Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, July 11, 1997

Champion Comes Home, But Hardly in Triumph

Hill Faces Mountain at British Grand Prix

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
THE WORDS embroidered on the left breast of the short-sleeved blue polo shirt appeared to be there as a reminder: ''Damon Hill, World Drivers' Champion, 1996.''

Hill is proud to be that champion. He is also proud that this Sunday at Silverstone, he will be the first reigning British champion to race in the home Grand Prix since James Hunt in 1977. But he knows history is unlikely to repeat itself. Hunt won the race. Hill will probably be happy to cross the finish line - something he has done only twice in eight races this season, finishing last once and next to last in an abbreviated race in Montreal last month.

In an interview under the awning of the motor home of his Arrows team at the French Grand Prix two weeks ago, Hill appeared full of pluck and confidence - but he seemed a little like the valiant knight from a Monty Python sketch who is sitting like a stump in the muck, his arms and legs having just been severed in battle.

The knight says defensively, ''I've had worse.''

Unlike the knight, Hill is in excellent physical condition. But he pointed out that at 36 he is 10 years older than most of the other Formula One drivers.

Probably no other reigning world champion has done so poorly. The bad luck can be traced to last year when, while Hill was leading the championship, his boss Frank Williams told him he was not renewing Hill's contract. Hill was courted by many teams, including one of the up-and-coming ones, Jordan, now in the top five.

But he joined one of the worst on the grid, Arrows. ''I find it difficult to imagine Jordan being in a championship-winning position in the future,'' Hill said, ''and that's really the key question for me: Where am I going to be to win a championship?''

That is his goal now. Critics might tell him to forget it, at his age and without the prospect of a seat in one of the top teams. But many also wrote him off at the start of his Formula One career. Hill did not start racing cars until he was 24, they said, while Michael Schumacher was racing karts at 4. But Hill's father, Graham, a double world champion, had never driven a car of any kind until he was 24.


HILL describes his childhood as ''mollycoddled.'' But when he was 15 years old, his father died in an airplane crash. It became the beginning of a second phase in his life, one of struggle, including a period as a delivery boy on a scooter in London while trying to support his budding racing career.

He started by racing motorcycles, but his mother thought that was too dangerous and encouraged him to try cars. After a mostly undistinguished career in the lower formulas of British racing, Hill landed a job as a test driver at the top Formula One team, Williams.

He got his first chance to race in Formula One with Brabham in 1992.

''They were really in their death throes as a team,'' he said of Brabham. ''They'd gone from being a great team to being absolutely hopeless. I was using Brabham for the opportunity to actually cut my teeth and notch up on qualifying sessions and get some race experience.''

He impressed Williams. After Nigel Mansell left the team when Alain Prost was hired, Hill became the second driver. He learned from drivers who among them accumulated 10 world drivers' championships: Mansell had one, Prost four, Ayrton Senna three, and Hill's father had two. Not that his father consciously taught the boy.

''My father expressed a desire for me not to compete in Grand Prix racing,'' he said. ''But it's a philosophical question because, what do you do with your life? I really only have ever been trying to do my own thing. A psychiatrist may disagree. If I was trying to come to terms with something at odds within myself by being a racing driver, then I think I'd need help. I think I'm just doing what people do naturally, which is to compete.


IN MAY 1994 his teammate, Senna, died in a crash at Imola. Even as he dealt with the death, Hill had to take the role of leading the team. But it was not until the year embroidered on the shirt that everything came together - which made it seem all the more strange that he got kicked off the team after five seasons.

''I put together all the experience,'' he said. ''I had all the right ingredients to put together the championship, and to cope with the best team, and the situation changed. I lost the opportunity of going just at a time when I felt that I was in my best position to do it. I'm watching with interest the situation at Williams.''

Last year Hill led the championship from start to finish, though his teammate, Jacques Villeneuve, was only a few points behind at the end. Villeneuve now is the leading driver at Williams, but he is 14 points behind Schumacher in the drivers' championship. Hill's replacement, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, is far behind.

Hill, meanwhile, is enjoying being the reigning drivers' champion.

''It's something that does mean something and is regarded as a relevant credential in sport,'' he said, ''as it should be. And I get a fantastic reaction wherever I go from the crowds. And I get a kick out of that.''

How can a driver who was almost always in pole position be starting at the back of the grid? Hill says it's simple: Forty years ago, in the days of Manuel Fangio, the driver accounted for about 25 percent of the performance. Today, Hill says, the car is 98 percent of the game, with the driver merely contributing the final 2 percent.

''But you only need 2 percent for the difference between winning and coming in sixth,'' he said.

This weekend, he goes home to the race he won in 1994,

''I think I have quite an outside chance of getting in the top three,'' he said. ''If we could have one good day, that would do me.''

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