Stand and Deliver

Damon Hill said that he was going to modify his approach to work this year. Simon Arron studied the evidence at the British Grand Prix

Ferrari President Luca di Montezernolo is asked whether he would be interested in Damon Hill’s services in 1997, should he have a vacancy (he probably won’t) and should Hill not stay at Williams (he probably will).

The Italian smiles at the hypothesis. “Look, I have a very good opinion of Damon Hill, both as a driver and as a person. But having Schumacher in the team . . . I think that there is no possibility for us even to think of Damon Hill in a Ferrari next year.

“It’s not only a question of Michael. We wouldn’t think it was a good idea to have two number one drivers in the team.”

Plain enough. A Hill/Schumacher partnership would not be in the common interest. That much is confirmed when the latter is told that his sparring partner is seeking a £12 million deal next season. “Lira?” he queries, mischievously.

There are signs, nevertheless, that the hitherto overt enmity between the pair is thawing. At Silverstone, Schumacher walks slightly late into a press conference, to be greeted with genuine cordiality by a man who can not, for the moment, be considered his arch-rival, such is the present disparity between the Prancing (Limping?) Horse and Williams.

To their mutual amusement, they even manage to share a couple of jokes.

It is all a far cry from one year ago.

Cast your minds back to the tawdry aftermath of the 1995 British Grand Prix. Damon Hill’s pursuit of Michael Schumacher has ended in an unsuccessful lunge for the lead at Priory.

Some 10 minutes after trudging away from the gravel trap in which both he and his German opponent have concluded their afternoon’s work, Hill sits at the top of a small set of stairs behind one of Williams’ fleet of trucks. Dwarfed by a shuffling pack of journalists and TV cameramen, he runs his fingers through sticky hair, looks sternly at the floor, raises his head and presents the case for the defence. . .

“It was just a racing accident,” he explains. “I thought I saw an opportunity that I could take advantage of.”

The phraseology is well structured. The words make sense; all they lack is the 120 per cent conviction with which Schumacher delivers an explanation of his own perceived innocence. The German even manages to compare the incident to the pair’s collision in Adelaide, at the end of 1994. And he makes it sound plausible. This is an astounding triumph for self confidence which raises a few eyebrows, as well as Damon’s hackles.

By the end of that year, a body language analyst highlights the difference between the two embittered adversaries. It is said that Damon’s gentler, more measured tones emit an impression of self-doubt; that by choosing to sit down, he appears somehow vulnerable. That by directing his speech ‘up’ to the media, he lacks the air of authority which had accompanied Schumacher’s vertical stance.

Plausible theory, or fashionable supposition from a social guru with an improbable vocation?

In the wake of Hill’s failure to win the 1996 British Grand Prix, perhaps some of it does make sense.

For the first two days of this year’s meeting, Damon Hill is utterly dominant. Under pressure, yes, but in control for all that.

There is no great secret. As at any circuit, even a layman has to do no more than watch the Williams on the circuit.

It looks patently superior.

Where a hot lap in a Ferrari, or indeed anything else, requires a degree of tolerance and supernatural reflexes on the part of its driver, each of Hill’s laps is fast and tidy, a blend of utter commitment and fingertip control. Only rarely do you see the driver applying any form of corrective lock.

Hill’s apparent grip on the event lasts until a fraction of a second after the last of the five red starting lights is extinguished, the instant at which the majority of the 90,000 crowd holds its breath in anticipation of something which never actualt happens.

For the first time since 1992, when he trailed around at the back of the field in a dog-eared Brabham, Damon Hill does not lead a single lap of the British Grand Prix.

It is Jacques Villeneuve’s race, fair and square. Earlier, he had come close to thwarting Hill’s bid for a third consecutive Silverstone pole, a marginal failure which led the habitually calm Canadian to have a minor loss of temper in private on Saturday afternoon.

Hill is not in the slightest surprised by the threat his team-mate has posed, but he speaks not with trepidation, simply admiration.

“Jacques is very impressive. He’s put down his marker, and I’m going to have to work very hard to beat him. The way things are going, I feel very confident, but Jacques is a very serious threat, and he’s getting better all the time.”

This is a mellower, more relaxed Hill, and not just because he has use of his original love, a motorbike, with which to avoid the traffic jams. This is a man entirely aware of the opposition from the neighbouring garage, but not so much so that it is going to divert his own preparations.

The contrast with the haunted figure of one year previously is marked.

“I don’t even recall last year,” he jests, confident in his own situation. “I’ve got something of a short memory…

This time, the World Championship leader does not need to attempt to convince his audience of his righteousness in the wake of his retirement, As soon as his trip into the Copse gravel has ended, the result of a wheel nut which had worked loose, Hill emerges with a momentary look of frustration, then a smile and a cheery wave for the crowd.

As yet, he does not command the occasionally rabid following which his immediate predecessor, Nigel Mansell, was so eager to encourage. But he does appreciate the crowd’s enthusiasm.

“It’s great having the support. I recognise a few of them. I think some of them even turn up for testing. (He even names one particular flagbearer, and persuaded the occupants of the press room to turn and give him a wave during the post-qualifying briefing, a human touch which is ‘ not altogether common in sportsmen operating at Hill’s level.) I’m just enjoying the weekend with them. I’ve had a tremendous reception. Everyone has been supportive, and I’m very grateful for that.”

He remains modest, too, being a rare combination of a focused family man who happens to spend his weekends as one of the world’s most widely recognised sportsmen. When pressed by an Italian journalist on how he feels to be Britain’s number one hero of the moment, he simply smiles and puts the suggestion in context

“Britain generally is doing very well in sport at the moment. Nick Faldo is at Silverstone today, He’s won the Masters three times, so he’s not too bad as a golfer. The English football team has shown the world that it’s back on form.

“Me? I’m just doing well in my own particular field, and I’m enjoying it.”

From the tone of his voice, it sounds like it, too.

With the applause fading as he disappears from public view on his return journey from Copse, his body language tells its own story.

It hasn’t been his fault, he knows it. In his own mind, despite the fluffed start and the fact that his team-mate was well ahead, he had still been in a potentially winning situation.

The world title is not his just yet, but despite this latest setback he remains clear favourite.

After striding back, he marches down the steps of the truck, and orchestrates the media so that he can stand, comfortably, amongst them. His speech bears the same resonant note of confidence that Schumacher’s had 12 months earlier.

Yes he is disappointed. But he is also realistic. “It’s the hard truth of motor racing,” he surmises. “Nothing can be taken for granted. You can never predict what’s going to happen. I’m just going to have to press on.”

There’s nothing florid. It’s straightforward. To the point. Authoritative.

As he had promised to be last winter, Damon Hill 1996 is a different animal.

“I don’t think it comes from any one thing,” he assesses. “It’s a question of being more familiar with the territory. I know I’ve been through all of the things that accompany F1 before, but I’m really only just getting used to them.

“I just had things so much better planned at the start of the season. I’m happy driving racing cars, it’s the additional stuff which makes it hard work. You can’t do F1 without that extra baggage, but I’m coping better now.

“I’m happier, too. I don’t think things are hanging in the balance so much. I feel my performances are being recognised. and that makes me feel more at ease.” The question is, if it had been his fault this year, would we have known it?

Probably not.