F1 home win legends — a day in heaven

Winning in front of your home fans is what every young motor racing fan dreams of, but only a select few have ever experienced such euphoria. Maurice Hamilton looks back at Formula 1’s territorial rabble-rousers and finds out what it means to raise your arm in triumph in front of an adoring crowd

Damon-Hill-raises-his-hands-to-the-air-on-the-podium-after-winning-the-1994-F1-British-Grand-Prix-at-Silverstone

Hill wins at home in the 1994 British GP

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The emotive appeal of victory in a home grand prix spreads beyond the winner himself. When preparing preview material, any self-respecting sports editor will scan the entry list and look for local talent as the source of jingoistic words designed to attract and gratify readers. And so begins a vicarious circle of expectation that becomes strong enough to have casual observers actually believe victory is a matter of course rather than the hopeful possibility any home hero truly knows it to be.

This double-edged sword brings massive pressure during the preliminaries, but an enhanced sense of achievement when the dream result becomes a reality at the end of the weekend. A driver will tell you that a win is a win. They will also admit that the top of a podium is a heady and emotional place to be at the racetrack where they learned their craft across the previous and often difficult decades. The echo of a heart-warming national anthem, coupled with immediate recognition as being the best, generates a satisfaction that becomes even more personal as the massed ranks of happy race fans call your name. It’s also true that you are only as good as your last result, so savour this one for all it’s worth.

Knowing his father Graham had failed to win the British Grand Prix in 17 attempts, Damon Hill had been aware of the race’s nostalgic connotations long before he followed into the family profession. It was therefore no surprise to Damon that the 1994 season was turning out to be an exceptionally difficult one, not least because he had been thrust into team leadership at Williams-Renault following the shocking loss of Ayrton Senna at Imola.

Damon had relieved some of the pressure by winning in Spain. But there was no getting away from the need to continue improving a car Senna had found difficult to drive. Meanwhile, there was the menacing presence of Michael Schumacher after the Benetton driver had won six of the seven races leading into the British GP.

Niggled by Renault’s simmering lack of confidence in its relatively inexperienced lead driver, Hill arrived at Silverstone determined to put the matter right. He let rip during an informal press briefing, claiming a lack of support from all around him, starting with certain sections of his team and extending to some in the media. A tabloid headline ‘Damon’s Gone Nuts!’ bluntly emphasised his point, while at the same time adding even more pressure to perform in front of an expectant audience.

Damon-Hill-celebrates-winning-the-1994-F1-British-Grand-Prix-on-the-SIlverstone-podium-with-Princess-Diana

Rubbing shoulders with royalty at Silverstone in 1994; victory in the British Grand Prix for Damon Hill was a feat his father Graham never managed

Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Hill got off to the best possible start by beating Schumacher to pole by 0.02sec, the Benetton driver then inexplicably shooting himself in the foot by overtaking Hill on the formation lap, Schumacher contravening the regulations more than once. As expected, these two were in a league of their own but it became a one-horse race when Schumacher was black-flagged for his earlier indiscretions, Hill going on to tick the box on the family’s win CV. At the time, he would describe it as “one of the greatest days of my life”.

“The scenes on the slowing down lap had to be seen to be believed,” recalled Hill. “Halfway round, a marshal stepped forward to hand me a Union Jack attached to what looked like a 12ft length of 4×2! The rules said that you’re not supposed to stop en route to parc fermé but I just managed to keep the car rolling while I collected this red, white and blue bedsheet! Even travelling at comparatively slow speed, it didn’t take much to create a lot of drag from this flag. Having just completed a grand prix, I was a bit knackered. It was almost impossible to hold the thing up, steer the car and wave at the same time.”

When Hill finally reached the podium, he received the coveted trophy from Princess Diana; another memorable moment to add to the many initiated by the chequered flag.

