1996 Damon Hill
Back in 1985 when covering the national racing scene I got my hands on a complete set of commentators’ sheets for the Formula Ford Festival, filled in by the drivers for the benefit of Brian Jones, the voice of Brands Hatch.
It was a useful reference on the 200 or so competitors, many of whom – including such as Herbert, Blundell, Gachot and Irvine – were destined to climb the motor racing ladder. Along with the stats and biographical data competitors were asked to list their ambition. Most chose an obvious theme, such as ‘Win the Festival,’ ‘Do FF2000 next year,’ ‘Be World Champion,’ that sort of thing. But one man had put a little more thought into his answer, writing ‘To do better than expected.’
His name was Damon Hill. The phrase somehow sums up Hill’s career. As he worked his way up he always had to ight against the doubters, and now that his F1 career can be viewed in the context of just how good his nemesis Michael Schumacher turned out to be, it’s still easy for the critics to downplay his achievements.
And yet it’s all there in black and white – Hill won the 1996 World Championship, earned 22 Grand Prix victories, and took 20 pole positions. And he did it all with a dignity and good humour.
He had a famous surname, but it was far from easy for Damon. He was 15 when Graham died, just as they were getting to know each other and sharing a passion for mucking around on ’bikes. Life was tough in every way for the Hill family after that, and Damon was a little lost until at 19 he found satisfaction in two-wheeled club racing.
Cars were the obvious next step, but he didn’t start his first race until 1983, when he was already 23. Up against guys who had raced karts since they were kids, he’s the first to admit that he didn’t have a clue what he was doing back then. Schuey was already a GP winner at that age so Hill’s subsequent achievements are all the more impressive.
There are obvious parallels with his father. Damon once told me that contrary to the popular image of him as a grafter, Graham must have been one of the great natural drivers, given that he didn’t drive a road car until he was 25, and was World Champion within a few years. It was a good point.
The naysayers will remind you that he was beaten by so-and-so in F3 or whatever, and therefore he couldn’t have been any good. The point is that by necessity Hill was a late developer, and was getting better all the time.
He had a little help from early supporters such as John Webb and George Harrison, but he worked his way through the ranks the hard way and on merit. It was his genuine pace in F3000 that landed him a Williams testing deal for 1991.
There were plenty of miles and a lot of high-tech stuff to test, so it was a good education. He also showed some grit when manhandling the awful Brabham onto the grid a couple of times in 1992, before the team folded. It’s not easy to impress Frank Williams and Patrick Head, but they’d seen enough to put Hill in a race seat alongside Alain Prost for 1993. He had a superb car, but the rookie still had to get the job done, and that year he scored three wins and often held his own against one of the all-time greats.
For 1994 he was set to play number two to Ayrton Senna, but that all changed after Imola. It’s arguably that season rather than his title success two years later that Hill deserves most respect for. Suddenly thrust into the team leader role, he helped to pull the shattered Williams outfit together. His win in a dramatic rain-affected race at Suzuka was magniicent, and it was only the crippled Schumacher’s desperate lunge in Adelaide that cost Damon the title.
Had he won, critics would have rightly pointed out that the German lost out badly at the hands of the FIA, but as the Senna movie suggested, all was not what it seemed that year.
Things began to go awry for Damon in 1995. His two infamous clashes with Schumacher were the lowest points of a season that just didn’t gel, despite more race wins. Off track there were signs of tension, too, as his relationship with the media was strained, relecting the massive pressure on his shoulders.
In 1996 it all fell into place. Michael moved to Ferrari and Williams again had the quickest car, and despite an unexpectedly strong challenge from rookie team-mate Jacques Villeneuve, Damon finally wrapped up the title in Japan. The irony was that he’d long ago been dropped for the following year, a heavy price for his ’95 form.
Signing for Arrows had seemed like a good idea at the time, but 1997 was a wasted year.
The only high point was Hungary, where Arrows and Bridgestone hit the sweet spot and Damon led until hitting trouble late on. He then moved to Jordan, enticed by a bit of EJ blarney and an attractive pay day, courtesy of B&H. The ’98 season started poorly, but the car improved, and in Spa Hill had genuine pace. Helped by some wet weather carnage, he scored an accomplished win.
In 1999, the year he turned 39, Damon suddenly recognised that he could no longer balance what he was doing with the risks involved, and family life came into focus. He was persuaded to stay on until the end of the season, which was probably a mistake.
He counted down the races, and after an early delay in the Suzuka finale he pulled into the pits and walked away. For a while he kept a relatively low profile, only to reinvent himself as an elder statesman of the sport in his role as President of the BRDC – one that he fulilled with considerable success.
He’s now looking after the career of son Josh and keeping busy as an FIA Steward and TV pundit. And has he achieved the ambition he outlined back in 1985? Most definitely…
GRANDS PRIX: 115
POLE POSITIONS: 20
FASTEST LAPS: 19
OTHER ACHIEVEMENTS: British Racing Drivers Club president 2006-11
To vote for Damon Hill as your favourite driver, go to www.motorsportmagazine.com/worldchampions