Motor Racing: Hill's isolation far from splendid

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The Independent Online

"NOW FOR the easy part," Damon Hill said with a half-smile as he rose from the breakfast table in the Silverstone paddock yesterday and went off to change into his bright yellow driving suit in time for the first practice session of what will almost certainly be his last British Grand Prix, and perhaps the final race of his career.

"NOW FOR the easy part," Damon Hill said with a half-smile as he rose from the breakfast table in the Silverstone paddock yesterday and went off to change into his bright yellow driving suit in time for the first practice session of what will almost certainly be his last British Grand Prix, and perhaps the final race of his career.

Racing drivers always say things like that. The freedom comes when you're behind the wheel, when your skill and knowledge ensure that the world seems to be wholly under your control. Outside the cockpit, life can appear very different. As it has done this week for Damon Hill, the former world champion, the idol of the vast majority of Britain's Formula One fans, who finds himself cast once again this week in the role of sacrificial victim, and who ended yesterday afternoon's press conference with a sulky refusal to comment on his future.

Five years ago, Hill won the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Other memories have been less enchanted, such as his clumsy collision with Michael Schumacher in 1995 and his row with Tom Walkinshaw in 1997, when the Arrows boss accused him of giving poor value for money. None of these vicissitudes, however, has loosened his grip on the affections of the British public.

"I would say that half the people at Silverstone seem to have Damon Hill- badged equipment on them," Eddie Jordan said, with a carefully judged hint of ruefulness, when he arrived at his team's motor home just after Hill had finished his breakfast yesterday. Jordan had just driven through the crowds making their way into the circuit, thousands of them wearing replicas of Hill's baseball cap, dark blue with white stripes. "He seems to be a very popular racing driver." And yet, halfway through the season, the driver and his boss seemed on the brink of difficult and very public divorce.

Two weeks ago Jordan was describing Hill as "one of the finest gentlemen" he had met in the sport. That was just after Hill had arrived at Magny- Cours for the French Grand Prix and given a press conference during which he announced his intention to retire at the end of the season. That, Jordan said, is a decision only he can take, and the team would reluctantly accept it.

A couple of days later, the tunes were changing. After retiring from the race and experiencing yet another anti-climax in a dismal year, Hill got out of his broken car and told the world that he had probably just run his last race. That's a pity, Jordan responded, but so be it. After they returned from Magny-Cours, however, the clamour grew for Hill to make a farewell appearance in his home grand prix.

Jordan, meanwhile, had invited Jos Verstappen, the Dutch driver who has been in and out of Formula One for several years, to try Hill's car during a four-day test at Silverstone. The indications were that Verstappen would be driving the No 7 Jordan in the British Grand Prix, while Hill went off into retirement with his wife and four children. But Verstappen turned out to be slower than expected, and Hill, when he arrived for the last two days of the test, set competitive times. He would be racing at Silverstone, he confirmed. And would it be his last race? "As things stand," he said, his opaque phrase reopening the whole question.

It was clear that furious negotiations were going on, and that, as usual in Formula One, money was a significant factor. If you're being paid £4million a year, and you decide to quit after eight races of a 16-race season, you lose £2million. Sooner or later that thought is going to influence the debate, particularly if you suddenly start feeling more positive about the job you're about to leave.

An agreement for his participation at Silverstone had been reached, to the relief of the team's sponsors, Benson and Hedges, who feature Hill heavily in their marketing campaigns, and that of his own merchandising people, who know that the British Grand Prix represents the year's most lucrative outlet for baseball caps and T-shirts. Meanwhile, the speculation continued about the longer-term future of the relationship.

But as the story developed, the team's response suggested that they would actually be relieved to see the back of this gaunt and spiritless figure. "Most people here have had enough of him," a Jordan employee said yesterday, requesting anonymity. "Damon has a head problem. He wants to be treated like the most important person in the team, he expects everything to revolve around him, but his self-confidence has gone. And the people around him aren't the ones who could help him get it back."

