Damon Hill - F1's Forgotten 90s Superstar
Why his short but spectacular F1 career was cruel; and why there was so much potential that was never realised
For most people, the name 'Damon Hill' is related to only two thoughts.
One, that he is the son of legendary Graham Hill and two, the phrase, 'And I've got to stop, because I've got a lump in my throat'. But that's about it.
However, once you delve deeper into Damon Hill, his life and his scarcely-believable career, you start to realise just how insane his accomplishments were; and why he's not like any other driver there has ever been.
So let's delve, shall we?
The man who defines much of what Damon Hill has done. Via Google Search
Graham Hill died on the 29th of November, 1975.
Why the plane crashed is still a mystery, but the result will forever be the same - and for Damon this sparked a chain of events that led to him becoming the 1996 Formula One World Driver's Champion.
The 'why' for this is also still a mystery - it could simply be that he didn't have a father to steer him away from the most dangerous sport on the planet or, less simply, that Damon was subconsciously trying to live out a full career and thereby continue the family legacy, by finishing what his dad couldn't. Damon himself believes that had his dad survived, he would never have gone anywhere near a racing career.
Surrounded by a plethora of legends - who are, tragically, all dead. Sourced from Google Search
The most remarkable part of Damon's career isn't actually the latter stage that he is famous for, but actually the very beginning - he was completely uninterested by cars and he saw the whole F1 thing as cold, pointless and distant. He wanted to race bikes. More specifically, he wanted to be the next Barry Sheene.
Damon competing at Brands Hatch on a motorbike - the commentators noting 'he was never destined for great things' and, well, they were both right and wrong. Via @stevencordall
First of all, Damon had next to no money. For whatever heinous reason, the families of the people also involved in the plane crash decided to sue the Hill family, so all the riches left by the mythical Graham Hill vanished. Damon was left without money, without advice, without a parent and with depression due to a Graham-Hill sized hole in his life.
But he had a dream. All the money he did have went on bikes - it was his sole focus and his first job actually involved driving his motorbike (he was a dispatch rider), so he was on it nonstop. It was hard, gruelling period which had little respite and whilst his friends were off living a normal, fun life in their early 20's, Damon spent his free time pitched up in a tent around the tracks, waiting to get back on his bike again.
A very young Damon Hill with no idea of what was about to befall him. From @pierlui89247685
Getting sponsors was another huge Achilles heel for Damon, as unlike his father he wasn't as charismatic or smooth and therefore appealed to people less. This would turn out to be something he really struggled with throughout his junior career, in both motorbikes and cars.
He had some success, with flashes of huge speed, but as he admitted himself he wasn't as committed as he should have been and didn't quite understand what was necessary to win in motorsport. For him, it was more the enjoyment of competing that drove him, rather than that unrelenting desire to win. Which can only get you so far.
His transition from 2 to 4 wheels was, like most of his career, extremely unusual - Damon had just blitzed everybody by winning every single race he entered in 1984 on the bikes. After struggling around for many years this was finally his first breakthrough moment, the moment he had been waiting for since he had left school that he supposed would catapult him to the top. Sometimes he managed to win three races in one day.
But at the same time, he was offered a place at a then-prestigious motorsport school called Winfield, run by Mike Knight - but it was for cars.
Winfield was an extraordinary place; responsible for giving Alain Prost, Jacques Laffite, René Arnoux and Patrick Tambay their first big breaks. It was infamous.
But Mike was annoyed that it was only giving the French drivers the opportunities and wanted a Brit in there too - so he offered Damon a place. And so for the first time since 1975, Damon Hill was back into the world of cars.
These were what those Winfield cars looked like. From @RacingMendoza
His decision to venture back into the world he had long before shut out of his mind was born out of pure curiosity. Damon also reasoned that a career in car racing probably had better long term stability, more pay and was less dangerous than bike racing in which your career could easily end with one trip off the track.
'Why not?', basically.
The first step to take was indeed the first step on the treacherous ladder to F1, Formula Ford 1600, at the incredibly old age of 24. Whilst most of his competitors had been in vehicles with 4 wheels and an engine since they were four of five, Damon was just starting out in the equivalent of F4. In today's money, he should have already been in F1 and essentially he was a dinosaur to his rivals.
His season was actually pretty good, always fighting at the front and never letting his inexperience thwart him - which was classic Damon Hill; always pushing through and giving it his all despite the ever-present adversary he faced.
