As drivers they were worlds apart, but seasoned pro Damon Hill and feisty newcomer Jacques Villeneuve found common ground at Williams
By Rob Widdows
Damon Hill gives it to you straight. “I’m getting sick of hearing what I have to say about things. But since this is Jacques…”
Immediately you get the picture. Both men, consecutively World Champions for Williams, were good mates. They got on well, liked and respected each other. And both are straight talkers, refreshingly free of bullshit and baloney. Rejoice.
Hill and Villeneuve were team-mates at Williams in 1996. Jacques strutted, or shambled, depending on his mood, into the team fresh from winning a Champ Car title and the Indianapolis 500. So how would the feisty little man from Quebec get on with the quietly spoken but very determined incumbent? The media expected fireworks but Damon had no anxieties. Not about Jacques anyway.
“I was pretty focused on my season and I was quite happy to accept whoever they wanted to put in the other car. Well, I suppose Michael Schumacher might have been the one person I would have had an issue with,” he says. Damon can laugh about this now but he’d been put in his place by Schumacher the previous season and it had hurt. “Remember, by this time I’d been understudy to Nigel Mansell, team-mates with Alain Prost and taken over as number one after the loss of Ayrton Senna… You could say I’d been toughened up. But, I tell you, the toughest team-mate I ever had was Martin Donnelly – he was hard to beat, a really tough competitor. So I wasn’t too concerned about who came to Williams. I thought ‘bring him on’, and as Jacques was at the top of his game it was another chance for me to tackle someone who was well regarded.”
Just the way Williams likes it: two racers, two strong characters and no team orders.
“Some drivers feel the need to be number one,” says Damon, “and the comfort they get from that enables them to perform at their best. Team owners think that, without an inter-driver rivalry, they’re never sure if they’re getting the best out of those drivers. There is some truth in that but, whatever the ideal structure may be, I want to measure myself against a competitive team-mate, the only guy who has the same kit as you. It’s the only true way of measuring your own performance.”
The arrival of Villeneuve, therefore, caused no consternation in the garage next door. Hill knew that 1996 had to be his year, one final shot at the title. It was either up, or out.
“I was ready, I was well prepared,” he says, “I’d been soundly trounced by Michael the previous season and by the end it was pretty torrid. So I re-set myself, dumped 1995 in the bin and went into ’96 with a completely fresh mind. I knew I had this one last big opportunity, nothing else worried me, and I really liked Jacques in many ways. He was a fresh face in the sport, he wasn’t tainted by F1. There’s a certain culture that exists in F1 which tends to wipe the smile off a driver’s face, but Jacques wanted to enjoy it. He enjoyed being a racing driver, and he came in with a bounce and an attitude which was positive. OK, he was a bit of a young punk,” he laughs, “and he was much younger than me – well, everyone was younger than me – but his freshness and his attitude appealed to me.”
Hang on. Surely the common perception was of a tricky, feisty and sometimes difficult man?
“He was a fiercely independent individual who definitely wanted to make his own mark,” affirms Damon, “but I felt I had a certain understanding of this guy in that his father had been a racing driver, as had mine, and he’d lost his dad as well. So here was a guy who’d had to make it on his own and I understood that about Jacques. We never really talked about it much – he drew a line there, you didn’t go into his personal life. He kept that stuff to himself.”
Where they differed enormously was in their approach to setting up the Williams-Renault FW18 for the season ahead.
“I think his individuality dictated his set-up. Whatever I did, he wanted to do something extremely different,” says Damon, “and by that time I’d done so many miles I really knew what I was doing, where I was going with the car. I’d been with the team for a long time so I knew what worked and what didn’t. But Jacques was very keen to do his own thing. He wasn’t content with the stiffest rear rollbars that Williams could make so they had another one made which we called the ‘infinitely stiff’ bar, and Jacques wanted it set at the most extreme end of the spectrum. That gives you some clue as to how the man’s mind worked. There’s a certain amount of machismo with racing drivers and if you can have the extreme, or the biggest, of something then it sort of proves your manhood. Jacques was definitely out to show that he could cope with the extremes. He was given that scope by his engineers so off he went, in various directions. Fine – it’s part of giving a driver what he wants.”
