WILL HE OR WON'T HE: HILL CAPS TOUGH TIME BY DECIDING TO CARRY ON INDIANAPOLIS, July 19, 1999 -- When the restart of the British Grand Prix was delayed for 20 minutes while the wreckage was cleared from the scene of Michael Schumacher's...
WILL HE OR WON'T HE: HILL CAPS TOUGH TIME BY DECIDING TO CARRY ON
INDIANAPOLIS, July 19, 1999 -- When the restart of the British Grand Prix was delayed for 20 minutes while the wreckage was cleared from the scene of Michael Schumacher's accident, Damon Hill remained in his car. "I reckon I'll stay here," he said. "It's the best peace and quiet I've had all weekend." He wasn't joking. Hill's life had been in turmoil even since he stepped from his Jordan two weeks before in France and hinted that race might be his last. He had previously declared that he would quit at the end of the year, so the news of his retirement was no surprise. But this advancement of the leaving day most certainly was. It threw the motor sport scene into chaos. The next race was the British Grand Prix, and it was unthinkable that Damon Hill, whose popularity is greater than the other three British drivers put together, might not be racing. Ever again. But the problem was, there appeared to be no definitive answer. The "Will he? Won't he?" saga reached a new peak as Hill took part in a test session at Silverstone and ran competitively, one of the few occasions he had done so since the start of the season five months before. He declared himself very happy with the car. Another first in 1999. But such positive thinking only served to muddy the water even further. Would he race at Silverstone after all? Might he actually complete the season? No one knew. Least of all, it seemed, his team. Members of Jordan Grand Prix were becoming increasingly exasperated. And if they didn't know what their driver was doing, then what chance the outside world? The only certainty was that Hill did not enjoy driving the latest breed of F1 car with its narrow track and grooved dry-weather tires. He had made that plain in Spain, three races before. "I find these cars really frustrating," he said. "Practice, here in Barcelona, has been a good example. We had a test here last week, and I was happy with my car. There was no wind then. Now we come back, and the wind's blowing and it's bloody impossible to drive it. "These cars are way too dependent on the aerodynamics. To my mind, they (the FIA, F1's governing body) needs to look carefully at the problem because I really feel we've come down a blind alley here. We can't go any further in reducing tire grip. We need to make the cars more fun to drive, and more exciting to watch." It was almost a cry from the heart. Here was a man who had won 21 Grands Prix, and he was struggling to make the top six. Everyone understood and sympathized with his viewpoint. But it was the same for every driver, and perhaps part of Hill's frustration was due to his teammate, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, showing a remarkable run of form following his move from Williams to Jordan. Frentzen had scored the vast majority of the points that had taken Jordan into third place in the Constructors' Championship. But the team needed both drivers to score points. In the seven races before Silverstone, Hill had done so just once. And now he was dithering over whether or not to continue. The truth was that Hill's credibility was being heavily eroded by prevarication, sadly reminiscent of his father's overdue retirement. Graham Hill's refusal to acknowledge the effects of the calendar led to the excruciating embarrassment of the double World Champion and five-times winner of the Monaco Grand Prix failing to qualify for that race in 1975. His son's talent was not yet in such terminal decline, but the indecision was prompting the same wish that he should stop before he hurt himself. Hill may have believed that his ability was unimpaired, particularly after such a promising test at Silverstone, but the very fact that he should have instigated this situation by publicly questioning his motivation was a telling indication that he really ought to stop. Going into Silverstone, Hill decided to carry on. But for how long? Some said he didn't really know what he wanted. Others claimed the debate was now over money and how much he would be paid for the second half of the season, baring in mind that he had not produced in the first. Damon called a press conference for 2 p.m. on the day before practice began. At 10 a.m. that day, it was called off. No reason was given. By now the patience of the media was wearing dangerously thin. And when Hill pointedly refused to answer any questions on the subject at the official FIA press call, his harassed look did nothing for an image which was taking a beating. That was the sad part. Hill was rapidly eroding the enormous goodwill that had been built up ever since his full-time arrival as a Williams driver in 1993. Damon was not, perhaps, the most naturally gifted driver in the world, but his endeavor and commitment had never been in question. Team leadership had been thrust on his inexperienced shoulders in the terrible aftermath of the death of his teammate, Ayrton Senna, at Imola in 1994. Damon worked hard at raising his game and, when he won the title in 1996, there was no one who deserved it more. A modest and private person, stiff and formal at times maybe, he nevertheless had the approval of the fickle British media. Now that warmth of feeling was being replaced by chilly resentment. It was Hill's decision, of course. But everyone simply wished he would make up his mind. The one sure thing was that if he had a bad weekend at Silverstone, the media would tear him apart and call for his immediate retirement. When Damon Hill has his back against the wall, he performs. Time and again that happened during the heat of his three-year struggle to take the championship from Michael Schumacher in 1994 and 1995 and, successfully as it turned out, from Jacques Villeneuve a year later. Now Hill would need to dig deep again. To the joy of the army of fans sporting the Hill trademark insignia - dark blue with eight white blades, as worn by his father when he carried the colours of London Rowing Club - Damon qualified within a tenth of Frentzen and took sixth on the grid, his best qualifying position of the season thus far. He carried that competitiveness into the race, maintaining a top-six position throughout even though he was never likely to extend his tally to 23 victories. Indeed, with about five laps remaining, it seemed he might not finish at all when the Honda V10 lost pneumatic pressure. By short-shifting, Hill brought the car home in fifth place. "I'm really delighted to have finished," said Hill, 38. "There was a lot of pressure before that race with all the trials and tribulations. I had a good race and kept the pressure on everyone. I did the best I could. "It was a sort of victory for myself after the kind of nonsense we've had over the last couple of weeks. I've also been a little unlucky this year, but today things came right for me." Then Hill went off to enjoy himself and play guitar with team owner Eddie Jordan's band, the Buzzin' Hornets. A few days later, Hill announced that he would continue to the end of the season. That way, it was hoped, the shambles of the previous few weeks could be forgotten, and he could end a fine career with the dignity it deserved. *** United States Grand Prix tickets: Ticket orders for the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis will be accepted by mail only beginning Oct. 1 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ticket office. The race will take place Sept. 24, 2000.
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