Taken from the July 2008 issue of Motor Sport
By Andrew Benson
This is the story of how Damon Hill came to lose his drive and win the World Championship at the same time. It is about the disintegration of a professional relationship, about three men tied together by tragedy into a situation none of them ever envisaged.
It is the story of how a largely unheralded racing driver was forced by the death of his team-mate to take the leadership of the best team in Formula 1. But the men who ran that team were never fully convinced he was up to the job and so, even as he was poised to deliver the ultimate prize, they had already decided to let him go. It is the story of Damon Hill, Frank Williams and Patrick Head – and, aside from the basic facts, much of it has never been told before.
No-one involved imagined Hill would end up World Champion when, out of work and already 30, he was taken on by Williams as a test driver in 1991, nor even when his impressive performances won him a seat alongside Alain Prost in the race team for 1993.
“I was a number two,” Hill says. “I understood that. Frank was basically saying, you’re a good test driver, we think you’ll make a good, solid guy to be there for us, but we’re paying lots of money to Alain Prost.”
Hill, as he puts it, occasionally “bit Alain’s ankles” in 1993, but Prost’s retirement at the end of the season only emphasised his status – new recruit Ayrton Senna was at least half a second a lap quicker than the Englishman. But then Williams’s world turned upside down. Senna was killed at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix – and Hill’s role in, and relationship with, Williams changed completely.
“Damon,” says co-owner Patrick Head, “played a large part in the process of holding the team together. He’s a remarkable character.
“He came up [to the factory] on the Saturday after the Imola race and spent hours with us, participating in the process of going through the accident. We literally must have had an
eight-hour day going through various video clips and data time by time, which was a remarkably disciplined thing to do knowing that he would be in the car.”
That data, Hill says, convinced him that Senna had made a mistake. In a more fuel-heavy car, Senna was trying to stay ahead of Michael Schumacher’s Benetton. The car was running closer to the ground than normal because the tyres were still not up to pressure after a safety car period and Senna chose the tighter line through Tamburello that Hill was avoiding because of two treacherous bumps that badly unsettled the car.
The Brazilian hit the first bump, the car lost downforce, but Senna caught the slide. Then it hit the second bump, and this time, Hill believes, “it threw him just off-line enough for him not to be able to get it back on the track, and that was that”.
That is the theory Williams expressed at the inquest into Senna’s death, the team believing that the data from Senna’s car refutes the contention of the Italian prosecutors that the steering column failed, robbing him of control.
“I had to find out for myself, for my own comfort if you like, my interpretation of what happened,” Hill says. “Now you might say I came up with an interpretation that made me feel comfortable about driving again, but I honestly think that Ayrton was such a determined competitor that he regularly put himself at risk with his car and his driving, and he couldn’t do anything else.”
Hill says he never had any thoughts about stopping racing. “You come away from an event like that and just think, ‘well, if you stop now it sort of suggests you haven’t really understood the risks.’ And I thought I did understand. I always knew this was dangerous. I’d known people who’d died. My dad did, too. So I didn’t have any illusions that this was a potentially fatal sport. I thought, ‘no, you’ve got to keep going.’”
That was easier said than done. Head says the whole team was “on auto” at the next race in Monaco, and Hill, still in shock, was out of the Grand Prix by the first corner, after a tangle with Mika Häkkinen’s McLaren.
Two weeks later, though, he won in Spain, after Schumacher’s leading car became stuck in fifth gear. “That was crucial,” Hill says. “I knew I could do it, but I needed something tangible to hang it on. In this sport, everything is bullshit. Ultimately, people can only relate to a result. You get a result, and you’ve got a certain amount of breathing space.”
The win, Williams says, “made the team regain its confidence – in the end, it was a joyous event”.
“Spiritually,” adds Hill, “for people to go forward they need to believe there is an opportunity for something positive to happen. What we felt for Ayrton was channelled into our championship. And I just felt that because of what happened to Ayrton, I had to completely give everything I had to try to win the championship.”
