Some drivers like Michael Schumacher can do anything to win races. Whether their actions are legal or illegal, ethical or unethical, moral or immoral - it doesn’t matter - their sole aim is to win. And then there are drivers like Damon Hill who lack motivation and consistency.
Hill was consistently criticized for not getting most out of the car. However, he was a true, decent and hard working gentleman and in 1996 he joined the illustrious list of world champions.We look back at his career.
Early life and career
Being the son of a former world champion Graham Hill, Damon was frequently visited by a number of world champions. However, things turned upside down when his father was killed in a tragic air accident in 1975. Their 25 room mansion had to be given away and all their savings were wiped out in insurance claims. At age of 15, he was burdened with the job of supporting the family. For this, he worked as a motorcycle courier before starting his own career on two wheels when he turned 21. He was more interested in bike racing than car racing but his mother Bette insisted on the latter as she found it to be a bit more safer. In 1983, as per his mother’s request, Hill took part in Winfield Racing School to pursue his racing career. Two years later, he got enough sponsorship to compete in Formula Ford. From there he moved to Formula 3, where he won three races in as many years. Next up was Formula 3000 where despite lackluster results, he came in the eyes of Williams team principal Sir Frank Williams who hired him as team’s test driver. John Webb, then owner of Brands Hatch played an instrumental role in getting Hill up the ranks and into Formula 1.
Test role and race drive at Brabham
Hard work and to some extent, his family name attracted Patrick Head and Sir Frank Williams and the duo signed Hill as William’s test driver in 1991. The following year, he made his Grand Prix with the almost bankrupt Brabham team. In a dismal car, Hill could only qualify for two races, finishing four laps down and well outside the points in each of them.
1993 - First full year in Formula 1 with Williams
After Nigel Mansell’s retirement in 1992, Hill was promoted to race seat in 1993 where he served as team’s official number two driver, alongside Alain Prost. Despite the clear second fiddle status, Hill won three races and finished on podium on seven more occasions to take third in the standings.
“I was a number two, I understood that. Frank was basically saying, you’re a good test driver, we think you’ll make a good, solid guy to be there for us, but we’re paying lots of money to Alain Prost.” - Hill speaking to Andrew Benson for the Motor Sport magazine.
Hill went on to win the controversial British Grand Prix while championship rival Michael Schumacher was first handed a five second stop-go penalty for overtaking the former on the formation lap and then a disqualification from the race after failing to obey the black flag which was showed for not taking the five second penalty in the first place.
In the penultimate round in Japan, Hill threw in the drive of his life and took the win in torrential rain from Michael Schumacher, taking the fight to final race of the season - Australia.
Coming into the race, Hill was now just one point behind Schumacher, having been at one stage, over 30 points behind the German. Hill pressurised race leader Schumacher, who made a mistake on the circuit and ‘crashed deliberately’ into Damon Hill. With neither of the two scoring points, Schumacher took the championship by a margin of single point.
1995 - Growing tensions between Hill and Williams
It was one of those awful years when everything went wrong. I took a lot on myself, started to get into a downward spiral. I got negative press, and it all seemed to pile in on me.
McLaren era was well over by this stage and it was Williams that had secured itself as the dominant force. Adrian Newey had again managed to produce the fastest car on the grid but this time Hill couldn’t make most of it, making multiple mistakes throughout the season. The year brought Hill a lot of criticism from the media as well from within the team. Williams believed that their driver should have won the championship in what was the fastest car of the season.
Two notable and costly mistakes came in Germany and Hungary. At the German Grand Prix, Hill lead from the start of the race before spinning on turn 1 on lap 2, handing an easy victory to home hero Michael Schumacher. He retired in similar fashion at the Spoon Curve in Japan.
Hill finished the season with four victories and 60 points, almost half as many as Schumacher who cruised to his second title.
1996 - Damon’s year
With Schumacher heading to Ferrari along with a number of senior men from Benetton in search for a new challenge, it was always going to be Damon’s year. The Brit also worked hard over the winter to keep the 1995 season at bay and get off to a new start.
And the hard work did pay off. FW18 turned out to be one of the best cars in F1 history and with Schumacher having little chance of fighting for the championship in his mediocre Ferrari, Hill duly took the title from teammate Jacques Villeneuve.
But even before he won the championship, Williams announced that Hill would be replaced by Heinz-Harald Frentzen for the 1997 season, leaving the newly crowned world championship in search for a spot on the following year’s grid.
"So when Damon crossed the line in Japan in 1996 to win the championship it all just welled up inside me." - Murray Walker.
1997 - Arrow in the wrong direction
Having been fired from Williams, Hill took refuge at the back of the grid Arrows team. He was offered a contract by McLaren, but the Brit rejected it as under the agreement, he would have been paid on results basis.
His season with Arrows was miserable with the defending world champion having to wait for his home race to score points. He put on a sensation dive in Hungary from third on the grid and comfortably lead the race, before a clutch issue stole the victory from the Brit. Nevertheless, he salvaged to second place in the race.
After a dismal season, he finished the championship in 12th place with seven points, six of them coming from the race in Budapest.
1998 - Move to Jordan
Hill came close to joining Prost team in 1998 but eventually chose Jordan, the most motivated team on the grid. He started the season with a poor car but things began to improve from Canada onwards. Belgian Grand Prix was the highlight of the year when he took his last and Jordan’s first Grand Prix victory. That race became infamous for the 14 car pile caused by David Coulthard on the opening lap of the race.
1999 - ‘’Nightmare’’
Everyone wants to end his school/college/career on a high. But that exactly what Damon couldn’t do. The fire inside him had gone out by the end of previous century and Hill ended his career in worst possible manner. He was consistently outqualified and out paced by Frentzen, scoring just seven points to latter’s 54.
At the last race of the season, Hill damaged his front wing in a spin. He pulled into the pits but instead of waiting for a new nose cone, he came out of the car, saying there is no point in continuing. He could have put the drive of his life and made a sensational comeback in the race, but he chose to end his career ignominious fashion.
Life after Formula 1
Damon Hill currently works as Sky TV’s F1 analyst, a role for which he has received lots of appreciation from the fans. Between 2006 and 2011, he served as the president of British Racing Drivers Club(BRDC), playing a pivotal role in securing Silverstone a 17 year old deal to host F1 and in building a £27m pit and paddock complex.
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