Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, October 12, 1996
Hill and Villeneuve Rev Up for Final Battle
By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
WILL the Formula One season end with a bang, or a whimper? With only nine points between the World Drivers' Championship contenders
Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve ‹ the last race of the season this weekend in Japan could go either way.
Villeneuve must win the race and see Hill finish seventh or worse to win the championship, while all Hill has to do for the title is knock Villeneuve off the track.
That may sound unsportsmanlike but it wouldn't be the first time the title is decided by a game of bumper cars. The 1989 race at the same Suzuka track ended with Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna colliding with six laps to go, and the title went to Prost. The next year the race went no farther than Suzuka's first corner, when Senna ran into Prost, and the title went to the Brazilian. Hill and Michael Schumacher were only one point apart before the last race of 1994 in Australia when they collided, and Schumacher was named champion.
Will Hill continue the tradition? If he misses the title now, it will again be by one point. He undoubtedly will do everything to prevent that. Hill is often considered not as naturally talented as Prost, Senna or Schumacher, but few deny he is that rarity, a ''gentlemen driver,'' like his father, the two-time champion Graham Hill. Gentlemen don't shove competitors off the track.
''I can't imagine Damon doing that,'' said Patrick Head, Williams's technical director, to the Independent newspaper in Britain. ''I would never question his sportsmanship. It wouldn't happen. It's not the style of the man. I expect Damon to win it fair and square.''
The problem is that Hill's teammate Villeneuve ‹ another great driver's son ‹ wants that title pretty badly too. He would become the first to win the IndyCar title and the Formula One title the following year. And the first to win it in his rookie year. He can only do it by winning the race.
A long shot? Maybe not. Villeneuve appears to be in control of his destiny.
''In the first half of the season he has assured enough one-two finishes ‹ without taking a risk ‹ that the team will have the constructors' championship,'' said his manager, Craig Pollock, in July. ''He's assured his reputation that he's going to bring the car home, and now he can finally attack for the drivers' championship. It really is a very analytical way that Jacques attacks championships.''
Analysis told Villeneuve before the last Grand Prix, in Portugal, that he needed to finish four points ahead of Hill to stay in the title race. So he finished first, to Hill's second, giving him those four points. All he needs now are 10 more.
Four times out of seven in the past 20 years when the title has been decided in the last race, the man behind has won.
But Hill is not Villeneuve's only obstacle: Japan is the last chance for many drivers who have had disappointing seasons, and they do not care who wins the title.
The reigning champion, Benetton, this year not only lost its titles, but it didn't win a race. Benetton is second in the constructors' championship, but only one point ahead of Ferrari. Benetton wants to stay second, while its driver, Jean Alesi, wants to grab third place in the drivers' title race from Ferrari's Schumacher, who is six points ahead. A victory would probably do all that.
What fans have to fear most, perhaps, aside from a dud race, is that if the season ends in bumper cars, the sport's governing body ‹ the International Automobile Federation ‹ might have to step in to sort things out. It would be a bad ending to the first season in years with no big disputes or threats of disqualification.
Of course, that will depend on the behavior of the gentlemen drivers on Sunday.
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