Eddie Jordan, who brought his team into Formula One in 1991, is an ambitious man. Last year his cars took third place in the constructors' championship, thanks largely to the efforts of Hill, who gave them their first grand prix victory. This year they are hanging on to the same position by their fingertips, but Hill has contributed only three points to their total of 26. The rest have been accumulated by his team-mate, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who scored a brave and intelligent win at the French Grand Prix. And the feeling has grown that if winning more points means replacing a former world champion with a younger and more committed man, then that is what must be done. And, since the younger man will come a lot cheaper, there will also be a £2million refund - the kind of bonus Formula One bosses appreciate.

On Friday, Hill was scheduled to give a special press conference at the Jordan factory, just outside the circuit. The event was cancelled at the last minute, without explanation. Instead Hill turned up in the paddock, and sat down to lunch with his wife, Georgie, and Peter Boutwood, his friend and helmet-carrier, under the gaze of several television cameras and a gaggle of frustrated reporters. The message was clear. Jordan, not he, had cancelled the press conference, and it took minimal persuasion to get him to talk.

"I only have one thing on my mind," he began, "which is to achieve the best result I've had all year. So there'll be no talk about what is going to happen in the future and there'll be no clarification of that until after the race. It doesn't mean I'm not sure about anything. It means that in order to do the job a racing driver has to do this weekend I have to concentrate."

Sources inside the team were telling a slightly different story. According to them, Hill and Jordan had reached an agreement during a telephone call the previous day, and the press conference had been arranged to announce the outcome. But when the details were typed up and faxed to Hill's lawyer, Michael Breen, the deal was suddenly rejected.

Breen, a key figure in Hill's entourage, is a man with few admirers in the Formula One paddock. He conducted the negotiations with Frank Williams which ended in Hill being notified, halfway through his championship season, that his services would not be required beyond the end of the year. On Hill's behalf, he also spurned the chance for Hill to join McLaren for the 1998 season - an offer of a small retainer plus £1million for every race win. On one hand, it seemed that Ron Dennis, the McLaren boss, had constructed a deal he knew Hill could not accept. But a truly self-confident driver and a clever manager, perhaps, would have called his bluff and taken the risk - and, in the end, have come out a long way ahead.

The lonely splendour of Damon and Georgie Hill's lunch under the yellow awning on Thursday seemed to reflect the Jordan team's anger at the breakdown of the latest negotiations. Then, and yesterday, Hill's body language has been at its most painfully awkward. He spent most of the first practice session watching other cars on a monitor screen in his pits garage, hands on hips, one knee resting on the sidepod of his Jordan, somehow making an attitude of relaxation look like torture. And as his mechanics stood around, keeping their distance, he seemed more than ever a man apart. Facing journalists yesterday evening, his face was dark and unhappy.

Probably he has not felt so isolated since 1996, when the rupture of his relationship with Williams became apparent. "You get the impression that Jordan are trying to say that it's his decision, but are acting in a way as though they'd actually prefer him to stop," Patrick Head, Williams' forthright technical director, said yesterday. "There's a little bit of double-speak going on there. But I think the blame is more with Damon, because he's allowed an uncertainty to arise. Personally, I hope he gets back that spark of the joy of racing and sees the season through, because I think he'll look back on his career in a happier way if he does that."

But, as ever, self-confidence is the key to Damon Hill. At the end of the 1995 season, after a series of gaffes on and off the track, he enlisted the support of an "image consultant" to guide him through the media maze to his world title. Now this complicated man has once again lost his focus and his motivation.

"He's got a basic confidence in himself as a man," Patrick Head said, "and he's obviously a strong personality. But I don't think his confidence in his driving ability is as unbreakable as that of somebody like Nigel Mansell or Ayrton Senna. It's a fragile object, and this year it's been damaged. But that's part of his charm as an individual, the honesty and openness that makes Damon a bit more appealing as a human being than some of those drivers who have that level of self-belief. And I suspect that he might enjoy the period beyond the end of his racing career rather more than some of the people who have that burning self-belief, because they go into retirement still thinking that if they were still driving they'd still be blowing everybody off. A bit of them never lets go. I think Damon, when he stops, will let go and get on with the future."

That future may begin on Sunday night, or it may be deferred. Someone asked him this week if it would be a relief to get back on to the track. "It's a relief to put your earplugs in," he said. Racing drivers don't usually speak in metaphors, but this one was obvious. Damon Hill would like to hear himself think. But after that, when it's all over, when he takes the earplugs out for the last time, does he really want the silence?