Damon Hill holds a Union flag in his Williams after winning the 1994 British Grand Prix at Silverstone

Winning the 1994 British Grand Prix was one thing, but for Damon Hill, driving with a huge flag was almost a step too far

Mike Cooper/Allsport via Getty Images

“I signed autographs non-stop and really let myself go,” said Hill. “Later that evening I was bass guitar in a band playing from a stage adapted from a lorry in the paddock. In a single day, I had fulfilled two lifetime ambitions: winning the British GP and playing in a band to an appreciative audience of more than 10 people! It had been a special day. The evening was warm and the sun was just going down in a clear sky. It was as close to perfection as you could wish. For me, it was the end of a day made in heaven.”

Damon’s mother and two sisters had been present at Silverstone to share and enjoy such a significant day for the Hill family.

That sense of personal pleasure and the privilege of representing the home country is attached to every sports person – none more so than Ayrton Senna. Following in the footsteps of Emerson Fittipaldi (who effectively established Brazil as a major player on the international motor-sport scene), Senna demonstrated his national pride at every opportunity abroad. The emotion attached to possible victory at home was not difficult to imagine. Yet the much-anticipated moment seemed to elude Ayrton at every turn.

His first seven attempts were blighted by unreliability, collisions (not always his fault), disqualifications and sheer bad luck. The first time he made it to the podium, in 1986, Senna found his Brazilian nemesis Nelson Piquet standing on the top step, and in 1990 he was third despite qualifying on pole. Going into the race in 1991, the pressure had grown exponentially with the heart-felt support and belief surging through the packed and voluble grandstands. Being the reigning champion for a second time merely cranked up this sense of national entitlement.

Ayrton Senna wearing a helmet with raindrops on the visor

After eight seasons in F1, Senna had set his mind to win at Interlagos in 1991

The start of the season in Arizona had been one of concern translating into relief. McLaren had arrived with its MP4/6, a new and virtually untested car, the uncertainty exacerbated by Honda having switched from a V10 to a V12. Senna’s chassis may have been put together for the first time in the garage in Phoenix but he led every lap to score his 27th F1 victory and equal Jackie Stewart’s record.

Win number 28 at Interlagos seemed certain when he started from pole and withstood pressure from Nigel Mansell until the Williams-Renault stopped with gearbox trouble, leaving Senna to cruise home. Or so it seemed. In the closing laps, the gearbox, in Senna’s words, “went completely crazy”. Third gear would disappear and come back; fifth and sixth doing likewise without warning. For one horrifying moment, he had nothing but neutral. As the Williams of Riccardo Patrese took chunks from Senna’s lead, Ayrton feared this much-cherished win would never come. Going into the last lap, he somehow found sixth – and kept it there, the Honda managing to stutter through the slow corners at 2000rpm rather than the 14,500rpm used during qualifying. A shower had doused the track, the greasy surface making life even more difficult. As Patrese closed in, Senna had just two seconds to spare after an hour and 38 minutes of racing. But the torture was not yet over.

Ayrton Senna pours champagne over his head after winning the 1991 Brazilian Grand PRix at Interlagos for McLaren

The relief can be seen on Ayrton Senna’s face after the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991

Gille Levent/DPPI

The physical effort required to deal with the manual gearbox had taken a terrible toll. His back and shoulders were locked in spasm, an excessively tight seat harness adding to an agony compounded by the escalating emotion of the moment. Senna had to be helped from the car. He could barely hold aloft the trophy he treasured most while looking down on the family who had supported him through thick and thin, principal among them Viviane, his elder sister.

“Ayrton’s first victory in Brazil is the one we remember most as a family,” said Viviane. “This was the missing victory. He had won many races in different countries, but never in Brazil. It was an intense emotion for him and for all Brazilian people. The fans were in ecstasy. A huge crowd gathered in front of our parents’ house, where he was recovering after the race. They stayed there for hours, until Ayrton finally went to greet them. It was a wonderful moment.”

That moment was all about the driver. McLaren and Honda were perceived locally as mere adjuncts given the privilege of benefiting from exceptional driving talent.

Twenty-four years before, the car had rightfully earned equal billing during a comprehensive home victory in the 1957 British Grand Prix at Aintree.

