Damon Hill: the resilient

Son of 1962 and 1968 F1 Champion, Graham, Damon jumped into the "Big Circus" as a late bloomer, but soon established himself with the best team on the grid, and during the mid 90s fought against Schumacher to whom he finally beat for the 1996 title.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Damon Hill was born in Hampstead, England in September 17th 1960. The son a former Formula 1 Champion, Graham Hill, Damon had to fight harder than his father to become one in 1996.

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Always short of money, he had to financially secure his day-to-day. His father died in a plane crash in 1975 and the resulting legal battle the followed left the family in a precarious condition.

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As a late bloomer –much like his father- Hill basically did not step into an open wheel racing car until his mid 20s as he was more interested in driving motorcycles. British Formula Ford was his first real hands on experience, and then after winning six races he decided to move up to the British Formula 3 to race for the title-winning team of West Surrey Racing.

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Once again misfortune had a saying on Damon’s life after his prospect teammate at West died in a testing accident which was added to the loss of the main sponsor, and with this, Damon had lost his chance moving up rather quickly.

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His has always shown a great sense of determination and all the events in his life has made him stronger and with keen sense of purpose. He battled in the smaller formulae but kept the hard-work discipline and eventually delivered good enough results to keep himself in the radar.

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Damon Hill lifting one of the many first place trophies of his career (22).

He finally landed in the F300 and his effort pay off as Fran Williams offered him a seat at his team as a test driver for the 1991 season. It was rather Brabham the one that gave Hill his first real track opportunity with the awful BT60, a car that actually put an end to the team founded in 1961. Damon was able to qualify his car to race only in two occasions.

Luck will smile to Hill at least once. After his Championship season, Nigel Mansell decided to leave for Indy and with that left his seat for the grabs. The 33 year old Hill convinced the team’s management and was named teammate of the French juggernaut of Alain Prost.

In his first full season in 1993, Hill had to live under the shadow of Prost, but he managed to win three times, and score enough points to finish the championship in third place. For 1994, the Frenchman was replaced another enormous figure, the one of Ayrton Senna.

It was widely accepted that Williams had the best car on the grid, but the consequent death Senna in Imola, meant that Hill was now the team leader. The Brit was about 30 points behind Schumacher, but fought back to take the battle until the very end (it helped that the German was banned and disqualified for four races in total).

The championship was going to be decided at Adelaide, and many things could have happened as Hill trailed Schumacher by one point only. It occurred that both collided and had to retired, giving the championship to the German, who was accused by many of deliberately causing the incident.

1995 was year more to forget in spite the four victories Hill earned. The Williams of that year as without a doubt the quickest car on the field, and surrendering the title to Schumacher again, just made things worse.
Jaques Villeneuve will be the rookie sensation for 1996. Nevertheless, an impressive season for the Canadian, this was going to be year for Damon, who clinched the title by relying on eight victories and two second place finishes.

Williams and Hill relationship had deteriorated even before Hill became champion, partly because for many the team felt the Brit was extracting the beast out of far superior car on the grid. At the time of his championship it was already announced his depart from the team. The ill-fated Arrows was Hill’s destination.

The move was seen more a desperate one, since Arrows did not have a decent package to provide some level steady competitiveness to the defending champion. In 1996 Hill did not earn a point until the ninth race of the season (British GP). Although it was thrilling to watch the brave Hill going after a surprise victory at Hungary, only to see his gearbox to falter losing his leading position in the very last lap.

In 1998 a better opportunity came with the emerging Jordan Team alongside the younger brother of his nemesis, Ralf Schumacher. The highly motivated team built an interesting machine, the 198 and even though it took a while to sorted out, in the second half of the season it became and constant scorer. The climax came with fantastic 1-2 finished at Spa-Francorchamps with Hill leading Ralf. It was the Brit’s 22nd victory and the last of his career.

By now motivation was running low on Damon and even though he talked several times about retirement he stuck for another year at Jordan. Proof of his lack of interest was that he was plainly outscored and outraced by his teammate Heinz-Harald Frentzen. The German accumulated 54 points in route to a great third place finish (he even fought for the championship at some point), while Hill accounted for only 7 units.

It is fair to say that all those year of hard and sometimes unfair scrutiny over his raw speed skills and his lack of track aggressiveness had a toll on the driver. Besides he was already 39 years old and declining anyways.

If discipline, hard-work ethic and decency would have been the only qualities requited to be a Formula 1 Champion, Damon, would have accounted for more than one title.

Damon Hill during the 1996 Canadian GP.

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