A sore loser

Why Damon Hill will emerge wiser, and stronger, from this year’s fight for the title

Another season almost over, another championship lost.

By Damon Hill’s own admission, Michael Schumacher’s victory in the European Grand Prix ensured that for the second year in succession the Englishman’s title aspirations ended not with champagne, but with a bitter taste.

On the day, he was generous in defeat. Later, he felt distinctly sore — not least due to a hairline fracture of his right leg, sustained in the accident which put him out of the race. “The leg’s quite painful, but it’s nothing compared to the pain of losing the championship,” he explained.

But what lessons will he take away from 1995?

Whilst the race for the 1994 championship went down to the wire at Adelaide, that was due largely to Schumacher being banned from those races from which he hadn’t been excluded. This year Hill can take solace from having extended the German by virtue of his own merits, rather than Benetton’s failings.

That Schumacher emerged as champion at all last season was due to the seemingly unassailable lead he amassed over the opening five races when the Benetton B194 was clearly the class of the field. Many will argue that Hill has enjoyed a similar superiority this year, but failed to capitalise upon it.

In truth, the balance see-sawed between Benetton and Williams throughout the opening six races. That the FW17 emerged the better of the two is underlined by Hill having outqualified his rival in seven of the past eight races. Against that statistical superiority you must set the the fact that the Benetton has handled better on full tanks than it has in qualifying trim, and that on three occasions, in Brazil, Canada and Germany, Damon’s retirements have been attributable to mechanical failure. Only once, in Hungary, has Schumacher’s car let him down, although an electrical glitch in Montreal admittedly saw him salvage two points rather than the 10 for which he was seemingly destined.

The World Champion readily concedes that next year, when Ferrari will have its new V10 to contend with, Hill should have the edge on reliability. Not that he is about to hoist the white flag: “I wouldn’t have taken the decision if I didn’t think I could achieve success,” he stresses. “I’m confident I can win the championship — in ’97 especially.”

Notwithstanding the undoubted element of propaganda in Schumacher’s statement, Hill will be aware that next season offers him perhaps his best shot yet at the title.

Aside from Ferrari’s reliability worries, his opponent will lack the kind of understanding with his team which has helped mask the deficiencies of Benetton’s package over the past few months. Schumacher, however, insists he doesn’t envisage too many political difficulties. “If Mansell survived at Ferrari, I think I should,” he smirks.

The manner of the German’s decisive win at the Nurburgring, and his scintillating three-stop pursuit of Alesi whose gamble to start on slick tyres on a damp track paid off with a one-stop strategy illustrated exactly why the Prancing Horse was so desperate to secure his services. But if his chase of the Frenchman demonstrated the beauty of Formula One, his uncompromising defence against Hill early on was also indicative of what many people perceive to be the beast.

“Sometimes the fight has been tough,” he admitted after clinching his third ‘home’ win of the year (Hockenheim. Monaco and Nurburgring). “But that’s what it takes to win the championship.”

If nothing else, Hill now understands exactly that.

Grim-faced, Damon said he had no complaints at his opponent’s behaviour. Like it or not, and some of his supporters won’t, psychology is an integral part of any sporting contest. As such, intimidation physical or mental has become part of the game, be that game boxing or rugby, cricket or tennis.

There have been rare indications that Hill is prepared to match Schumacher’s tactics, such as his lunge to pass him at Silverstone. The suspicion lingers, though, that he is a gifted driver who, like Prost faced with his own nemesis, Senna, looks vulnerable against a bully.

Coulthard suggests that is due, in part, to his team-mate’s late arrival in four-wheeled racing – Damon, like his father, first raced at the age of 24 – compared to the grounding the likes of Schumacher enjoyed in karts. Hill’s comments, meanwhile, have made it clear he believed his tactics have clung to the last vestiges of what was once a sport, rather than a contest where one duelist must end his race in the gravel bed.

Whatever the reasoning, he now accepts that to get parity, he must get tough.

“That’s just the typically aggressive approach he has,” he reflected of Schumacher’s stubbornness at the Nurburgring. That’s the way he drives. It seems to me that’s the way it is, so you just have to force your way through. I would like the rules to be clarified. I want to know whether I can push someone off when they try to overtake me. If I can, then fine. That’s obviously what I have to do.”

For 1996 he will be aware he faces a threat not only from outside the team, but one from within.

As Indycar champion, Jacques Villeneuve is anxious not to make the same mistakes as Michael Andretti, to which end he is already busy testing in Europe. His early pace suggests he could cause the team’s other famous name a headache, and Hill’s bitter experience with Coulthard in recent Grands Prix indicated he can expect little by way of internal support.

At the Nurburgring, a on other occasions this year, his efforts were diluted by those of his team-mate. Trapped behind Alesi when the latter had a heavy fuel load, Hill radioed to come in, but Coulthard’s scheduled pit stop precluded such flexibility. Faced with the prospect of losing further ground to Schumacher, he instead opted to press home an attack on the Ferrari, and was left with a damaged nosecone for his trouble.

Later, attempting to recover the deficit arising from his stop for a new nose, he spun off in pursuit of third place. Held, of course, by Coulthard…

Why, you could ask, was he having to race his team-mate at all? Like all drivers, Hill performs better when he is in confident frame of mind, as he was in Hungary, where his status for the following year had been confirmed. It is easy to understand his confusion that Williams should fail to intervene when he needed that support most.

Benetton, by contrast, has concentrated its efforts on Schumacher to such a degree that Johnny Herbert insists he has felt an outcast. Where Williams has juggled two cars’ pit stops, its rival clearly saw Herbert as an expendable commodity.

The history books suggest that Williams’ pursuit of the Constructors’ Championship, sometimes to the detriment of its drivers’ hopes of individual honours, is as much part of tradition as the Christmas turkey. The most obvious manifestation of that mentality was the loss of the drivers’ series to Alain Prost in 1986. Between them, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet led 1676 miles during the course of the season, only for their squabbling to hand honours to the Frenchman, whose McLaren led just 429.

In a sense, of course, we should be grateful that Frank Williams allows his drivers to race; after all, fans are the first to squawk when team orders are invoked. But that is of scant consolation to Hill.

“At the 11th hour it’s a challenge to my title hopes from within the team, as well as one from without,” he admitted in Germany.

“That’s so unreasonable of me, isn’t it, to be interested as a competitor in my future, rather than the future of the other competitors?” said Coulthard sarcastically. “I’ll have a think about that tonight and maybe come back tomorrow and see if I can help everyone else instead of myself.

“I have to say at this stage of the season, and given my position, I get a little bit tired about being asked about team orders. I think that what you all want to see is a motor race and my first duty is to the team, and to try and win the Constructors’ Championship. If the circumstances were different, like they were last year, then think it’s entirely fair for me to heed any request by the team. But I think it’s equally fair of Williams not to request me to slow down if I’m quicker than Damon. Damon has the same equipment that I do it wouldn’t seem logical for me to have better equipment when I’m leaving the team so if I’m quicker, I’m quicker.”

“Ethics don’t really come into it,” shrugged Hill with the air of someone whose passage from innocence to experience was complete. “He’s a racing driver, not a doctor.”