Motoracing: Hill from start to finish

The Silverstone story will be dedicated to Damon. By David Tremayne
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The Independent Online
RACE FANS - and promoters - relax. Damon Hill appears to have resolved his personal dilemma and abandoned his Scarlet Pimpernel act - now you'll see him, now you won't. The developments behind the apparent U-turn have not been vouchsafed, but Britain's last world champion will be on active duty after all at Silverstone next weekend.

Applying the rationality to the situation that was so elusive in the hours after the French Grand Prix, he always was going to be racing there. Jordan's sponsor, Benson & Hedges, not to mention Silverstone themselves, have far too much riding on their involvement on home ground, when virtually every scrap of pre-race publicity has milked the Hill connection mercilessly.

His inclination was to call it a day after an unhappy performance in last weekend's French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours. That was won with great craft by his team-mate, Heinz- Harald Frentzen, and Hill was still a big enough man to shake Frentzen's hand over breakfast at Silverstone on Thursday morning. "You made me late for the plane last Sunday," he told him, "but it was such a gripping race I really couldn't tear myself away. Congratulations."

But later that day he outlined his reasons for the apparent volte-face, surprising those who thought they had heard him express doubts only days earlier by declaring: "It's always been my intention to compete in the British GP. I'll just leave it at that and say that Eddie [Jordan] has a lot on his plate and I'm here testing because I want to compete in the British GP."

He will race, he disclosed, carrying the colours of the Down's Syndrome Association and the Leukaemia Research charities, to whom he will donate all of his earnings from merchandising. "I think it's fair to say there's been a reasonable degree of, shall we say, shenanigans, recently and I'm really sorry for the confusion," he continued. "And that people have been misled or misinformed, and sorry there's been a lot of fuss about this event. All I'd like to say further to that is that I am of sound mind and completely happy to be here, so do not worry."

He celebrated with some quick lap times last Thursday, before a minor accident, and was second fastest on Friday. But while Hill warned that he will deliberately be shying away from autograph hunters, focusing on saying goodbye with a dignified result rather than a handshake and the scrawl of a pen, the main contest will again be between McLaren and Ferrari. The former will be seeking revenge for the controversial circumstances that deprived Hakkinen of a deserved triumph in last year's dry-wet race. The Stewart-Ford and Jordan Mugen Honda teams are also liable to feature strongly.

Johnny Herbert, the last Briton to win his home race in 1995, retains the affection of his own fans. But like that of his close friend David Coulthard, his F1 career is fast losing momentum. In his case, the pace of Rubens Barrichello and his own ridiculously persistent mechanical misfortunes have conspired to generate rumours that his days with the Stewart-Ford team may be numbered. It appears to matter not that, when his car is working properly, he has been as quick as the Brazilian, a point he endorsed again at Silverstone on Friday. In Coulthard's, the similarly woeful reliability of the second McLaren has continually robbed him of the points that would keep him in play in the World Championship fight that is again polarising around his team-mate Mika Hakkinen and the inevitable Michael Schumacher.

Both, however, are optimistic. Herbert was buoyed by his testing form. "We have a lot of new parts on the car, and they seemed to work very well," he said of his Stewart-Ford. "But we just need to work on the damned reliability."

Coulthard said on Friday: "I think I've got the prospect of doing well here. This year I've worked closer to Mika [Hakkinen] in qualifying. He's very good, but I've closed the gap."

The home fans will mainly have their eyes on Damon, though, and what will almost certainly be his last hurrah, win, lose or draw. Hill joked that he might after all consider staying to the end of the year, "if we manage to sort the car out and it's a second a lap quicker than the McLaren or the Ferrari. Then I'll definitely stay".

William Taylor, the young superfan whom Hill flew to Suzuka so that he could watch him win the crown in 1996, summarised the supporters' feelings: "Every Hill fan wants to see Damon's last race, and if it's going to be at Silverstone then we will be pleased to be there no matter what the result. Damon could drive round in a dustcart, it doesn't matter. We just want to see him, and to see him racing."