Hill tips Irvine to win Suzuka showdown

Click to follow

DAMON HILL has spent much of the 1999 season being tentative in his decision-making. On the eve of his final grand prix appearance it was business as usual as he chose Eddie Irvine over Mika Hakkinen as the man most likely to emulate his own World Championship-winning feat three seasons back.

DAMON HILL has spent much of the 1999 season being tentative in his decision-making. On the eve of his final grand prix appearance it was business as usual as he chose Eddie Irvine over Mika Hakkinen as the man most likely to emulate his own World Championship-winning feat three seasons back.

"The guy who wins will deserve to be the champion," Hill began. "Sixteen races is tough going, and you need to keep your wits about you and have a little bit of luck." Three years ago he did just that, clinching his title by winning the Japanese Grand Prix. "It'll be hard on the loser, and they've both had difficult seasons. But you'd have to say Irvine is in a strong position four points ahead. I think it ís tougher for Mika now."

Irvine was in his usual feisty form, but Hakkinen looked as haggard as he did after his defeat in Malaysia. While the majority believe that the court of appeal judgement in Paris last week amounted to a massive slice of luck for Ferrari, Irvine took a typically pragmatic view.

"People have said after the decision that the credibility of Formula One has suffered, and that this championship will have less credibility. That's bollocks! I've experienced the worst of the FIA - I got a three-race ban five years ago after the Brazilian GP and right then I felt that I had a very clear case, so this time I was sceptical. But I was present and listened to the evidence, and I can tell you that there was no other decision for the judges to make. The car was clearly legal, and was clearly measured completely wrongly in Malaysia. It was black and white, that clear. If Formula One's credibility has been damaged, it was damaged in Malaysia, not in Paris!"

He has the stamp of a man ready to embrace his destiny on a circuit he knows well."But you know what? Everyone says I'm a Suzuka expert because I used to race here in my Formula 3000 days. Well, that was great when I started in F1 here in 1993 because I knew every bump, but the less you race here the less you know the track so well. I'd say it's no big deal for me now."

Yet he seems comfortable. "Really, I'm not treating this race any different, I'm just doing things the way I normally do them. It's better that way, to cruise along. I'm not nervous, yet. Sure, there's a lot riding on it, with the whole of Italy and Ferrari fans all round the world willing me on. But I think our sporting director Jean Todt is probably more nervous.

"In Malaysia I wasn't nervous at all. We'll see about here, but so far, so good. For sure the pressure is there, but luckily enough something above my head seems to be holding it up at the moment and I don't feel it. C'est la vie. If the Championship happens, it happens. You've just got to do your best. If it doesn't happen, so long as you've done your best, there's nothing you can do about it."

His sentiments had a familiar ring for Hill, who five years ago won the greatest race of his life here when he beat Michael Schumacher in torrential rain.

"I haven't come here thinking that this is my last race, the last time I'll ever race round Suzuka," Hill said. "But right now I am thinking of that 1994 race. I most definitely drove out of my skin that day, and I regard that as the best performance I ever extracted from myself. It was such a special race, because it led to that showdown with Michael in Adelaide. It was as if something else was driving the car. It was like I wasn't even sitting in it. A special experience that I've never come close to since. Very intense, but at the same time peculiar. I just thought: 'OK, you drive!' To win, to cross the line, and to come out triumphant, was just fantastic."

Irvine is quite happy to do the driving himself, but he is after a similar high.

"If I was going to win the World Championship anywhere," he said, "it would be here that I'd choose. I have spent a lot of time here in Japan. I came out of amateur racing in Europe into what was a very professional series here in Japan. I became a proper race driver in Japan."

Comments