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Damon Hill; the forgotten hero.

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.

Claptrap.

Damon Hill was a fighter.

Graham and damonIt 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.

Damon and AyrtonThe 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.

Damon WinningVilleneuve 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?

Damon ArrowsThe 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.


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Räikkönout?

It’s here again; ‘Silly Season‘ and it’s come early this year, owing to the confirmed departure of Mark Webber from Red Bull, so the pit lane whispers have started long before the summer break.

Autosport led the way with their early June edition cover story, which was not so much breaking the news as making the fact more legitimate, that Red Bull were indeed making Kimi Raikkonen their main target for the empty seat.

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Historically speaking it’s not too wild a suggestion. Kimi has long been a friend of the energy brand, even going back to the very beginning, when he joined Sauber, who were the original carriers of the logo, and when he went rallying, they were his main sponsor. He knows Red Bull, he fits well with the image of the company, which is the biggest supporter of extreme sports the world has ever seen. Kimi’s links with sports like snowmobile racing and his ‘IceOne‘ motocross team (which is currently competing in the FIM Motocross World Championship) also stack up into an intimidating portfolio, if anything he is more suitable for the Austrian giants than Sebastian Vettel himself!

The current Red Bull car, the RB9, has already proved itself to be a consistent challenger in what could be Sebastian’s fourth consecutive championship winning year. The team at Milton Keynes is a slick, well organised outfit, which is now accustomed to winning and would probably be quite happy keeping it that way, and financially speaking, the can will never runneth dry, so long as Dietrich Mateschitz doesn’t feel like walking away.

Kimi would be foolish to not seriously consider this prospect. Joining a team with such huge funding in a year where development will be paramount around the new engines, and the opportunity to drive a under the aerodynamic expertise of Adrian Newey are chances which most Formula One drivers could not expect to have in their entire career.

Many people argue that the Lotus is a race winning car, and it is, but so is the Mercedes and so far Nico Rosberg has two trophies under his belt this season to Kimi’s one, and that will not make the Iceman happy at all. Lotus has potential, and Kimi has managed on two occasions, both this season and last, to squeeze every ounce of that promise out of the car. But can Lotus give him what he came back for; a second championship? The budget at Enstone is less than a third of that which Red Bull currently have to play with, and whilst Lotus have made an absolutely stunning improvement on their mid-grid mediocrity of 2011, will they be able to keep up in 2014?

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Image: Talksport

Kimi is a difficult beast though, and above all it is how he feels which keeps him where he is. He’s a racer, he wants to race and win, but at the same time if the comfort level disappears, so will he. It’s a well documented fact that he is not interested in the corporate side of Formula One, which is something which Lotus have managed to accommodate with relative ease around him. Can you honestly see him modelling cardigans and taking part in Infinity sponsored short films where he practises kung-fu? It sounds ridiculous because it is.

Finally, the elephant in the room, the question of team-mate hierarchy. Kimi Raikkonen is not a number two driver. Red Bull can claim that there would be no favouritism as much as they like, but history speaks for itself when it comes to their treatment of Mark Webber. Sebastian has been mollycoddled at Red Bull to the point that he expects his team mate to be there in a supporting role, Kimi will want to beat him the most, which could have some interesting results on the track, but may have detrimental effects on the opinions of those who still believe they play badminton after all these years.

Of course it would be necessary to find out how Lotus intend to approach 2014 before any decision is made. It’s a difficult choice because Lotus can keep him happy, but Red Bull have more chance of providing the wins that could lead to that illusive second title.

Who knows, maybe he’ll find something else to do next year anyway?


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British Bernie announces the Poundland Grand Prix!

I wasn’t planning on blogging today, but as I sat here, watching Martin Brundle interview Bernie Ecclestone, I felt I needed to say something, anything, about the future of Formula One in Europe.