That looked a long shot in the extreme, so great was Schumacher’s lead. But Benetton found itself embroiled in controversy after controversy, which ultimately meant Schumacher failed to score in four races. Hill won all of them, and went to the penultimate race in Japan still in with a chance, and with Nigel Mansell back at Williams as support.
At Suzuka, Hill produced a performance that has gone down in history as one of the sport’s most remarkable drives – in the pouring rain, on Formula 1’s most demanding track, “Damon,” as Head puts it, “just outdrove Michael, and not many people did that to Michael in the wet.”
Hill takes up the story: “The preceding race [at Jerez] was a disaster, and the truth of that was there was a cock-up with the refuelling which I had to bring to their attention. I was a long way behind [Schumacher] because I was carrying tons of fuel. And that was overlooked. So I had an investigation into it. So there was a little bit of friction there between Frank, Patrick and myself.
“I was supposed to be the team leader but for some reason I just could not seem to get that indication from Frank.
“Frank and Patrick never regarded me, at that stage, as being their front-line guy. That’s why they had Nigel there. So I constantly felt they were looking for someone else to deliver. I felt that was really demoralising. I thought there was obviously something about me which made them doubtful of me. And I doubt myself. I’m constantly giving it out. I don’t think I can blame them for that. I wasn’t someone who can walk in and have 100 per cent confidence and give off that vibe. Like, say, Michael Schumacher does. So I don’t think that was helpful in that situation. I was very internal and introspective. And eventually at Suzuka Patrick gave me a bit of a talking to.
“I was getting very intense about the whole thing and I was in a bit of a strop because they were all over Nigel and I thought: ‘He can’t win the title! OK, he won it before, but he can’t win it now. I can. Why are they making such a big deal about Nigel?’ And eventually you just go: ‘I don’t get it. I don’t care. I’m just going to drive.’ And I released myself from something.
“I had admired these people for so long, I wanted very much to impress and I came to the realisation that I’m never going to get that. You’re going to have to please yourself, concentrate on yourself and deliver for yourself. So I just changed my attitude and did my own thing, and made the best of whatever opportunity I had.
“Something came out of me which I’d been trying to get out, which needed the right circumstances. I never got to the height I did at Suzuka before, or perhaps even since.”
Head says he does not remember the conversation, but does admit: “Damon’s a remarkably honest character, and that honesty goes as far as if he has any self doubt then you tend to see it.”
“I certainly wasn’t trying to wind him up,” Head adds, “but obviously I must have succeeded. But I’m in full admiration of the drive Damon did on that day. Whether any action of mine helped him to open that door, whether it be bullying or whatever, then he certainly responded very well.”
The win at Suzuka put Hill one point behind Schumacher going into the final race at Adelaide, but the tensions at Williams were still there.
“Of course after every victory a driver is totally unbearable for 24 hours,” Hill says, “so I thought I was God’s gift to racing, at that point. I went and stayed with Barry [Sheene], we flew from Melbourne to Adelaide and Barry was going: ‘You know, Frank should be paying you more money.’ And I was going: ‘Yeah, you’re right Barry. What do you think we should do?’ ‘Well, you should say something. You’ve got to stand up for yourself.’
“So I met Murray Walker off the plane, and I went: ‘They’re not paying me enough.’ They wanted to know what was going to happen in the showdown, and there’s this spoilt brat saying he’s not being paid enough. What a way to completely shoot yourself in the foot! So I walked into the garage and there’s all these long faces looking at me. And I remember saying to Patrick: ‘You always hurt the ones you love, Patrick, I’m sorry.’
“It’s just horrible to think back, but I just completely did not have the skills to deal with this end of the business at all.”
At Adelaide, Hill drove another superlative race, pressuring Schumacher so hard that the German made a mistake and slid off the track, only to rejoin and take both cars out of the race.
Although Hill and Williams had lost the championship, things looked promising for 1995. Instead Schumacher, Hill remembers, “ran rings around us”. Head admits the team was often out-thought on strategy by Benetton, and tensions within Williams were increased by the team’s refusal to impose team orders on David Coulthard to help Hill.