He did various other weird championships in 1985, including something known as the 'P&O Ferries Championship' which sounds... interesting. Despite winning six races he couldn't find the money to make the step up to F3, and then it got really, really desperate.
'I can't do that, dear. It's my house - where would I live?', came the inarguable reply from Damon's own grandmother after he'd asked her to sell her house for him.
So instead, Damon went full-Niki Lauda and borrowed a colossal £120,000, which would currently be worth around five times the amount. Ouch.
His season wasn't amazing but it wasn't lacklustre; generally being at the front and qualifying well, but his decade of inexperience hurting him against future F1 stars Johnny Herbert and Martin Donnelly. And for the next year, he had no sponsors. None at all.
His inexperience would hurt him throughout his career, but you'd never guess it from just watching him in F1, would you? That's just part of Damon's utter brilliance.
Damon was left with £120,000 in debt and no drive whatsoever to continue his career. By this point, most would have given up. But this is Damon Hill, remember?
Damon pedalling along in F3 - from @henryhopefrost
His saviour came with James Hunt.
Ok, not really James Hunt - but his younger brother, David Hunt. Who, together with Cellnet (a division of BT), set up their own team and chose him and Martin Donnelly to drive for them. Now armed with the best-funded F3 team ever, he could have a real shot at getting noticed by the impenetrable F1 world.
The pair were miles ahead of the competition and both supremely fast; hence an intense rivalry was born that would elevate Damon's game. According to the man himself, Martin was the hardest teammate he ever had - his other teammates include Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Jacques Villeneuve and Nigel Mansell.
He impressed with some landmark wins, including at Spa and Zandvoort, but by the end of the year, his immediate rivals Johnnie Herbert and Martin looked set to jump up to F1, while Damon himself was stuck in F3. He needed £350,000 to get to Formula 3000, the last step before F1.
Before the 1988 season began he managed to land his first ever test in an F1 car at Paul Ricard, everyone's favourite parking-lot of a circuit, in a Benetton Ford B187. He wore famous-footballer Gary Lineker's shin pads to protect himself from the steering rack that went across his legs, and still came away with huge bruises on both knees; those 80's cars were simply too ferocious. From that point on he decided to heavily improve his fitness and began putting in serious hours in the gym in order to cope with those insane, turbo-shod monsters.
His grandmother died that year, and with the money she distributed between the Hill family, Damon moved into his very first house with his wife, Georgie (whose real name was actually Susan, but anyway), with a mortgage that had an interest rate of 17.5%.
So now Damon had huge debts, no drive and a whopping mortgage to contend with. Oh, and a new-born baby for good measure.
Damon at his Benetton test in 1988. From @alexgarciaGV27
1988 was therefore hard, but a change in approach for 1989 proved a game-changer - Damon raced just about anything he could get his hands on including Le Mans and British F3000. This got him a real-life F1 seat... for Footwork. The car that was so bad it was dangerous; only really for the craziest of drivers.
Needless to say, they were a perfect match.
His performances were outstanding, somehow managing to qualify for a few races (because back then you had to qualify to qualify. Yes, I know, it's mad), something the car had never done before, nor was really meant to be capable of.
The following 1990 season was even better, managing to strike a deal in the international F3000 for a well-funded team called Middlebridge. Damon was on pole at pretty much every event, but the car was so unreliable he could scarcely finish them. A stretch of three consecutive poles got the attention of a certain Sir Patrick Head, and for 1991 he would be the Williams test driver. Not bad.
Damon was instrumental in the all-dominant, active-suspension computer-cars of the early 1990s, and the relative uncertainty of all of this new tech meant he was pounding round test circuits non-stop. He loved it, and the team were pleased with the input he gave that helped develop that incredible FW13 - and for 1993 he had an actual drive with the actual race team. It came about basically because Williams had no other option, but I'm sure Damon didn't care. He was being paid real money to race the best cars in the sport at the not-so tender age of thirty-two. That was the same as Senna, who made his debut in 1984 when Damon was still racing motorbikes, oblivious to the F1 world.
On his way to his second victory, at Spa in 1993. Via @WilliamsRacing
The first race in South Africa was a disaster. He made an excellent getaway from the second row, and by Turn One he was right behind the legendary Ayrton Senna! In his first race!
Then he spun.
Then he was hit by the Louts of Alex Zanardi.
Then he was out.