There was more than a ‘certain amount’ of machismo about the Williams team as a whole. Frank and Patrick are racers and they want racers in their cars. “Oh, yeah,” laughs Damon, “they like their men. They like big, strong guys – Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansell – they like that kind of driver.
“So here was Jacques, and he wasn’t afraid of anything. That went down well. At his first big test at Estoril he claimed it was possible to overtake around the last corner and this brought a wry smile to those of us who’d been testing there for months. Everyone thought, you know, this guy just doesn’t understand what F1 is all about, it’s not like Indycars on the ovals. But he said ‘no, I reckon I can do that’ and blow me, he bloody well did it, overtaking Michael Schumacher on the outside of that last corner onto the straight at Estoril. Jacques didn’t want for any outrageousness, that’s for sure.”
When they got to Melbourne in March the Williams-Renaults filled the front row of the grid. And it was the ‘young punk’ on pole.
“I wasn’t worried,” says Damon, “my eye was on the championship. It was pretty clear he wanted to put down his marker but I knew I had the measure of him. I’d been testing with him and I knew where he was. This was a once-in-a-career opportunity to win the championship and I knew there would be days when Jacques was better than me – it was bound to happen, and I was prepared for that. It was important for him to arrive with a bang but I knew I had something in reserve. Jacques had a high-risk approach to everything he did while, by that time, I was one notch back from the maximum limit. For me, it was a game of building my position through the season, so I’d be ready for whatever came at the end.”
As we know, Hill went on to win in Melbourne with Villeneuve second, the new boy hampered by failing oil pressure. There were no team orders at Williams. “They were sticklers for equal equipment, much as I would have liked more focus on me when I was fighting Michael Schumacher the year before. But in 1996 we had the best equipment so it was a straight fight.”
Away from the track, the mutual respect continued. “He kept himself to himself for much of the time – he lived in Jacques-world,” says Damon. “But I liked him, he was good company and he was fun. I guess we were mindful of the fact that we had to compete against each other and that inevitably draws some kind of dividing line. But he wanted to win fairly – and he is very strong on what he believes to be fair, what is underhand. It was a good, tough pairing for the team.”
In the cockpit, they could hardly have been more different in their style of driving. One way won the title in 1996, the other in ’97.
“I think we drove how we dressed,” says Hill. “Alain Prost was always my model driver. The guy was just… You couldn’t even see what he was doing. A lot of people are attracted by a flamboyant driver, but it’s wasted energy a lot of the time. And it’s hard on the tyres too. I came from bike racing and there you have to be smooth, you can’t just chuck it around, and I’ve always tried to achieve a fluid style in the car. Jacques wanted to be right out there, on the edge, and that’s great. It was very exciting to watch.”
We all remember that October afternoon at Suzuka. The pure joy, and sheer relief, as Damon Hill stood on top of the podium as World Champion. He’d done it, taken the golden opportunity in the nick of time. It was to be his last race for Williams. Villeneuve had taken pole, set fastest lap, but retired from the race when a wheel came off. He finished runner-up in the championship, 19 points behind his team-mate. His day would come.
“He was great afterwards, absolutely brilliant,” says Damon, “a tremendous sporting attitude, no hard feelings at all. We went out to dinner and he was great about it. There was a good spirit within the team that year. There were two camps, yes, but we both knew that what will be, will be. I know the traditional relationship between team-mates is one of wishing to see the other guy not only defeated, but also crushed. But that’s just not necessary. It’s enough to beat him on the track and Jacques had the same attitude – you want to command respect for your driving among your rivals and then you can say, look, I did it, I won. That is important to me. F1 is like boxing, that rivalry between two guys, and sometimes – like Alonso and Hamilton – it boils over. For me, sport is all about watching that dynamic unfold. I’d never make rules about how drivers should behave but there are those who can lose their dignity, and those who keep it.”
Rumbustious, over the rumblestrips and infinitely stiff. Or smooth, neat and determined. Either way, Hill and Villeneuve gave Sir Frank his last two constructors’ and drivers’ titles.