Last Round K-Os

Damon Hill kept his fans on the edge of their seats right to the bitter end; so too did his double World Champion father – twice. Paul Fearnley recollects Graham’s championship showdowns

The Hills, pere et fils, have both lost World Championship showdowns. In 1964, a Mexico City clash with Lorenzo Bandini’s Ferrari cost Graham the chance of a second title with BRM, 30 years later, the suspension of Damon’s Williams was irreparably damaged as he attempted to dive by Michael Schumacher’s out-of-shape Benetton at Adelaide.

Between them, however, they have prevailed in three final round nail-biters…

The first of these was in 1962, when Graham, as did Damon at Suzuka, took a nine-point advantage into the last race of the season. This, however, was not the comfort zone that it first appears. The best five results from that season’s nine races were to be taken into account, and so Hill could only add to his total if he won the South African Grand Prix at East London The man chasing him was his perennial rival, Jim Clark. If the Scot won, the pair of them would be equal on points and the Lotus man would lift the crown because of his four victories to Hill’s three.

So the scene was set, but the wait was a long one, for the race took place on December 29. The agony of it!

Colin Chapman’s pencil-slim monocoque Lotus 25 was undoubtedly the design of the season, but the BRM P57 penned by Tony Rudd was only a half-pace behind it. Hill, meanwhile, had been a model of both speed and consistency, winning in Holland, Germany and Italy and finishing second in Belgium and the’ United States. He had also lost substantial leads in Monaco and France because of mechanical failure.

Clark, in contrast, had tended to either win or retire. There had been pole positions aplenty – South Africa provided him with his sixth of the season but the failures had ranged from clutch to suspension to transmission, to engine. Hill’s fear was that the Lotus would make an early break and dominate thereafter.

The tension was high, Graham was shaking off a spell of sickness and Jim shot away into an ever-increasing lead. There was nothing Hill could do the points system was going to work against him and he was about to lose the championship even though he had accumulated more points than the champion …

Then it happened. Clark came past the pits trailing smoke. The oil pressure in his V8 CoventryClimax plunged in the blink of an eye, forcing him to pit two laps later. The mechanics fell upon the car, but the cause of the problem was not immediately apparent. It was hidden by the exhausts’ heat shield. A tiny hole. So obscure that a spare engine had to be checked to discover exactly what had gone awry. A missing locking washer had allowed the jack-shaft bearing locating bolt to work loose and eventually drop out. Clark’s race was run.

In Suzuka, after Villeneuve had lost his wheel, Damon was left with 17 pressure-free laps to enjoy his victory and the ensuing title; Graham had 20 such tours at East London.

The latter’s second world championship success, in Mexico City six years later, was more reminiscent of his son’s Suzuka drive, in that he won from the front, wearing down his title rivals in the thrilling early stages.

By this time, Graham had joined Team Lotus, which was then rocked to its foundation by Clark’s death in April. Hill had finished second to the Scot in the South African Grand Prix, and then boosted ebbing morale with back-to-back victories in Spain and Monaco. This handed him a comfortable lead in the championship, only for it to be eroded by four retirements in five starts. He fought back with a fourth place in Canada and chased Jackie Stewart’s American Grand Prix-winning Matra home.

There was no escaping those Scots. JYS was just three points behind Hill when they arrived in Mexico. This, however, was to be a three-way fight for the title. Reigning champion Denny Hulme had pressed his claim with consecutive victories in Italy and Canada, and the McLaren driver was six points behind Hill.

The New Zealander, however, was the first to crack. Or rather his suspension was, plunging him into the Armco on lap 10. Hill had made a storming start to lead from the second row, but Stewart was tracking him, and the pair had passed and repassed before Hulme got the chance to step out unhurt from his smoking wreck.

The title contenders were running strongly, but not as strongly as Jo Siffert, who had put the Rob Walker-run Lotus 49 on pole position. He squandered this via a tardy start, and it took him 22 laps to wrest the lead from Hill. ‘Seppi’ was in commanding form and, in the space of three laps, had opened out a handy lead. His hopes were dashed, however, when the throttle linkage collapsed, leaving him to pit and then post a memorable, lap record-setting recovery charge to sixth.

His departure from the frame restored the race’s winner-takes-all scenario. The pressure was on Stewart to win. There was a strong parallel to the East London affair: if the Scot won and the Englishman finished second, the title would go north of the border on the account that Jackie had four victories to Graham’s three.

The crowd was so excited that it had left the edge of their seats to sit on the edge of the track! But the spell was broken when the chasing Matra began to misfire because of fuel surge on lap 37 of 65. Stewart’s challenge was over and he gradually slipped back to seventh. The cause of his problem could not be pinpointed after the race, but a crack was found in the Matra’s rear suspension that had been the root of some fairly wayward handling.

The immense pressure had finally been released, but Hill, now assured of his second title, did not relax his efforts on a track made treacherous by dust, and his winning margin was over a minute. It had been a superb performance one his son would match 28 years later.

Hills, three: fate, luck and circumstance, two.