The press absolutely mauled him, claiming that he was unfit to drive for Williams, that he was too inexperienced, that he was too slow, that he was too old.
He responded mightily at the next qualifying session in Brazil by being outqualified by a whole second by Prost, his teammate. The race, however, brought a timely turn of fortune as he got the strategy right in changeable conditions and finished second to Senna which, in the difficult conditions after a difficult first race, was an almighty effort. Prost span out.
The infamous race at Donnington followed as Senna won the race via a masterclass in wet weather driving; Damon yet again notching up second in front of Alain. He led a race for the first time in Imola on complete merit, pulling away from both Senna and Prost as they battled over second. He had trouble with his brakes late on and finished third; but again that didn't matter because he'd shown just what he was capable of by actually leading a Grand Prix in his fourth attempt. Against two of the best drivers ever.
At the Spanish Grand Prix he would lead again, in front of both Senna and Prost, and the only reason why he didn't win was because his engine failed - and let me remind you he was doing this with a decade of karting and junior formulae missing, against two legends in winning cars and only five races of real F1 experience. Damon was the real deal. Only nobody was noticing.
Damon at the Spanish GP, 1993. Via @Historical_F1
Graham Hill's nickname was Mr Monaco; he won there five times which was only one less than Senna, but throughout his career, and for a myriad of reasons, Damon never really gelled with the circuit. In qualifying, his suspension broke coming out of the tunnel at 175mph which dented his confidence and he started fourth.
The grid was as follows: Prost, Senna, Schumacher, Hill. Now isn't that some lineup?!
He had another great race, yet again finishing second to Senna at his best circuit whilst Alain faced clutch problems and a heavily biased FIA.
Damon really began worrying both Prost and Williams at Alain's home race in France, team orders were used to keep him behind despite being much, much faster - which was quite something. He was a rookie, giving Alain Prost a headache.
At his home race there was another stroke of bad luck, his engine erupting into a plume of white smoke just as he was looking set for the win. At Hockenheim he got a puncture in the closing stages, again when he was in the lead, and it was Prost who won. By now he could have had his fourth win. Four!
But nevertheless, redemption would come in Budapest which, for being a glorified go-kart track, was surprisingly Damon's best circuit.
Granted, Prost had clutch problems again and both Senna and Schumacher made mistakes to remove the competition, but it was a indomitable performance. After all the disappointments, the setbacks, the search for sponsors, the criticism, the long journey and arduous test-drive role, Damon Hill was finally a Grand Prix winner. He won by a minute, lapping everyone up to third place.
Finally! Image from @f1SennaRK
He won again in Spa; now a tantalising 5 points away from Senna going into Monza where they collided at the start and Hill produced an astonishing comeback, climbing back up to second from ninth. He was a huge eighteen seconds behind Prost but still he pushed on, closing up to the back of the sister Williams which retired with engine problems. Damon probably didn't need Alain to retire to win, he was just that quick, but nonetheless Hill cruised to his third win in a row.
He closed out an astonishing 1993 with a few more podiums and a pole position, by which time Frank had signed him for 1994.
A dark, dark season.
Damon crashing with his future teammate - and then going on to win. From @McLarenF1Nation
Both Ayrton and Hill struggled to get to grips with the car, and the Williams team was hopeless at executing race strategies unlike Benetton who, with the excellent mind of Ross Brawn, were Red Bull-esque in their pit stops. Up until Imola they had only scored points with Damon and the headlines were littered with lines like, 'Schumacher 20, Ayrton 0', referring to how many points each had.
Imola itself was a nightmare. Rubens Barrichello had a frightening accident in practice after launching over the kerbs, where he speared sideways into the very top of the catch-fencing and almost tipped over onto the spectator side. Rubens was knocked unconscious, and the FIA did nothing about the kerbs.
Then Roland Ratzenberger had his terrifying 200mph front wing failure; but he wasn't as lucky as Rubens. You could tell he was dead just from the way his neck was lying, twisted perpendicular to his body in the battered shell of the Simtek. They say it was the kerbs that broke the front wing - but still the FIA opted to take no action.
By this stage it was clear just how tumultuous this weekend would be - it was about survival, quite literally.
Roland, doing what he loved. And doing it for the last time. @TheBishF1
'Come on,' pleaded Professor Sid Watkins, 'You have nothing left to prove, let's go fishing. Give up the car racing.' He was talking to Ayrton; the day before the race, and I don't think I need to tell you whether or not Senna took up Sid's recommendation.