Let’s take a trip in our Delorian, back to a time before KERS, F-Ducts, sponsorship and safety belts, to the Racing world of the 1920’s and 30’s. Prior to the existence of Formula One, the European Grand Prix motor racing scene reined supreme with the best drivers of continental Europe fighting it out around hay baled circuits in shirtsleeves and scarfes. Formula One kicked off in 1947, with the emergence of the FIA, and so the World Championship was born in 1950.

So what’s gone wrong? Does Formula One no longer care about Europe? Of course not! The problem is the lining of Mr Ecclestone’s pocket.

Bernie contemplates the number of zero’s culminating at the end of his bank account balance…

It has been said, that the only language Bernie Ecclestone truly understands is that of money. Since he rose to control Formula One’s business interests there have been several questionable moves, which have no reasonable bearing to the continued enjoyment of your average armchair-driving fan. Back in 1997, the rights to broadcasting race weekends in the UK were sold to ITV, a lucrative deal financially speaking, which left fans dismayed to say the least as they struggled to watch races interrupted by commercial breaks. They shipped Murray Walker across to the ITV commentary box, but it took more than a familiar voice to convince us it was worth the pay cheque.

There have been the regular problems with the holding of the British Grand Prix, in particular in 2004 when Bernie suggested the race be dropped all together! Cue the ensuing battle between Silverstone and Donington Park to become the race’s home. In the aftermath of this, Donington’s money ran out and to this day, the infield looks more like a quarry, while Silverstone has upped it’s game, but still struggled to gain Bernie’s favour as the rain came down in July 2012.

There have been disputes over tyres, sponsorship rows and lest we forget the ongoing problem with Bahrain.. Bernie seems to be intent on taking the Formula One world to more out-reaching parts of the planet, parts where the locals have to be cajoled into attending races, while Silverstone sells out in the space of a couple of months. Why would it be profitable to take the sport away from the people who love it? As a resident of the UK, I have had the opportunity to visit two Grands Prix; Monaco in 2011 as part of a family holiday, and Silverstone in 2012 (yes I got wet, no I didn’t mind a bit) it took me the better part of fifteen years to get to my first race and I’m planning a trip to Belgium in 2014. What if Spa disappeared before I got there? We’ve already lost Magny Cours, and Paul Ricard doesn’t get a look in despite it’s constant reminders that it’s capable of holding an event.

In the interview on Sky Sports F1 this morning  Bernie said that the confirmed 2013 line up of seven European races could drop to as low as four. I can count Hungary as one of the victims of this cull, as the Eastern European circuit has suffered from poor attendances, and struggled to keep the track in condition. Who else could go? Valencia only really stood in as a replacement for the European Grand Prix at the Nurbergring, and that’s gone anyway, with Monaco and Singapore we didn’t really need another street circuit.

We’ll keep trying to move forward. We’re a world championship.

The question for me is would he chop the British Grand Prix? Would he be that callous, to the people who share his nationality? Westernised as we are in this country, we can’t all hop down to Heathrow and head out to the long haul races. Flicking through the pages of F1 Racing Magazine, you can see how cheap it is to purchase a weekend ticket for places like India, South Korea and Malaysia, but we can’t get there, we want our race, in Oxford so all we have to do is drive seventy miles down the M1 and pitch a damn tent!

So I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see. Bernie has proved in the past, that what’s best for Formula One always coincides with what’s best for Bernie. We’re set to have two races in America, when the New Jersey Grand Prix finally confirms its place on the calendar, two races in a country in which the majority of sports fans love football, basketball and baseball. Yes, some of them like motorsport, Nascar has massive viewing figures, but those figures are arbitrary as far as Bernie is concerned because Nascar is favoured in the Southern States of America, areas which dwarf the whole of the UK, population terms – there is no percentage comparison.

I apologise to anyone who feels like they’re losing out by not having Formula One within their travelling range, but I have put too much time, effort, and emotion into this sport to see the only races I can realistically visit be taken away. Bernie doesn’t deserve to call himself British if he dares scratch our race from the calendar.