“It’s a bit of a blur,” says Hill, who did win four races between the humiliations. “When I went down, I went down, mentally, and it all just got to me. The stress of ’94 was immense, and I somehow didn’t manage to regroup myself properly.
“I went from Sports Personality of the Year to being a nasty smell. It was catastrophic. I’d already signed for 1996, but I think that’s when Frank and Patrick decided: ‘We’ve got to get someone for beyond that because he’s up and down like a yo-yo.’ If they’d said: ‘Damon, it’s all over,’ I think I’d have said: ‘you’re right!’”
They didn’t, though. Not yet, anyway. There were rumours at the time that, exasperated by Hill’s performances, Williams had done a deal with Heinz-Harald Frentzen for 1997, but for now they were just rumours, and Hill set about putting his annus horribilis behind him.
Following a particularly poor race at Suzuka, after which he says he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry so bad had things become, Hill won the final race of 1995 at Adelaide. He used that as a springboard to go away and prepare comprehensively for ’96 – to find ways of dealing with what he calls the “burden” of his position as team leader and bearer of the hopes of a nation.
When he turned up for pre-season testing, Head and Williams were impressed. “We were full of admiration for the way he went away and got himself enormously fit over the winter,” Head recalls. “I think he felt that Michael was better in 1995, but he went away and got a new trainer and worked unbelievably hard, so when he turned up in ’96 his mindset was ‘no way is Michael fitter than me, no way is he better prepared’.
“He felt he could beat Michael and he went out and did it. So I don’t think we felt he was inconsistent in 1996. He was inconsistent in ’95, but it was a mental thing more than an ability thing.”
Hill says: “I knew ’96 was my last chance. The understanding I had of the sport was, if you win, you’ll be in demand, and naturally they’ll want to keep you [for 1997]. If I don’t win, they won’t keep me, so I was under the impression that I’m going to win the title and they’ll keep me. So to win and not be kept was not something I’d factored in at all.”
The year started well. The Williams-Renault FW18 was one of history’s great cars. Schumacher’s Ferrari was not. And, bar a couple of not-entirely-unfamiliar trip-ups, Hill was having little trouble beating team-mate Jacques Villeneuve. The championship seemed a formality.
Behind the scenes, though, things were not what they seemed – and this is where this writer comes into the story.
I was working for Autosport magazine, and, in mid-July, a source told me that Williams had already decided not to retain Hill for ’97, that Frentzen’s contract was already signed. It seemed incredible, but the source was so good that we had to run with the story.
It was on the front cover of the magazine on the Thursday before the German Grand Prix and, inevitably, the paddock went into overdrive. Arriving at the track, I thought it would be a good idea to let Hill get the business of the day out of the way before I went to explain to him why we had published it. But when I finally walked into the Williams enclosure, he was not pleased to see me. “Get out, Andrew,” he said. “You’ve made yourself look very stupid.”
We did not speak for a few weeks after that, but by 1997 we were back on good terms, and we have remained that way ever since. But 12 years on, the interview for this article was the first time we had talked through what happened.
“I shot the messenger, didn’t I?” Hill laughs. “I’m sorry. You’re leading the World Championship and you expect to pick up Autosport and see: ‘Can Damon win?’ And instead it says you’re fired. I thought: ‘That can’t be right.’ My response was: ‘Why would you do that to me, when I can win a World Championship? And you know you’re going to sell more copies of Autosport if I do.’ I just couldn’t get it.”
Did you think that the press should be supporting you?
“I did naïvely think that.”
Williams eventually told Hill a month later, between the Belgian and Italian Grands Prix.
“Frank phoned me at home and said: ‘I’ve got to do what’s right for the team.’ And I thought: ‘I can’t argue with that.’”
You felt OK about it?
“Yeah, what can you do?”
You were leading the championship, and you had been angry at the press for writing the story and doing unsupportive things.
“I thought it was untrue. I thought it was speculation. So then Frank tells me, yes, it is true, you’re not going to be driving for me next year, and for me it’s like, well, the bus driver is telling you you’ve got to get off now.”
