Prompted by a tweet I saw, and the incapacity to articulate a reply worth reading in only one hundred and forty characters, I felt it was time someone stood up and said proudly; I am a Damon Hill fan.
There is a common misconception regarding the 1996 World Champion, somewhat amplified by the season review of the same year which was titled ‘A Champion & A Gentleman‘, that he was a mild mannered, English sissy boy, who buckled under pressure.
Damon Hill was a fighter.
It was at an early age that Damon was forced to recognise the unforgiving nature of motor racing, when his father’s friend; Jim Clarke, was killed at the very peak of his career, and the subsequent battle for Graham as he fought to keep Lotus moving when a grief stricken Colin Chapman threatened to throw in the towel. Graham is often referred to as the saviour of Lotus and had it not been for him the successful outfit may have folded. This kind of determination would have been something that Damon would have seen in his father, like the traits we pick up from our own parents, even at such an early age, and perhaps a memory which he carried with him from the age of fifteen in the aftermath of Graham’s death in the tragic plane crash of 1975.
Graham had not wanted his son to follow in his footsteps onto the track, but when Damon made the first forays into motorsport the journey was not as easy you’d expect for the son of World Champion. Lacking sponsorship and suffering tragedy yet again when his future team-mate was killed in a testing accident, Damon defiantly refused to let the danger hold him back and finally made it into Formula One with the last incarnation of a financially crippled, and technically beleaguered Brabham outfit, which only competed in the first eleven races of 1992 before disappearing into the past tense.
Fortunately, whilst ‘racing’ with Brabham, Damon was also test driver for Williams, and was promoted to a race seat when a huge reshuffle of the top names took place prior to the 1993 season. Alongside Alain Prost Damon had the perfect opportunity to learn from an established legend in the sport, whilst having access to the best equipment and funding. In his first full season in Grand Prix racing, Damon finished a very respectable third in the championship.
The following year he was paired with the great Ayrton Senna, with another opportunity to work with a master of single seater competition. As we know, the partnership was cut short at Imola, and Williams were forced to react quickly, recalling a retired Mansell who shared the drive with young tester David Coulthard until the season close.
The situation was reminiscent of the scene at Lotus in 1863 when Graham held the team together, Damon pushed forwards, overcoming the grief he was dealing with for Ayrton – and the resulting legal implications as the Italian police launched the inquest into the accident at Tamburello – and taking his team into a head to head battle with the Benetton, which at the time was considered to be the best machine on the grid with a brutally quick and fiercely competitive Michael Schumacher at the helm.
In Adelaide, Australia, Damon lost the World Championship by one point, thanks to questionable tactics by Michael, which, to this day, remain ambiguous in their intention.
The following year was not a success and, between several lacklustre performances, mechanical difficulties and incidents with Schumacher which earned Damon suspended race bans, it was common knowledge that Williams were looking around for possible replacements; the reoccurring name being that of Michael Schumacher’s old sparring parter in the lower formulae; Heinz-Harald Frentzen, but the contract was honoured and Damon was to race in 1996 as a William’s driver.
Villeneuve put the pressure on at the very beginning of the season, when only an oil leak robbed the Indy Champion of his first win in his first race, but out of sixteen races that year, Damon was victorious in eight. Williams announced that Damon would be replaced by Frentzen in 1997, but he didn’t stop fighting, and not just that, he was now looking for a drive for the following year.
Onwards he pushed, aware that Schumacher had finally got to grips with his unruly Ferrari and Villeneuve was putting together not just wins, but solid podium performances to bring the title down to the very last race of the season at Suzuka. He was a man who had found himself on the outside of his team, dealing with that kind of rejection must have been heartbreaking, and still Damon didn’t have a drive for 1997.
When he crossed the Japanese finishing line, taking the title while Murray Walker spoke of his now legendary ‘lump in his throat‘ Damon was without a drive to defend his title. He shared the moment with wife Georgie, the person who had become his rock and most fierce supporter, drank the champagne, smiled for the cameras, and went home.
Salvation came in the form of Arrows boss Tom Walkinshaw, who offered Damon a seat in his team, which sadly spent its time at the very back of the grid. With no other option available, Damon was forced to decide what path his career would take, would he burn out, or fade away?
The answer to the question was simple, he was a racer, he would race, and in the midst of the fight between Schumacher and Villeneuve, a little blue car run on a shoe-string budget took the lead at the Hungaroring. It was only the mechanical limitations of the car that day that stopped Damon taking the flag, but the critics’ mouths were silenced in spectacular fashion. This was no Ligier, winning on a rain soaked Monaco track where most of it’s competitors had retired, this was Damon’s skill and determination shining through against superior equipment and drivers who publicly stated that he wasn’t worthy to stand amongst them.
History remembers Damon as a gentleman, but I remember him as a lion, as courageous and determined as any racer to grace the tarmac. In the face of every possible obstacle he kept his mind focussed on one thing, being the champion he knew he could be, and nobody, not the team who rejected him, not Schumacher who tried to belittle him, and certainly not the press who claimed he could never be the man his father was, was going to stop him.
In 1998, his hard work paid off and an offer from Eddie Jordan saw Damon return to the top step of the podium, and give the British team their first win.
I just hope, that when the people at the very top abandoned him, Damon knew that the guys here at the bottom, and a fifteen year old girl who had watched in tears as he took the title in Japan, never stopped believing.