It happened on Lap 6, after yet another huge crash at the start on a weekend that was only getting worse. Even now it's not exactly clear why. Data from the Williams team showed it wasn't a broken steering column, as some people believe, but perhaps a puncture which accentuated a small instance of rare driver error into a fatal crash.
Adrian Newey, chief aerodynamicist at the time for Williams Racing, had a strong theory that Ayrton had run over a piece of debris from the earlier crash under the Safety Car and was suffering from a slow puncture. This would have reduced grip for Ayrton without him knowing, and as he screamed through Tamburello over its many bumps, the car would have both been sliding and bottoming out more due to decreased ride height, which was caused by the loss of pressure.
As Senna slid and bottomed out, he lost a huge chunk of downforce that the underbody would have otherwise produced and efforts to correct it with opposite lock sent him into the barrier at top speed. The crash itself wasn't that bad, he would have easily survived but for a piece of suspension that came off the wall, hitting him in the head and killing him.
Damon finished sixth and the whole F1 world was in disarray, having just lost a God of the sport.
Just one car was entered for Monaco and Hill made a brilliant start, before being chopped by Mika Hakkinen's McLaren and retiring within a lap. Any hope of winning the title now seemed impossible, and there's certainly no way Damon was even thinking about it.
He won the next round in Spain, his first win of the season, and finished second to Schumi in both Montreal and Magny-Cours. By this point there were strong rumours in the paddock that Benetton were still using traction control somehow - and this wasn't the first time they' would be on the wrong side of the rulebook, either. Damon was 37 points behind going into Silverstone, with only 90 points available.
And then the season turned on its head.
At the British GP, Michael handed it to them on a platter. For whatever reason, Schumacher decided to overtake Hill on the formation lap - twice - before giving back the position. The FIA gave him a ten-second stop and go penalty, which he ignored. So then they gave him a black and flag, which he also ignored. Then they gave him a two-race ban, which he appealed unsuccessfully.
Damon won the race, and suddenly it was game on!
Neither scored points at Hockenheim, both due to bad luck, with another Schumacher-Hill one-two in Hungary. Benetton were found of cheating twice more - once at Hockenheim with an illegal (or complete lack of) filter to refuel the car, which lead to the infamous fireball in Jos Verstappen's car, and once at Spa with an illegal floor.
Schumacher was disqualified again from the latter race and it was Hill who won, so the gap was now just 14 points. The two races Michael missed via punishment from the FIA were taken advantage of by Damon who won both going into Jerez. Here Williams made yet another strategic error, putting in double the amount of fuel intended at the pit stops and never telling Damon (their relationship was always patchy, despite how good Damon was, for seemingly little reason and this was another hardship that plagued him throughout his tenure at the team that wasn't his fault).
He responded with the best race of his life.
Michael Schumacher, astonished. @CrystalRacing
He qualified second and stuck to Michael's gearbox for the first stint, despite Michael being lighter and Hill slightly heavier. Then, with the race being run on aggregate times due to a red flag, he pulled out an almighty stint on older tyres whilst Schumacher was on fresh ones on a differing two-stop strategy. He described a Senna-like out of body experience, as if it wasn't him driving but someone else, and held on to win by 3 seconds in conditions so bad you had to guess where the corners were.
Adelaide was a cruel affair, with Damon being much faster than Schumacher for the entirety of the race, up until *that* crash.
Another questionable Schumacher incident. @hwanglikleow
Schumacher had gone off and damaged the car beyond repair, but crucially this wasn't noticed by Damon. He went for the move up the inside which was aggressive but fair nonetheless, and then Schumacher pulled one of his terribly-iconic moves of desperation, slicing into Damon and putting them both out of the race. He won the championship by a point - easily one that belonged to Hill.
Of course on raw pace he was never going to beat Schumacher, but once you factor in the constant bending of the rules by Benetton, the strong suspicion from both Senna and Adrian Newey that they were still using traction control and Michael's total lack of sportsmanship on more than on occasion, this should have been Damon's. In fact, the crash at Adelaide should have been enough to kick Michael out of the World Championship, but unfortunately it wasn't.
Damon driving in a storm after a storming year. @Adelaide_GP
1995's performances tell a very different story to the final points standings. On paper, he was thrashed by Schumacher, and this was his worst season yet in F1, but as is the running theme with his career you have to look at the nuances to fully understand what went on.
