Now or never for Hill climb

David Tremayne predicts a three-way fight for supremacy as Formula One revs up
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The Independent Online
"WE ARE comfortable with what we have achieved during testing, and know what we had in hand." Those words from the Williams-Renault camp may hold the key to the first race of the 1996 FIA World Championship, which gets into gear in Australia next weekend.

The past few weeks have seen endless testing of new cars, but though McLaren, Jordan and Tyrrell have all had their moments in the sun, Williams remain quietly confident that when the green lights come on at the very fast Albert Park track in Melbourne, theirs will be the drivers to beat.

This is crunch time for their team leader, Damon Hill. As rookie team- mate to Alain Prost in 1993, and de facto team leader in the wake of Ayrton Senna's death the following year, he made the right impression. But last year he tottered like a rubber-legged boxer on the wrong end of a flurry of uppercuts and right crosses. His early-season confidence was sapped as Schumacher and Benetton found their form, and evaporated altogether with a couple of ham-fisted overtaking moves and a series of mistakes and lacklustre races. If Schumacher was Muhammad Ali, Hill looked more like Richard Dunn than Henry Cooper.

"But he went away to Bali after the Japanese GP, and came to Adelaide a new man," Frank Williams said recently. The last time he was in Australia, Hill won convincingly, and following a winter of ferocious physical training knows that it will be now or never. His new team-mate is contracted for two years, and Williams already has its eye on Heinz-Harald Frentzen. 1996 will be make or break.

Meanwhile, Schumacher has been muttering into his chin while Ferrari's dramatic new F310 is delayed; the team was then embarrassed last week in Estoril with a series of mechanical problems which suggest that the Prancing Horse has a way to go before it can gallop right through a race. Such troubles are to be expected, however, and Schumacher will undoubtedly push his red car to the fore when it is right. A lot of pole positions in the new one-day qualifying format, and a trio of victories will be no surprise here. But somehow a third consecutive championship may be asking too much.

Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger have been developing Benetton's new car, but Berger admitted last week to slight disappointment with its present level of performance. Be that as it may, Williams and Benetton - the defending world champion constructor - have one advantage over their rivals: the Renault V10 engine that has been the class of the field for the past five seasons. There have been breakages in testing, but Renault's reliability has become a byword in race trim and the championship should be a three- way struggle between Hill, Alesi and Berger - if Benetton treat both drivers equally.

Last year was McLaren's worst since Ron Dennis took control for 1981, capped cruelly by Mika Hakkinen's accident in Adelaide. But almost miraculously the Finn has not only returned, but proved in testing that he is as good as he was.

The new MP4/11 looks like a red and white Williams, and goes like one too. Hakkinen and his team-mate David Coulthard will spur each other on, while Alain Prost's technical presence will be influential for McLaren. The question mark appears to hang over the reliability of the Mercedes- Benz V10, which looked fragile last week in Estoril.

The other teams with their tails up are Jordan-Peugeot and Tyrrell-Yamaha. The former, very quick in testing with both Martin Brundle and Rubens Barrichello, will sport the new gold livery of Benson and Hedges by the time it arrives in Australia. But even the Irish media is sick of "Jordan shows promise" stories, and credibility demands that the team starts to shape up as a potential victor. At Tyrrell, Mika Salo is bubbling with enthusiasm for his new car, Eddie Irvine is a much-needed wild card at Ferrari, and the hard-chargers Frentzen and Johnny Herbert in the Ford- powered Saubers add further depth.

Recent reports that the FIA vice-president of marketing, Bernie Ecclestone, was attacked by a dog while in Las Vagas discussing a possible United States Grand Prix for 1997, triggered memories of a conversation last August, the gist of which was how ironic it was that he should be championing the cause of the IndyCar king and F1 newcomer Jacques Villeneuve. Ecclestone disliked Jacques' father, the legendary Ferrari racer Gilles, who died in qualifying for the Belgian GP at Zolder in 1982.

"It was the dog he kept in his motorhome, which snarled at you the moment the door was opened," Ecclestone said, explaining their mutual antipathy. When it was suggested he now knew how journalists felt when waiting for the door of his silver and grey motorhome to open, he replied: "Perhaps I should get a sign that says 'Never mind the dog, beware of the owner.'"

That day Ecclestone also expressed the wish that he could fall asleep and find that it was already 1996 when he awoke. Well, the new season has arrived at last and he can be happy with the strings he has pulled to get the right drivers in the right seats.

Hill starts favourite not only for Australia, but for the season, with luminaries such as Prost and Jackie Stewart tipping him for the title. But an opening victory for his team-mate Villeneuve, who has lookedquick, calculating and confident, would get the year off to a memorable start and make him the first rookie to achieve such an extraordinary feat since the late Giancarlo Baghetti rescued Ferrari in France back in 1961. Ecclestone won't be the only one wearing a big smile if the Canadian steals the establishment's thunder Down Under on a track unfamiliar to them all.