The banned played on

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Eurosport commentator John Watson gives an insight into the feud which has earned Formula One’s title rivals suspended bans

The stars of the block-busting ‘Adelaide ’94’ now bring you ‘Silverstone 95’. And Spa ’95. Not to mention Monza…

Even Sylvester Stallone would blush at making so many sequels, but the antagonism between Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill continues to simmer. They have both made it patently clear that their rival would not be the ideal choice of partner with which to be stranded on a desert island. Williams’ successful protest of Schumacher at Spa, and Benetton’s of Hill at Monza, made it equally obvious that they dislike each other’s manners as much on the track as they do away from it.

As ringmaster of the Formula One circus, Bernie Ecclestone doesn’t like controversy.

He loves it.

“If these guys want to conduct themselves like this, then that is okay by me; but I warn them that they must be prepared to accept the consequences,” he says of the title contenders’ exploits. “They could be hurt or killed or banned from the track. People have been telling them that they must take it easy and they have already been warned that their behaviour is unacceptable.”

But unacceptable to whom?

While half the press room was condemning Schumacher’s intimidation of Hill at Spa as a disgrace, the remainder was proclaiming it one of the most spectacular drives in the history of the sport. While half derided the Briton for an elementary error which saw him collide with the German at Monza, the remainder muttered darkly of the World Champion having laid a trap.

Head of the Performance Driving School at Silverstone, and the veteran of 152 Grands Prix, John Watson will recall Schumacher’s drive in Belgium for being stupendous, rather than shameful.

“What I remember was Schumacher driving on slick tyres in conditions which, in my view, demanded wets and Damon battling to get past on wets,” he says. “In those circumstances Damon should have had between an eight and 10-second advantage per lap.

“Schumacher did weave on the straight, he did run Damon wide, certainly in Les Combes. But the guy was fighting for the lead of the race and he was on dry tyres. Just to drive on your own in those conditions, at that speed on those tyres, was pretty damn difficult; never mind defending his position at the same time. It is hard to convey to a TV audience how difficult it is to do what Schumacher did: it was nigh-on phenomenal. We have seen Senna do similar things in the past, but it requires a level of skill, bravery and commitment you rarely find.”

Unlike the FIA stewards, who apportioned an element of blame to Schumacher at both Spa and Monza, Watson believes Hill’s tactical naivete was at fault.

“The only thing I didn’t like at Spa was that in the run-up to the Bus Stop chicane on one lap Michael ran Damon very wide at high speed. It was on the limit, for sure, but he was on slicks. Had he been on wets I would have been going for him like gangbusters. As it was, Damon should have been able to come out of Raidillon 10 or 15 mph quicker and should have been able to pass him. But he was attempting to pass in the wrong place: if he goes around the outside, of course Schumacher is going to defend – he’s leading the race. What do you expect the guy to do?

“My feeling is that Damon trapped himself by trying to play catch-up into a corner. Rather than try to pass a car into a corner, he should have tried to pass it on exit. To do that you’ve got to drop back and take a run at the corner, go through it at your own speed, and come out quicker which you ought to do, on wet weather tyres and then get past as soon as possible.

“At Monza, like Spa, Damon should have won by a country mile in the Williams. He implied that Michael brake tested him, but I don’t think that’s what he did. Ill was in that situation I would have used the backmarker to my advantage. If Michael did that, well done. If Damon doesn’t imagine that is going to happen, he needs to take a few evening courses in the art of racing.

“Part of being a racing driver is being fast and Damon is a bloody fast driver another part is understanding the subtleties of the sport. Damon didn’t lock up his brakes, he didn’t deliberately drive into him, I think maybe he just didn’t fully appreciate a situation that was unfolding in favour of Schumacher. Schumacher wouldn’t have been busting his gut to get in front of Inoue until the last moment.

“This is a race, it’s not a demonstration of how fast an individual is. I have to say I blame motor racing for the way formulas have evolved technically. Consequently it is a fact that many young guys – and you must remember that although Damon isn’t young In terms of years, he didn’t come into motorsport until he was in his mid 20s – never learn how to race. Schumacher has.”

Watson believes the root of the feud lies not in the competitiveness of their respective machinery, nor in the limited overtaking opportunities afforded by the current set of regulations, but in the different nature of the two men.

“Drivers respect other drivers in different ways,” he explains. “Where Schumacher and Damon are concerned, I would say that Schumacher has a psychological advantage in racing situations. He knows that, with Silverstone being an exception, Damon tends not to go to war with another car. He tends to drive very much more of a percentage race. That’s his style.

“I would say that if the Spa battle was taking place between David Coulthard and Schumacher, David would have had no hesitation whatsoever to lean on Michael, touch him if necessary, because I think Coulthard is a more natural racer than Damon. Schumacher would acknowledge that: he wouldn’t have done to Coulthard or Alesi, for example, what he did to Hill.

“Throughout the history of motor racing there have been drivers who have been tougher in a race situation than others. Michael knew that Damon wasn’t going to do anything rash, and he was able to play him to the limit.

“There is a snowball effect which you saw with Senna: if people know you can overtake, they tend not to make it difficult. Because people move out of the way, it only further enhances the reputation. You can control someone’s driving from behind them, but Damon is not generally seen as a driver of that style – he will idle around and wait until he is totally clear and it is safe to pass, whereas other drivers will slide under you, scuff off speed and look untidy, but it’s effective. Schumacher is a racer of that style, where Damon is a racing driver, and doesn’t exhibit that aggressiveness that other drivers have got: fair intimidation.

“That goes so far. I have no time at all for deliberate and dangerous blocking, but I don’t think Schumacher transcended that particular rule. Both Silverstone and Monza were clearly Damon’s mistake but neither incident was deliberate like those we saw in Japan with Prost in ’89 and Senna in ’90. There was an element of pre-meditation in both of those; Hill’s were purely errors of judgement. What Schumacher did at Spa was clearly a conscious decision. He knows that Damon is not, by nature, a forcible driver and he played that to the full.”

Watson’s suspicion was endorsed by Hill’s post-race comments at Monza, where he admitted that he erred on the side of caution: “I felt very optimistic that I would be able to pass the Benetton at some stage, probably during the pit stops, if not actually at some point on the circuit. But, given our previous record, it seemed more prudent for me to be patient. I was in good shape, there was no desperate need to pass him or take an unnecessary risk at the point where we collided.”

The very weakness that Schumacher preys upon made a mockery of the stewards’ decision to take action against Hill. The ban, like Benetton’s protest, was quite clearly just a tit-for-tat response to the aftermath of Spa.

“The crash was just a racing accident,” insists Alain Prost, who for years was locked in a bitter duel with Ayrton Senna. “I think Damon is a very fair driver, and wouldn’t do anything that would be wrong. The problem when you are rivals for the championship is that anything that happens will be in the spotlight.”

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