From '94 there was no respite. Williams thrust him into a promotional tour for the cigarette brand Rothmans, and he never really got a chance to recover and recharge his batteries after such an emotionally intense year. By the time his off-season work was done as the real season began again so it's no surprise he was completely burnt out. We're now all well aware of the importance of rest and mental wellbeing, but back in the 90's it was a concept that didn't really exist.
1995 began, and Damon Hill was already destroyed.
He started off pretty well, grabbing pole in Brazil and then retiring with mechanical troubles before winning 2 weeks later in Argentina. He romped to victory again in Imola whilst Michael spun off in the wet conditions, and Hill was finally in the lead of the World Championship. It continued like this up until Silverstone - where it went wrong and never got better.
Damon was behind his rival's Benetton in the race and closing in fast; and then they crashed. Michael went abnormally wide into one of the corners and Hill took a chance, diving up the inside only for Michael to turn in on him, again, sending them both out of the race.
Boom. Out. @LegendarysF1
He took a storming pole at Hockenheim, only for the differential to suddenly lock, sending him spinning out on the first lap in a race that Schumacher would cruise to victory in. It looked like driver error, and everyone thought as much, but it was only a few weeks later that Newey discovered it was actually the differential's fault. Williams never actually told the media.
At the next race in Belgium, Schumacher was once again ruthless with countless, illegal blocking manoeuvres on Hill to stop him getting past. It was ridiculous, but it was even more ridiculous that the FIA did nothing to stop it. This was another win taken away.
Hill and Schumacher crashed yet again at Monza, sandwiching the world's worst driver Taki Inoue between them, and this time it was indeed Damon's fault. This would be the start of a bad, and perhaps only, string of races for him. Another crash, all by himself in this occasion, followed at the Nurburgring, and a year on from the best drive of his life, he endured possibly his worst at that year's Japanese Grand Prix.
He could do nothing right, driving all over the place and spending most of his time off of the track. Eventually he slid off and ended his race in a puddle, at Spoon corner.
Immense struggle. @Digione_79
However, with his championship charge well and truly in the can, the pressure was off completely for the final race in Adelaide where he was magnificent. He finished two whole laps ahead of Panis in the Ligier, in one of the most dominant performances of all time. This demolition of the field came from nowhere, but it was him at his best.
For now though, it was time to reset - Damon Hill was preparing for the best season of his life.
His 1996 season is well-documented, so I won't go too deep into that; but essentially it was a show of exactly how good he could be when given the right car and support throughout the season. Damon was absolutely flawless pretty much everywhere, comfortably having the measure of Villeneuve to win a title that was never really in doubt. He won eight races, securing a few hattricks along with four consecutive race wins. It was astonishing; Damon Hill at his best.
So, after such an incredible run of form, wouldn't it be hilarious if Williams fired him? Wouldn't it just?
Fresh from winning his third race in a row at the Argentine Grand Prix, 1996. Via @Planet_F1
Yep. Williams fired him.
Why they did such a thing to a driver who had just won the title, and probably would have the following year, isn't clear still today. Some say it's because of the 'poor' showings of '95, but Damon was always on a one-year contract (something that highlighted the aforementioned unreasonable lack of confidence Williams had in their great driver) so this wouldn't have been possible. Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Damon's replacement, was underwhelming, which must only add to the pain of this inexplicable sacking.
Hill was left with the equivalent of nowadays'-Williams in the Arrows team, in which the most he could do was pootle around at the back. That was with the exception of Hungary - a performance I can hardly believe. He qualified third in this box of a car, beating the likes of Williams, Ferrari and McLaren, and passed his old nemesis, Michael Schumacher, for the lead fairly early on.
And Damon, driving an utterly woeful car, was dominating. Somehow.
But then reality caught up with him and his hydraulics failed with just one, agonising lap left. He crawled to the finish in second place, so close to a win that would have been epic in a car that deserved to be with the Minardis.
Leading again! @henryhopefrost
He turned down McLaren in 1998, just as they were about to win two consecutive driver's titles, and opted for Jordan where he would finish his career. At Spa, he enjoyed that memorable final win in the whitewash of rain, and he retired in 1999 with so much unfulfilled potential.
There are so many 'what if's' for Damon; had he started earlier, had he had less horrid luck, had he accepted McLaren in 1998, had Williams supported him more, had more things gone his way, had all of this happened, just how much more could he have achieved?