Legends of F1 - The 90’s (First published in @F1fansMag issue 1)
More than just the son of a famous father…..
Much much more..
Damon Hill. A great racer or a mediocre racer who lucked into good machinery? A guy who got into F1 because of his father or a driver who got into F1 on merit? A lucky world champ or the guy who morally should be a double world champion?
A lot of questions arise when discussing Damon Hill. Just his inclusion under the title of ‘Legends of F1’ will provoke debate but the true fact is that Hill was a racer, a world championship winner, a Schumacher beater on his day.
Hill was a youngster of just 15 years old when his father (double world champion and F1 legend) Graham Hill died tragically in an aeroplane crash. This made his mother very reluctant to allow young Damon to go racing. In fact it was a further 6 years (1981) before Damon started motorbike racing when he was 21 years old. After little success he eventually transferred to four wheels and ended up in F3000 in 1988. During his time in F3000 Damon had many competitive outings but never on a race.
His name certainly helped him gain his foot in the door of F1 as a Williams test driver in 1991. An amazing feat considering his somewhat lacklustre pre-f1 career. Hill was 31 years old in 1991 which is pretty old for an F1 drive if you consider that Sebastian Vettel is currently 26 (in 2013) and already has 3 world championships to his name and Michael Schumacher was a double world champion by the time he had hit 31.
Hill’s first competitive outing as an F1 driver was for Brabham during the 1992 season. By that time, the once famous team has severe financial difficulties and struggled to qualify. In fact Hill managed to qualify the car twice during the season. The car was a far cry to the Williams he was testing in between his Brabham duties. He joined williams as a race driver in 1993 as a team mate to the returning Alain Prost after Nigel Mansell decided to leave the sport following his 1992 world championship win.
1993 saw Hill mainly play second fiddle to his illustrious team mate but as the season wore on he grew more and more competitive beating Prost to his first win in Hungary. This was the start of things to come for Hill as he went on to win the following two races in Belgium and Italy.
1994 would be a different prospect for Hill and proved to be the ‘making of the man’. After Prost’s departure Hill remained and Williams had high hopes for their new signing the great Ayrton Senna. At first the car struggled as Williams adapted the new rules in 1994 mainly the banning of active suspension which had seen them dominate in ‘93.
The third race of the 1994 season was the first European round, the San Marino Grand Prix held at Imola. This was the weekend that proved to be one of Formula One’s darkest and most difficult with a heavy accident for Barrichello, the death of Roland Ratzenberger and then during the race itself, the well documented accident that claimed the life of Hill’s team mate and three time world champion Ayrton Senna. This day sent shock waves through Williams, and Formula One as a whole.
Damon was promoted to lead the team and was the sole driver in the Monaco Grand prix before being joined by Coulthard and occasional cameo appearances by Mansell.
As the 1994 season went on Hill fought for the championship with the young Michael Schumacher in the Benetton Ford. Towards the end of the season we really saw Hill at his best with a magnificent win against all odds and against Schumacher in Suzuka. The rain was torrential and the race was won on aggregate timing with a truly aggressive drive.
In the final round of the season at Adelaide, Schumacher led the championship by just one point. However a controversial crash with the german in which Schumacher hit the wall whilst leading and then cut across Hill’s path damaging Hill’s suspension and putting him out of the race. Neither contender finished the race and Schumacher won the title by a solitary point. Many commentators and fans saw Hill as the moral victor in 1994 so much so that he won the BBC sports personality of the year award in recognition of a very special year.
1995 was a poor year for Hill and for Williams Renault. With Schumacher dominating the season. Hill added wins in Argentina, San Marino, Hungary and Australia to his tally but finished the season way short of his German Rival. The Australian win was notable as he finished two laps ahead of second placed Olivier Panis in the Ligier.
1996 was to be Hill’s championship year. With a clear car advantage and Schumacher moving to a vastly uncompetitive Ferrari team. Hill’s fiercest rival was also the son of a Formula One world champion, rookie and team mate - Jacques Villeneuve.
1996 started in Australia this year and Hill started as he left off the previous year with a win in Australia although this was a toughly fought affair with Villeneuve clearly the fastest until and oil leak forced him to slow down and allow Hill through to take the chequered flag. Hill set a record in this year for starting all 16 races from the front row. (A record now beaten by Vettel with 18 in 2011)
16 Races, and 97 points later. Hill was crowned 1996 World Champion in Suzuka with a fine win. The one and only time Murray Walker - the voice of Formula One has ever been speechless.
1997 Saw Damon move to Arrows after being ousted from Williams Renault as a result of a deal to sign Frentzen prior to the 2006 season where Frank Williams was said to be disappointed with Hill ‘95. The Arrows was poor car and despite flashes of promise (such as the hungarian GP where Damon was leading until a fault developed on the car) was not a contender. Scoring only 7 points and finishing 12th in the Championship was a poor return but a reflection of the team rather than the man.
1998 and another team move for Hill, this time to the Silverstone based Jordan team. This was to be another year in an uncompetitive car bar the wet Belgian GP which saw Damon claim Jordan GP’s first win with his team mate Ralf Schumacher finishing second. The win was due to a masterful drive in a highly eventful race and some luck from various retirements.
Then we move onto Damon’s last year in Formula one - 1999. Damon openly struggled to adapt to the new grooved tyre regulations and was heavily beaten by his new teammate Frentzen. It was clear Damon’s motivation had dwindled and if anything chose to retire a year too late.
Damon’s post F1 career includes a stint as BRDC (British Racing Drivers Club) president running the Silverstone circuit in which he managed to secure the events long term F1 future and now is a pundit for the new Sky Sports F1 channel.
Maybe Hill did not have the genius of Senna, the control of Schumacher or the style of other champions. But the fact that he became World Champion despite these makes him a great sportsman. He had perseverance, which saw him through the toughest of times. Whenever Schumacher won a race the press would say "What a flawless and ruthless win" but when Damon did so it would be "What an amazing car advantage he had." What attracted the fans was that he never whined or moaned or asked for sympathy for the way he was treated. Hill would make sure it didn’t affect him and he continued to race, learn and win.
Very few drivers can boast the truly amazing list of teammates they had in their career like Damon can - Senna, Prost, Mansell, Coulthard Ralf Schumacher and Villeneuve and he kept up with all of them! For that reason alone, to mentioned in that same breath reminds you of why he deserves to be and F1 Legend in his own right, and not just Graham Hills son.