Motor Racing: Williams ponder a second driver

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AS FORMULA ONE sifts through the plans to reconstruct its cars, circuits and reputation, the sport's champion team are addressing the need to shore up the walls of their crumbling fortress.

Williams-Renault, unassailable for the last two seasons, had, in truth, been exposed as vulnerable even before Ayrton Senna's death at Imola. They retreated from the Monaco Grand Prix here with their morale further bludgeoned and their prospects of retaining either of their titles still more remote.

Their sole driver here, Damon Hill, ran into the back of Mika Hakkinen's McLaren-Peugeot at the first corner and his race was over. Michael Schumacher and Benetton-Ford were on their way to another victory, and, it seemed, another step towards the drivers' and constructors' championships.

Williams' team principal, Frank Williams, must endeavour to sign a second driver this week, ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix, and decide whether to entrust Hill with the role of No 1. A dollars 10m ( pounds 7m) offer to buy Rubens Barrichello from Jordan-Hart appears to have been resisted, and Hill has asked to be given senior status and backing.

His collision here cannot have helped his cause, though this was a weekend entangled in mitigating circumstances which took their toll on Hill more than most.

Availability is likely to determine any seniority in the new Williams partnership. The team would probably prefer a strong, experienced driver capable of lifting their spirits and their expectations. The problem is finding one. Alain Prost has excluded himself, and Nigel Mansell is contracted to the Newman-Haas IndyCar team.

Not that a contract is necessarily an impregnable barrier in Formula One. Everything has its price. Mansell, however, is preoccupied with the Indianapolis 500, which coincides with the Barcelona race on Sunday week. He maintains he is settled in America and may feel he would be on a hiding to nothing returning to Williams this year. There again, if he does not win the 500 and senses his title is slipping away, he might relish the 'impossible' challenge. And the money.

The obvious and available candidate remains Riccardo Patrese, while Nelson Piquet perhaps still ponders the possibility of a comeback and Derek Warwick would gladly hang up his microphone after one race to return to the cockpit.

Williams could still give the job to David Coulthard, their test driver. He is British and has never raced in Formula One, but he is highly rated and knows the car.

Williams, on six points, are in danger of being left behind by not only Benetton, but also Ferrari and McLaren-Peugeot, for whom Martin Brundle earned an excellent second place here.

Brundle's next task is to inspect, on behalf of the revamped Drivers' Association, the Gilles Villeneuve circuit in Montreal, which stages next month's Canadian Grand Prix. The drivers have already compiled a list of corners at the remaining tracks that they want to be made safer. Among them are Stowe and Bridge, at Silverstone. Barcelona, they feel, is acceptable.

Yesterday, the first set of safety changes intended to make Formula One safer was approved after a seven-hour meeting in Monaco. The meeting, where Michael Schumacher and Gerhard Berger were the driver representatives, decreed that speeds for the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona on 29 May would be reduced by cutting the cars' downforce by 15 per cent.

However, no decision was forthcoming on the more significant changes, such as increased driver protection in the cockpit, which are due to be phased in for the following race, the Canadian Grand Prix, on 12 June. Engineers have voiced their fears that these changes would involve redesigning the cars without proper time for testing.

Indeed, there was by no means consensus approval that the modifications for Barcelona would give sufficient time to upgrade safety levels. 'If we are fundamentally changing the car to go off to the next race with an unknown quantity, it does not strike me as particularly safe,' Brundle said yesterday.