Stirling Moss winning the 1957 British Grand Prix at Aintree in his Vanwall

Stirling Moss in his Vanwall at Aintree, 1957

For years, Stirling Moss had pursued the dream of winning a grand prix in a British car. The Vanwall, funded by English industrialist Tony Vandervell, not only gave Moss a respectable chance of adding to a home win scored with Mercedes in 1955 but also doing it in a car proudly painted in British Racing Green. The Vanwall, with its distinctive tear-drop shape, needed to be driven with precision – a requirement that suited Moss and team-mate Tony Brooks to perfection. More worrying was the Vanwall’s fragility.

Sure enough, Moss lost a nine-second lead when a misfire prompted a pitstop. The bad news accompanying an inability to find a cure was compensated to a degree by the rules allowing Moss to take over the car driven by Brooks – who was still recovering, in any case, from injuries received at Le Mans a few weeks before. Moss rejoined in ninth place, his tigering drive through the field raising adrenaline even further within the enclosures.

Majestic grandstands, permanent facilities for the famous horse racecourse, lined the finishing straight. The crowd erupted as Moss accelerated out of Tatts Corner for the final time, raised his right arm rigid from the high cockpit and swept past the chequered flag. It was a heart-warming moment, not least for the man himself.

From the archive

“Winning a grand prix in a British car was something I had dreamed about for years,” recalled Moss. “Then, to do it at home into the bargain – you know, Tony and I being the first British drivers to win a grand prix since [Sir Henry] Segrave and Sunbeam back in 1923 – and being the first all-British winners of the British GP. Fantastic experience.”

“The spectators were beside themselves,” wrote Brooks in an article for Motor Sport. “They had paid for seats they had hardly used, any English reserve having been totally forgotten. It was pandemonium in the Vanwall pits, with mutual congratulations and unstrained expressions of joy.”

The emphasis on the manufacturer would be even stronger in 1979 when Renault scored its first F1 victory – at home, to boot. The French firm had been through difficult times, starting with the less-than-affectionate nickname ‘Yellow Teapot’ being given to the droning turbo when it failed in a cloud of smoke on its debut at Silverstone two years before. The pioneering path away from normally aspirated engines had been littered with melted pistons and broken conrods but at Dijon-Prenois on July 1, 1979, Renault-Elf was vindicated by finishing first and third. The identity of the drivers (Jean-Pierre Jabouille and René Arnoux) was almost incidental as racing’s Gallic glitterati descended on the Elf hospitality motor home and assisted in demolishing a stock of champagne.

Taking the turbocharged route had been an expensive and bold gamble by a major manufacturer and its national oil and petroleum sponsor. The quiet, unpretentious Jabouille was almost a bit player on the day, his steady and calm drive being subjugated by euphoria over both the result for Renault-Elf and an extraordinary wheel-banging battle between Arnoux and the Ferrari of Gilles Villeneuve. Jabouille may have played his part but the Frenchman was the first to realise that this was a corporate victory of a different kind, particularly at a racetrack where the sound of the Marseillaise had special meaning.

Jim-Clark-on-his-way-to-winning-the-1967-F1-British-Grand-Prix-in-his-Lotus

A Brit winning the British GP in a British-made car in British Racing Green: Jim Clark in the Lotus 49, 1967

British fans had become accustomed to God Save the Queen. Peter Collins had won for Ferrari in 1958, followed four years later by four on the trot for Jim Clark. When the unassuming Scot did it for a fifth time at Silverstone in 1967, there was a distinct note of reverence flowing from the enclosure.

There was no podium as such, the presentation being made on a trailer, manoeuvred onto the grid and loaded with the green and yellow Lotus 49, plus Clark, the Lotus team – probably in its entirety – and several trade associates and luminaries from the RAC. Clark, bedecked in the winner’s wreath and holding the distinctive gold trophy, waved modestly to the crowd – as was his wont as a Scottish sheep farmer who happened to have been blessed with car control seemingly from another planet.

