Even as Heinz-Harald Frentzen, his latest recruit, was celebrating a maiden Formula One victory in the San Marino Grand Prix, Williams suggested the German was still not capable of mounting a challenge to his other driver, Jacques Villeneuve.
Frentzen produced an impeccable drive to wrest command of Sunday's race here and fend off the Ferrari of his compatriot Michael Schumacher. His 10 points put him alongside four others and confirmed him as a logical threat to Villeneuve, the championship leader, who was forced to retire with gearbox problems on his Williams-Renault. And yet, much as Williams admired Frentzen's poise and racecraft, he felt Villeneuve remained the more likely candidate to succeed.
Williams said: "I doubt if Heinz-Harald can give Jacques a good run and challenge him for the championship. Jacques is strong, and pulled away from Michael in the early part of the race. Heinz-Harald still has a lot to learn. He is improving his self-confidence and he understands the car a bit better now."
Frentzen had nothing to show for his first three races in F1's best car. He had his share of misfortune, but his performance in Brazil was so feeble he cancelled a holiday and flew to the Williams factory for talks with his bosses.
Williams said: "There was no pressure on him from the team, but he has his own pressures. Everyone has doubts about everything you do. In Brazil he had a bad race and we talked about it. But he demonstrated his ability to drive very quickly in Argentina and has done so here."
Frentzen had said from the outset that his season would effectively start here, an assessment based on sound reasoning yet dismissed by his critics as a lame excuse.
Now, as the German media joined his party, the irony was not lost on him. His maiden victory had arrived in his fourth grand prix with Williams. Villeneuve also required four races. It took Damon Hill 11.
Frentzen said: "I tried to explain that I had not done enough winter testing and had not had a chance to learn the car, but I still had criticism and negative press. Everybody expected me to do a good job from the beginning, which was difficult. This has lifted a big pressure from me, like a stone has fallen from my heart."
The victory was doubtless better, too, for his having defeated Schumacher, a contemporary and former team-mate in their pre-F1 days. He smiled, but steadfastly avoided voicing any sentiments that might inflame the rivalry all Germany is anticipating.
The ever cautious Williams predicted: "We are going to be blown off sooner or later," although the only genuine championship threat to his team this year will surely come from Schumacher. The German is encouraged by the gradual improvement of the Ferrari, particularly in race trim. He had three wins last year yet finished 38 points adrift of Hill, the champion. This time, he envisages a different scenario. "I might not win as many races as last year, but I could be closer to the title because it is looking more competitive among the top teams," he said.
He will be hopeful of his first win this season on Sunday week at Monaco, where Villeneuve was ill at ease and never in contention last season.
Chief among Hill's remaining ambitions is to win on the streets his father mastered on five occasions, and he accepts he must wait at least another year. A fourth fruitless grand prix in the Arrows-Yamaha left the Englishman declaring his anger and demanding a significant improvement by the summer, otherwise he would be seeking alternative employment for 1998.
"There is a danger you can slip into a casual approach," Hill said. "I keep reminding myself I must avoid that at all costs because that would be the slippery road to being an also-ran. That mustn't be allowed to happen.
"I am constantly inquiring with Tom how things are proceeding. It's important for me to know what the future is next year for the team. I don't have to make a decision for a while, but you have to plan ahead," said Hill, who believes the future should be mapped out by the time of the British Grand Prix in mid-July.
"I very much became a victim of not planning ahead enough last season, so I am making sure that doesn't happen this time."
Frentzen may have nipped in the bud any prospect of a return to Williams, but all the other leading teams must be watching developments at Arrows with interest.Reuse content