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.
On his way to the 1996 championship, Hill had to contend with the rumours and then reality of losing his seat
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.”
Hill felt he was in a constant struggle to gain the full support of Williams and Head
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?
“On his day Damon was splendid – a world-class driver” Patrick Head
“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.
Hill is satisfied that on his day, he was as good as Schumacher
“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.”
When he was good… Hill had the best and worst of times at Williams, as these results show
✓ Spain ’94: A somewhat fortunate win, gifted to him when Schumacher’s Benetton became stuck in fifth gear. But its importance to Williams in the wake of Ayrton Senna’s death cannot be overstated.
✓ Japan ’94: Hill describes this race as “extreme driving”. He beat Michael Schumacher in one of the most exciting F1 finishes, in a GP decided on aggregate times because of a mid-race red flag. A thrilling battle in the wet, and one of the few races to support Hill’s contention that on his day, he was every bit as good as Schumacher.
✓ Australia ’94: They say your true colours come out under the most pressure… In the title-deciding race, Hill pushed his nemesis so hard that Schumacher made a mistake and slid off-track – and then deliberately took the Williams driver out of the race to secure the title.
✓ Monaco ’96: Hill’s own choice as one of his best ever drives. He was romping away from the field at a track where his father Graham had won five times, only to suffer a mid-race engine failure.
✓ Canada ’96: “Damon’s got incredible grit,” says former Williams chief designer Adrian Newey, “and he was capable of digging deep. He did it at Montréal ’96, when he had to race against the clock to beat Jacques Villeneuve on a slower strategy. He kept plugging away, and he did it.”
x Germany ’95: Needing to win to erase some of Schumacher’s points lead, he spun off at the first corner at the start of lap two when the race looked his for the taking.
x Italy ’95: Misjudged his braking point while chasing Schumacher, cannoning into the back of the Benetton. Psyched out by the German’s relentless brilliance, it was the second time that summer he had needlessly collided with Schumacher and forced both of them into retirement.
x Japan ’95: By Hill’s own admission, the low point in a “catastrophic” year. Hill went off twice, the second time for good, at the same corner, Spoon, within three laps during a mid-race shower. To add insult to injury, he was fined for speeding in the pits.
x Spain ’96: Spun three times – and into retirement – in the first 11 laps in a soaking wet race that produced arguably the greatest drive of Schumacher’s career.
x Italy ’96: Clipped a tyre barrier and spun out with the title within his grasp.