Hill’s error goes unpunished as Schumacher follows the script in Monza. Mark Skewis reports
Next time there’s an energy crisis, the Government needs look no further than Frank Williams for a natural fuel: motivation.
Certainly Damon Hill had it in abundance at Monza, the first race since his sacking by Williams. If he had to leave the team, he reasoned, then the world title would go with him.
That still looks likely to be the case, but only because team-mate and rival Jacques Villeneuve failed to capitalise upon an error that jeopardised the Englishman’s aspirations.
The overwhelming memory of the Italian Grand Prix will be the spin with which Hill surrendered what, even by lap six, was beginning to look like a dominant position.
The biggest irony was that he should fall victim to the very tyre barriers on which the FIA’s Safety Delegate had sought his advice the previous day. After a lump of concrete was ripped up and flung into Villeneuve’s rear wing, these temporary impediments became a necessary evil, Hill’s was a far from necessary mistake. Having said which, It is worth noting that his surviving Williams team-mate (Villeneuve), successor (Heinz-Harald Frentzen) and chief tormentor (Michael Schumacher) all committed similar sins.
The slip could have been disastrous had not Villeneuve’s own error bent his steering and presented Damon with a ‘get out of jail free card. Look beyond Hill’s indiscretion, however, and you witnessed a drive distinguished by a steel which has often been conspicuous by its absence from his armoury.
, Lacking the background in karting enjoyed by his rivals, Hill’s limitations have always been exposed in wheel-to-wheel combat. Impressive in qualifying pole position in Italy marked the 12th time in 14 races he had lined up ahead of Villeneuve he has always looked similarly assured when in the lead. Put him alongside another car and, for all the macho protestations of being prepared to fight fire with fire, the old fallibility has so often been exposed.
But not this time.
Asked whether there was any chance of a non-aggression pact for the entry to Monza’s notorious first corner, Damon observed that such a deal would be pointless. He didn’t even consult his colleague. Nor did he need to: since being squeezed out at the start in Montreal, the Canadian has made it abundantly clear that he wouldn’t afford Hill the same courtesy again. Which is why the Englishman’s second act of the afternoon his first being to make a clean getaway for the first time in five races was to force the sister Williams so far to the outside of the track that Villeneuve resorted to the grass.
Having given notice of his intention, Damon promptly overtook Alesi – the Benetton man having made another stellar getaway, this time from sixth on the grid for the lead. He did so between the Lesmos. Since Senna’s accident changed the face of race circuits, that section of track is now less daunting than it is famous, but an overtaking manoeuvre is still not advised for the faint of heart.
The most significant moment of all came when he repulsed the Frenchman’s attempt to wrest back the lead entering Ascari. The archetypal playground bully, Alesi normally jumps in feet-first where angels fear to tread. Whether he is abnormally brave, or merely stupid, is of little matter when you find yourself alongside him. In spite of the knowledge that resistance could easily end with him eating gravel, Damon was prepared to risk more than Alesi. The latter was left incredulous. And still in second place.
It may only have been a cameo performance, but it was significant nonetheless. As was its timing, so soon after a blatant vote of noconfidence by his team boss.
If Hill rode into the race on a wave of public sympathy, Schumacher was swept along by a tide of national expectation. Feared by Williams, feted by Ferrari, the outgoing world champion demonstrated precisely why the Prancing Horse is prepared to pay him more money in a season than most sportsmen earn in their career.
The outcome of the race revolved around the solitary pit stop dictated by Goodyear’s decision to use its durable ‘A’ compound tyre. Another Grand Prix settled in the pits then? Not quite. It wasn’t the length of the stops themselves which tipped the balance, for Benetton took a mere two-tenths of a second longer than Ferrari to dispatch its driver, but instead Schumacher’s switch to maximum warp factor for the extra two laps he was able to coax from his F310’s fuel tank.
At the time of Alesi’s refuelling stop, the fastest lap, a 1m 26.82s, belonged to Mika Hakkinen’s McLaren. No sooner had he noted the Benetton’s disappearance than Schumacher stamped in his quickest tour of the race and, by way of an encore, suddenly upped the ante to 1m 26.39s.
Typically, he invested as much commitment in his pit lane entry as most of his rivals do in their qualifying lap. In this instance, the extra fuel he carried did prove a factor, but drivers of his calibre always possess the gift of making even the most pedestrian pit stop strategy look scintillating.
While the fans flocked to Schumacher, the media was for once more interested in his countryman, Frentzen, who didn’t even get as far as his pit stop.
The prospect of Williams facing up to Schumacher next season with two reformed rebels is an intriguing one. “I remember going to Jacques’ apartment in Japan,” recalls Heinz-Harald. “It looked just like the place of a kid who had left home for the first time: dirty washing and computer games everywhere. In those days he didn’t take his racing that seriously. He almost made me look professional! Since then we have both changed an awful lot.”
It will be all change too for Hill before long, and fascinating to see how he adapts to life after Williams. “We always talk about, ‘Yeah, Damon wins the races,’ and some people me included think, ‘How good is Damon? Is it the car which wins the races, or himself?’ ” muses Schumacher, the disdain which habitually marks observations on his rival for once banished. “I think by his switching to another team next year we will see what Damon is really made of. It’s an opportunity for him to prove that he is better than some people might think. Maybe we will see a surprise…