Prancing Horse overshadows Williams' celebrations

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The Independent Online
They partied deep into the evening and had every right to. One hundred grand prix wins at a strike rate substantially superior to that of Formula One's other centurions, McLaren and Ferrari, fittingly completed at Silverstone, scene of their first success, represents emphatic confirmation of Williams' place in motor racing's annals.

But even as they drank to Jacques Villeneuve's victory in Sunday's British Grand Prix, the sense of impending eclipse pervaded the atmosphere. Perhaps they recognised an omen. In 1979, the year of Williams' maiden win, Ferrari had their last world champion. Events at Silverstone appear to have diverted few from the belief that Michael Schumacher will ride the Prancing Horse to the title this year.

Schumacher's pace, before a wheel-bearing failure brought him to a halt, provided further proof of Ferrari's advance and caused the Williams hierarchy to temper their celebrations. Frank Williams, who founded the company 19 years ago, paid tribute to those who had contributed to the winning formula, yet admitted he was relieved to bank the points from this race.

The season has followed the precise course he feared. Schumacher, the man he and most others acknowledge as a class apart, has been given a sufficiently improved Ferrari to outmanoeuvre his drivers, despite the fact that the Williams-Renault is still the best in the field.

Patrick Head, Williams' partner, said: "It is going to be a tremendously hard struggle against Michael between now and the end of the year."

Heinz-Harald Frentzen was recruited, at the expense of Damon Hill, to resist Schumacher's challenge. Another miserable day at Silverstone, where he stalled on the grid and collided with another car and went out on the first lap, dealt more blows to his reputation and apparently left Villeneuve to carry the championship fight alone.

Williams stated at the weekend it was "probable" he would have the same drivers on board next year and that, therefore, it was likely he would not have a vacancy for Hill, although it was "possible" he might welcome back the 1996 world champion in the future. Williams will not be alone if he is wondering how different it might be if he had the Englishman now - or whether he ought to engineer his return in 1998.

Hill's first point for Arrows-Yamaha helped repair his image and recover some of his losses in Formula One's stockmarket. He must, however, be wary he does not price himself out of contention for a seat with a leading team.

Sunday's result appears to have done little to improve the situation at Arrows. It is thought both parties wish to split, the driver to find a more competitive car and the team to invest his pounds 4.5m salary in research and development. Both consider the alliance a mistake and want to avoid losing face, so they are expected to part "by mutual agreement".

"Winning [a point] yesterday was very pleasing and I was delighted by the crowd's reaction," Hill said on Monday. However, long term, it is not enough. "There's always going to be agitation when the car is not doing as well as it should. Tom [Walkinshaw, the Arrows team manager] is keen to get results, but to be honest, I can't make something of nothing. I need a decent car. Tom is very cagey about what he has up his sleeve. It would be helpful if I had some idea of his intentions."

Paddock gossip indicates Hill has a new job lined up, but every source tends to point in a different direction. Some say Sauber, some McLaren, some Prost. Some tell you he is seeking $10m (pounds 6.25m) for his services, which might, of course, explain the contradictory stories. It might also discourage would-be employers.

A new generation of drivers has arrived in Formula One. They are young, talented, enthusiastic, committed - and cheap. Arrows are not alone in realising you need not spend fortunes on drivers, unless, that is, you can afford Schumacher.

Benetton are understood to be unloading the experienced and well-paid Jean Alesi, second on Sunday, and Gerhard Berger, to bring in Giancarlo Fisichella and Alexander Wurz, who was third at Silverstone as Berger's understudy. The word is that Alesi will be a direct swap for Fisichella, moving to Jordan.

Hill, 37 in September, will be anxious not to miss out in the shuffle this time. Much could depend on the value he attaches to racing fulfilment.

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