There are some weekends when fate can smile on you and others when she will point her fickle finger in your direction and nearly poke your eye out.
Whenever Damon Hill bent over in Hungary, you had to reach for the sun glasses…
Michael Schumacher has criticised his championship rival for being ‘moody’ and there have been times when Hill’s tendency to introspection has perhaps made him his own worst enemy. Where some drivers have the capacity to shrug off misfortune, quickly consigning it to the ‘Shit Happens’ drawer, there have been occasions in the past when Damon has brooded for too long on a subject.
In Hungary, though, he exuded the air of a man at ease both with himself and his situation. With good reason. Although the subject of late interest from Benetton’s Flavio Briatore as well as an Indycar offer from Carl Haas, Hill was able to put an end to months of uncertainty and speculation by re-signing for Williams. It was a grudging admission that Frank Williams needs him, even though the two haven’t exactly seen eye-to-eye in recent months. That much was betrayed when, upon being informed of the touring car team’s success at Brands Hatch, Damon sniped: “Frank will be happier about winning the touring car race than he will about the Formula One race, the way he’s been talking recently.”
The deal was confirmation too that he has successfully repelled the challenge from David Coulthard, whom many critics had predicted would expose his team-mate’s weaknesses this season. Since the Scot joined him at Williams, Hill has outqualified his junior 14-3 and never been beaten by him in a race.
Dominance within the team is one thing, success on the track another and it wasn’t just the victory which was important in Hungary, so much as the emphatic manner in which it was achieved.
By securing pole for the fifth time in six races, he actually eclipsed Schumacher’s tally. And wasn’t slow to remind him. But the team’s failure to translate any of the previous four poles into victory was clearly of concern.
In France, as in Monaco, Hill had led only to lose his position at the first pit stops. Even at Silverstone, where his own overtaking manoeuvre put paid to any hope of points, Benetton’s pit strategy had contrived to put Schumacher ahead on the road after the stops were completed.
By contrast, in Hungary he managed to perform three stops without once relinquishing the ascendancy.
“Williams had a good strategy, and they deserved to win,” acknowledged Schumacher after retiring with fuel pump failure just four laps from the finish.
“Everything went to plan,” concurs the victor. “We knew what we had to do, and I think we were pretty well in control. The team’s strategy was first class. I think we had him beaten, even if he had carried on. That was the best race I’ve driven in my career, without doubt. Even aside from the fact that it almost halved the points deficit in the championship, I think the race was something of a turning point in itself: the most significant thing was that we qualified ahead, raced ahead, and actually finished ahead.”
If the win laid one ghost, then Hill maintains that he has also long-exorcised another. In Hungary, as in Monaco, passing backmarkers can be nightmarish. “Some of the traffic is impossible,” he admits. “It’s so easy to lose three seconds, four seconds a lap. Even if you are sitting on a 10s advantage, in two laps the guy can be on your tail.”
In such circumstances it was vital that Hill could demonstrate his ability to negotiate traffic as well as he can a contract. In spite of heavy pressure from the Benetton as they snaked through a succession of backmarkers during the middle of the race, he refused to buckle.
Critics have often pinpointed a lack of directness in his passing of backmarkers. But does Damon agree?
“I think possibly you could have made that accusation last year, but not in the latter part of it,” he argues. “It’s one of these comments that are made, bandied around, and tend to be repeated without being thought about terribly hard. I look at my race after each Grand Prix, when you have the times, and you can see where the time is lost and found. Some people are very good in traffic, others are not as good, but I wouldn’t say I’m that bad!”
Schumacher’s efforts were admittedly hampered by an early problem with his refuelling rig, as a result of which he had to undertake a longer final stint than the Williams. That opened a 10-lap window of opportunity during which Hill was able to exploit his rival’s heavier fuel load. Before anyone starts crying over spilled fuel, however, it is worth remembering that even before Schumacher’s last stint Hill was ahead — and showing every sign of staying there.
Having entered the race 21 points adrift, and with his title prospects receding quicker than Bobby Charlton’s hairline, Damon ended it just 11 points behind the German. In 1993, just when Hill was beginning to wonder what he needed to do in order to win his first GP, he was victorious in Hungary. Two years on, it is the world title he seeks, and a repeat performance has assuaged any fears that the accolade is beyond his grasp. M S