Williams wait for Schumacher factor's effect

Derick Allsop on a Formula One season when one team achieved too great a dominance
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The Independent Online
Damon Hill gave the championship a final gloss and Formula One went into official recess with the cosy feeling that the earnest endeavours of an honourable man had been rewarded.

That carefully applied veneer could not, alas, disguise the reality this had been a largely unspectacular season, the ease of Hill's concluding victory in the Japanese Grand Prix serving to highlight the fact.

Eddie Irvine recently expressed the opinion it had not been a world championship but a Williams championship. In truth, it never quite became that good. Jacques Villeneuve turned no chance into a slim chance, getting to grips with Formula One too late to catch up with Hill.

It is not the first time one team has been streets ahead of the rest and will not be the last. In the past, however, there have been classic domestic duels which have ignited the championship: Alain Prost v Ayrton Senna at McLaren, Nelson Piquet v Nigel Mansell at Williams.

This season was reminiscent of 1993, when Prost's title was virtually a foregone conclusion, his progress only occasionally interrupted by Senna when freak of circumstance permitted. The Frenchman's team-mate made no challenge, whether or not he was able to. Hill accepted the role of dutiful No 2.

Riccardo Patrese had been a more reluctant supporting act to Mansell's command performance the previous year, and although the Englishman's title was never in question he at least gave the impression he was exploring the limits of the Williams. As Patrick Head, the team's technical director, recently reminded us: "I like to see the car have its neck wrung."

That was not Prost's style and it is not Hill's style. Britain's latest champion is at his best pacing himself at the front and the superiority of the Williams provided him with that luxury.

Williams won 12 of the 16 races this season, and all four reverses are regarded by the team to have been self-inflicted. A bizarre Monaco Grand Prix, in which three cars finished and a Ligier, driven by Olivier Panis, won, was a cruise for Hill until he joined the list of retirements.

The other three races went to Michael Schumacher, the one driver capable, as Senna was in 1993, of seizing on the slightest opportunity. His brilliance was assisted, at a wet Barcelona, by the settings on the two Williams, at Spa he profited from a mix-up in the pit to driver communications and he had the incomparable pleasure of driving a Ferrari to victory at Monza after mistakes by Hill and Villeneuve.

There was simply no genuine competition. Ferrari relied on Schumacher's unequalled talent, Benetton revealed how much they had relied on it, and McLaren were still trying to make up lost ground. The rest remained in the Second Division.

Head said: "It sounds a bit big-headed, but I have to say I've been a bit disappointed with the lack of competition. Taking nothing away from Schumacher, because he is outstanding, but we've made a mess of it at some races and you can't afford to give him such opportunities."

Williams will take ample consolation from their overall performance this year which justly earned a record equalling eighth constructors' championship. They were self-critical enough to admit they needed to sharpen their act and they did. They now feel they must sharpen it further if they are to retain their titles.

Schumacher's contribution to a season in which he surrendered his championship actually enhanced his reputation and standing above all others, even if he could not always contain his contempt for his main rival. Again, shades of Senna.

Not only pre-eminent on the track, but also smart enough off it to win over everyone in his team, Schumacher never publicly criticised the slapstick incompetence Ferrari demon- strated mid-season, a lesson Hill might take on board.

Martin Brundle observed: "That was extremely classy of Schumacher. He no doubt kicked their backsides behind the scenes, but out in the open he was calm and understanding while all around him seemed to be collapsing."

Williams have already figured Schumacher will be their chief opponent next season, and they patently believe they are more likely to resist him with Heinz-Harald Frentzen, rather than Hill, alongside Villeneuve.

Schumacher's recent assertion that he and Ferrari may have to wait until 1998 to realise their full potential is seen by Frank Williams as a cunning ploy by the German.

"Michael is very good at that," Williams said. "The more he says he doesn't think he can beat you, the more he means he is really going to get you between the shoulder blades.

"His going to Ferrari has been good for Ferrari and Formula One. Without him they would still be really struggling. He's given them great hope. The last thing Formula One needs is Ferrari 'au revoiring' the scene. Michael will certainly be the linchpin that keeps them in for a long time.

"I'd love him in my car, but I don't believe it will ever happen. He's just used to receiving so much money. Although we're always trying to beat him, people probably think we're his mortal enemies, which we're not.

"We're just as big a fan as everybody else. He's a brilliant driver. He's the class of the field. Any team that doesn't have Michael has a problem."

Williams consider Ferrari's progress with their engine another ominous pointer for next season. If the new car - understood to bear a remarkable resemblance to the Williams - is as effective then the Oxfordshire camp will have serious cause for concern.

"The trend at Ferrari is upward and what they've done with the V10 in one season is astonishing," Williams said. "No one else has done that. So they must know what they're doing. And they're going to get the car right."

The sport in general and Germany in particular is already anticipating a weighty confrontation between Schumacher and Frentzen. Compatriots, former team-mates and the added ingredient that Mrs Schumacher was once Frentzen's girlfriend represent a potentially explosive cocktail.

Williams said: "There's been a lot of hype about Frentzen being as quick or quicker than Michael, but I don't know. Lots of people are good till Formula Three, then peter out. On the other hand Alan Jones [Williams' first world champion in 1980] was never anything special till he got into a grand prix car. So it works both ways.

"I always take the pessimistic view, every year, every day even, and I'm surprised we had such an edge this year. I'm delighted about it but I'm not crowing because I really mean it when I say we're going to be up against it next year.

"The rules are so tight and the others are making progress but don't tell Adrian [Newey] there's less scope for us to make progress. He's been sweating like hell in the wind tunnel, bless him."

Williams may have discarded Hill, but they are holding Newey, their chief designer, to his contract in the face of attempts by McLaren to lure him away, a measure of his talent.

McLaren and Benetton will hope they, as well as "Scuderia Schumacher", can threaten Williams next season, but we ought at least to be assured a Villeneuve-Frentzen battle.

As for Hill, he should have plenty of endorsements and personal sponsorship deals to boost his pension fund. If he can lead TWR Arrows to the head of that Second Division he will be the richer in sporting terms, too.