for the drivers' title.
He said: "I'd rather be the one leading by 17 points, but if, at the next race, Jacques wins and Damon does not finish then he is leading by seven points, and that could just disappear, so it could well be a race to the end. Damon regards Jacques as serious competition."
Mika Hakkinen, in a McLaren-Mercedes, was fourth, Olivier Panis, reappointed by Ligier-Mugen- Honda for next season, was fifth and Rubens Barrichello, of Jordan-Peugeot, sixth. Martin Brundle, in the other Jordan, bounced spectacularly out of the race, while Johnny Herbert (Sauber-Ford), Eddie Irvine (Ferrari) and David Coulthard (McLaren) were all forced into retirement.
Hungarian Grand Prix
1 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1hr 46min 21.134sec
2 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault +00.771sec
3 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault +1min 24.212sec
4 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +1 lap
5 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda +1 lap
6 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot +2 laps
7 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha +3 laps; 8 R Rosset (Bra) Footwork-Hart +3; 9 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari +7; 10 G Lavaggi (It) Minardi- Ford +8.
Did not finish: G Berger (Aut) Benetton- Renault 64 laps; H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford 50; J Herbert (GB) Sauber- Ford 35; E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 31; P Lamy (Por) Minardi-Ford 24, D Coulthard (GB) McLaren- Mercedes 23; J Verstappen (Neth) Footwork-Hart 10; M Brundle (GB) Jordan- Peugeot; 5, P Diniz (Bra) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1; M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha 0.