HILL'S FORMULA ONE CAREER

1992 BRABHAMRaces 8 Poles 0 Wins 0

1993 WILLIAMS-RENAULTRaces 16 Poles 2 Wins 3Hungary, Belgium, Italy

World Championship: 3rd

1994 WILLIAMS-RENAULTRaces 16 Poles 2 Wins 6Spain, Britain, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Japan

World Championship: 2nd

1995 WILLIAMS-RENAULTRaces 17 Poles 7 Wins 4Argentina, San Marino, Hungary, Australia

World Championship: 2nd

1996 WILLIAMS-RENAULTRaces 16 Poles 9 Wins 8 Australia, Brazil, Argentina, San Marino, Canada, France, Germany, Japan

World Championship: 1st

1997 ARROWS-YAMAHARaces 17 Poles 0 Wins 0

World Championship: 13th

1998 JORDAN-MUGEN HONDARaces 16 Poles 0 Wins 1WC: 6th Belgium

1999 JORDAN-MUGEN HONDA

Races 7 Poles 0 Wins 0

CAREER TOTAL

Races 113 Poles 20 Wins 22

World Champion: 1996

RACE LINE-UP

FERRARI

Michael Schumacher (Ger) Aged 30. GPs 125. Wins 35. Championships 2.

Eddie Irvine (N Irl) 33. GPs 88. Wins 1.

Still chasing the elusive title, even with Schumacher, Ross Brawn and seemingly limitless funding. If they are to achieve their first drivers' championship success in 20 years they will require all their famed reliability and opportunism. Schumacher remains the best in the business and Irvine has raised his game, but the car is still not quite a match for McLaren on every circuit.

MCLAREN, MERCEDES

Mika Hakkinen (Fin) 30. GPs 119. Wins 12. Championships 1.

David Coulthard (GB) 28. GPs: 81. Wins 4.

They have retained their performance advantage and appear to have come through most of their early-season reliability problems. Hakkinen is back in the groove and still proving a bit too hot for Coulthard. The Scot, however, has had wretched misfortune and can be encouraged by his form in the French Grand Prix a fortnight ago. He is due a win.

JORDAN MUGEN

Damon Hill (GB) 38. GPs: 107. Wins 22. Championships 1.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Ger) 32. GPs: 88. Wins 2.

There is never a dull moment in Eddie Jordan's camp and they are the focus of much attention again this weekend. Hill is scheduled to retire after his home Grand Prix and the team are doing their utmost to deflect some of the limelight on to Frentzen, who is having an outstanding season and gave them their second victory in France.

WILLIAMS SUPERTEC

Alessandro Zanardi (It) 32. GPs: 32. Wins 0.

Ralf Schumacher (Ger) 24. GPs: 40. Wins 0.

BENETTON PLAYLIFE

Giancarlo Fisichella (It) 26. GPs: 48. Wins 0.

Alexander Wurz (Aut) 25. GPs: 26. Wins 0.

STEWART FORD

Rubens Barrichello (Br) 27. GPs: 104. Wins 0.

Johnny Herbert (GB) 35. GPs: 136. Wins 2.

PROST PEUGEOT

Olivier Panis (Fr) 32. GPs: 81. Wins 1.

Jarno Trulli (It) 24. GPs: 36. Wins: 0.

SAUBER PETRONAS

Jean Alesi (Fr) 35. GPs: 158. Wins 1.

Pedro Diniz (Br) 29. GPs: 73. Wins 0.

ARROWS

Pedro de la Rosa (Sp) 28. GPs: 7. Wins 0.

Toranosuke Takagi (Japan) 25. GPs: 22. Wins 0.

MINARDI FORD

Luca Badoer (It) 28. GPs: 41. Wins 0.

Marc Gene (Sp) 25. GPs: 7. Wins 0.

BAR SUPERTEC

Jacques Villeneuve (Can) 28. GPs: 55. Wins 11. Championships 1.

Ricardo Zonta (Br) 23. GPs: 3. Wins 0.

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