There was no debris fence. A horizontal scaffolding pole, positioned at waist height behind a grass bank, delineated the boundary between race fan and racetrack. As the flotilla set off, a surge of spectators dared to duck under the scaffolding poles, climb the bank and venture onto the edge of the track. In 1967, this was seriously unruly behaviour. There was cheering and warm applause. Then everyone dutifully and quietly returned, aware that there was another race to run. Compared to the frenzied scenes to come in the days of Nigel Mansell and Lewis Hamilton, this was as a gospel meeting to Glastonbury.

By July 1967, Clark was living in Paris and Bermuda, having had to forsake the family farm, become a man of the world in many respects and, as far as most of us were concerned, keep winning. Little did we realise, that day at Silverstone would be the last time we would see Jim Clark race in Britain. He would be killed nine months later. The memory of his home win in 1967 instantly took on extra special meaning.

Jim Clark in the middle of the crowd after winning the 1967 British Grand Prix

The 1967 event would be Jim Clark’s last British GP

When it came to measuring a home win by its historic and personal significance, few would match the first victory for Frank Williams. After such a long and financially fraught climb, Frank did not care where he won. But the fact that it was at Silverstone brought a certain poignancy from which even the unemotional Williams was not immune.

Events had begun to flow in the right direction with the launch of the FW07, the second car from the drawing board of Patrick Head. The tide had turned, almost overnight, with an aerodynamic tweak that catapulted FW07 into a different time zone. Its first race in this form would be the 1979 British GP, the fast sweeps of Silverstone exaggerating the downforce advantage even more.

Alan Jones claimed pole by a massive 0.6sec and looked set for victory until a cracked weld on the water pump assembly. No matter. Clay Regazzoni, the loyal number two, was ready to assume the lead and give Williams and his small team, underdogs for years, a perfect and timely result at home. Remarkably, this was the first grand prix victory for a British car since Niki Lauda’s Brabham at Monza the previous September. On this day, Regazzoni had lapped the entire field bar one – including both Ferraris. It was a thought that clearly pleased Clay, a former Ferrari driver, as he spoke to the media.

Clay Regazzoni at Silverstone on his way to winning the first F1 race for Williams at the 1979 British Grand Prix

Frank Williams’ moment to savour came at the 1979 British Grand Prix at Silverstone when Clay Regazzoni gave Williams its first F1 win with the FW07

There was no formal press conference but everyone had gathered in a marquee pitched on the grass paddock to supply refreshments and a place of work for the written press. Frank Williams was ushered in to warm applause. With the depth of his achievement beginning to sink in, he didn’t know what to say. “Thank you; thank you so much,” was the most he could murmur as well-wishers passed on heartfelt congratulations. There was clearly a tear in Frank’s eye.

Ten years previously, Williams had entered the British Grand Prix for the first time, Piers Courage finishing fifth in the privately entered Brabham BT26. Apart from a couple of second places that year, it would be steeply downhill for Frank, particularly when Courage was killed at Zandvoort less than 12 months later.

From the archive

Everyone knew what Frank had been through, none more so than his wife, Virginia (Ginny). The couple – with four-year-old Jonathan and Claire, aged two – had moved not long before to an old rectory; a Grade II-listed building in need of repair. This was a massive step forward from previous accommodation, some of which had to be swiftly vacated because Frank could not pay the £30 monthly rent. Now, with funding from Saudi Arabia and a potential winning car, life changed immeasurably and looked set to continue in this upward trajectory following a grand prix win – at home, into the bargain.

“Frank had spent 10 years building up to this,” recalled Ginny. “But it did seem on that day that one had gone from also-ran to suddenly being at the front. I mean, everybody was surprised. I’m a bit vague about some of the results the team achieved but I don’t remember anything quite as clearly as that first win with Clay. It was a bit difficult in some ways because Alan was such a friend as well as a driver. It was lovely for Clay winning, but I did feel for Alan and Beverley [Jones’ wife].

“We had a caravan at Silverstone that weekend and I remember going there with Frank and we didn’t want the day to end. The two of us sat in this little white caravan and watched the sun go down. People drifted away and Frank just did not want to leave. There was that overwhelming feeling ‘We’ve won a grand prix at Silverstone!’ Extraordinary.”