But an outsider would be forgiven for thinking you might direct some of that anger and frustration at Frank.
“I’d got past that. I knew I had the chance to win the title. If I never drove again, I was going to walk off into the sunset with the World Championship. That was all that mattered. That’s my head in ’96 – if I never again drive for anyone, do you know what, I’m probably better off. I was pretty sick of it all, to be honest.”
Hill says he “accepted that it was not about my performance in ’96; it was more about my performance in ’95”, and the same source who tipped me off told me later in 1996 that the
deal had been done late the previous season. In the course of the research for this article, another extremely well-informed insider was adamant that was indeed the case. Frentzen said he could not remember.
But Head insists that in fact Frentzen was only signed “around the middle” of 1996 – and Williams concurred. Head even went to the trouble of digging out the contract during our interview, although he would not show it to me, or reveal the date it was signed.
Williams and Head say Hill’s adviser, Michael Breen, went for initial talks with Williams about a new contract for ’97, and they did not go well. Head describes it as “a breakdown
in communications”, and that it was a “strategic error” for Hill to send Breen in to negotiate for him. Williams says Hill, like Mansell before him, “became impossible” over money.
In many ways, though, the truth of when the contract was signed is less important than what the episode says about Williams’s view of Hill. Whether it balked at the price Breen was asking, or took the decision in exasperation at Hill’s performances in 1995, it comes down to the same thing – a lack of faith in Hill’s ability to deliver the goods on a consistent basis.
Is it fair, I ask Williams, to say you and Head never viewed Hill as a top-line driver?
“Well,” he replies, “we took that approach. We wouldn’t have considered him a Prost or a Mansell in ’93 or ’94, but when we realised he was our number one driver after Ayrton, he got our total focus and attention.”
But that’s different from how you perceived him as a driver.
“He was the best available to us on the market. If you say, was he as good as Nigel, you would probably say no.”
Hill admits it left a “sour taste” when he won the title at Suzuka “that when I got out of the car that would be the last time I would drive for Williams”. But despite all this, the mutual regard between the three men is clear.
“I want to state: I love Patrick, I love Frank and my time at Williams was some of the best years of my life,” Hill says. “I had such great experiences as having had the privilege of being in that team and I certainly never found what I found at Williams anywhere else.”
“On his day,” Williams says, “Damon was splendid – a world-class driver. He picked up the opportunity with both hands and he didn’t drop it, and now he has stepped out and re-emerged further down the road as president of the BRDC, he’s doing a very good job of leadership. He’s a lovely person, a real gentleman. Quiet. Still waters definitely run deeper in that case.”
Head, too, made it clear he has boundless admiration for Hill the man, and how he has dealt with the knocks in his life. And he dismisses those cynics who say Hill only ever won because he had the best car.
“The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know,” Head says, “and it’s only the people who don’t really know very much who rigidly in their minds say: ‘Ooh, Michael’s three-quarters of a second quicker than Damon, therefore whatever.’ No, when Damon was good, he was very good. When he was there, he was top level. But those days didn’t come along often enough.”
“I absolutely accept that I had ups and downs as a driver,” Hill says. “Away from the intense, critical spotlight of Formula 1, I was more consistent, but I didn’t enjoy the constant what
I would see as attempts to undermine. I needed to put myself under extreme pressure, and then something would give and I’d be able to do it.
“My inspiration [was] my dad’s experience – just because someone’s got greater natural ability doesn’t mean they can’t be beaten. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it; you’ve just got to try harder.”
He adds: “I know this now – I was deeply, deeply affected by my dad’s death when I was 15, and other things as well, and my response was to fight. I didn’t quite know how to present myself and my desire to race, other than to say give me the car and I’ll show you what I can do.
“Once I was in the car, I believe I was on occasions every bit as good as Michael Schumacher. That’s my own personal relationship with myself. I feel I’ve enjoyed satisfaction, knowing that. You might think one thing, but actually I know in myself that I can do that,
and from my own point of view I’ve proved it to myself, which is enough.”