New Faces for the New Year / Motor Racing: Hill's jump start in seat of power: In the first articles of a series, a favourite son is welcomed to the ranks of formula One - Derick Allsop on a British newcomer to motor racing at its highest level

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The Independent Online
IT IS not inconceivable that Damon Hill will this year become world champion after a Formula One career of fewer than 18 races. There again, he could achieve nothing of the sort and be consigned to the sport's scrapheap. Such are the vagaries of motor racing.

Hill finds himself at the intersection of these extreme routes following his appointment by Williams-Renault as partner to Alain Prost for the 1993 season.

Williams, winners of the drivers' and constructors' championships last season, are widely expected to be the strongest team again. Prost, who has won three titles and amassed a record 44 grands prix victories, is the favourite for the individual prize.

Equally logical is that his main challenger should be the man in the other Williams. That seat was coveted by the best, including its occupant in 1992, the world champion, Nigel Mansell, and Ayrton Senna, another winner of three world championships. When Mansell packed his bags in despair and Senna had the door slammed in his face, Hill, the team's test driver, emerged as a possible candidate. Martin Brundle, with experience and results to his credit, was enticed and then discarded. Mika Hakkinen, of Lotus-Ford, went through a similar process.

That left the faithful Hill, the popular choice of the rank and file at Williams. He had raced in only two grands prix, at the wheel of an uncompetitive Brabham, and no one could quite remember what, if anything, he had won on the way up.

The truth is that he won relatively little on the way up. He was third in the 1985 Esso Formula Ford 1600 championship, ninth in the 1986 Lucas British Formula Three championship, fifth in the 1987 championship, and third the following year. He advanced to Formula 3000, generally impressed, yet gradually ran out of financial backing. In 1991 he undertook test duties with Williams and in 1992 also drove for the Brabham Formula One team.

His work over two years at Williams, however, indicated he had the essential pace and instincts required at this level. He acquired a grasp of the technology and could be relied upon to bring back the car in one piece. It was no doubt also felt that this courteous, mild-mannered Londoner would ensure Prost and the rest of the team a quiet life.

Williams have naturally played down their expectations of Hill. The team's principal, Frank Williams, maintains he does not envisage his new recruit being a champion contender. Hill cautiously suggests a rather different line of thinking. No racing driver intends to be second best and Williams have traditionally rejected a policy of 'team orders'.

The fundamental bravado of a racing driver would, of course, fire such ambition, and Hill is, after all, his father's son. Graham Hill won the world championship in 1962 and 1968.

Hill, though, adds this thought: 'Everyone who gets this far, who races in Formula One, is fast and competitive. There is a misconception in some quarters that people at the back of the grid are no good, but that is not the case. It's simply that they are in much slower cars. There may be four or five seconds separating their cars from the best cars, yet there's proably no more than two seconds between all the drivers in Formula One.'

This year's championship will tell us where Hill fits in the two-second band. In testing he has been as quick as Prost, although the Frenchman, after a season's sabbatical, has paced his preparations and painstakingly built up his understanding of the Williams.

The team have a history of being lucky with their best drivers. Alan Jones's potential was uncertain until he joined Williams and became world champion in 1980. Keke Rosberg filled a gap and took the title in 1982. Mansell was signed as a 'journeyman' in 1985, won his first race that year at 32 (Hill's age), and was three times runner-up in the championship before claiming his crown, along with a string of records, in 1992.

At the very least, Hill will aspire to a maiden grand prix victory this year, a significant landmark in itself. The last Briton before Mansell to win in Formula One was John Watson, a decade ago.

Hill is honest enough to concede: 'You should be capable of far more than merely picking up points in a Williams. You cannot be sure of anything, but if the car is as competitive as we anticipate it will be, it should again be the one to beat.'

It largely depends on Prost's performances. Mansell was so dominant last season that his team-mate, Riccardo Patrese, was mentally obliterated from the opening skirmishes. Prost may require time to get into his stride. But then no one really knows what Hill is capable of. He could be a born winner or just another game hopeful about to be found out.

What is clear is that he has a dream opportunity.

(Photograph omitted)