As a 22 year old man I grew up watching Formula 1 in the early 90’s, with great drivers like Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and many more being the shining lights of the sport. I admire these drivers immensely, because of their skill and determination and rivalries amongst each other, but despite all this my favourite driver of all time is 1996 Champion Damon Hill. He is a driver who is vastly underrated by the modern F1 audience, most of whom have their memories of the 90’s coloured by pictures of Mansellmania at Silverstone 92, Senna’s bright yellow helmet darting between corners, thoroughly in control of a car that at times hardly looked like it, and Schumacher’s intensity and amazing speed. They brush off Hill’s achievements, suggesting it was purely the work of the excellent Williams cars he was afforded from his first full-time drive in 1993, and suggest that he was not a true rival to Schumacher, the leading driver after the loss of Senna in 94.
But still when you look at the all-time wins list, you will see that Damon is the 11th most-winning driver of all-time with 22 victories (granted that’s going to be beaten soon by the likes of Vettel and Hamilton), more than Mika Hakkinen (the man lauded as Schumacher’s greatest rival), more than other greats such as Mario Andretti, Alberto Ascari, his own father Graham Hill, and plenty others. He won one world title, and could’ve won another if not for a controversial incident at the last race of 1994 that still can rankour. He wowed fans in later seasons with performances in cars that were not meant to be that quick, and he did all this despite only starting car racing full-time in 1985 at 25 years old, an age where Ayrton Senna was already a race winner in F1, and where most of today’s field have already amassed a similar number of starts as Damon’s own record.
In the same way the F1 media melt over how smooth Jenson Button’s driving style is, you can look to Damon Hill for an earlier reference to that. Every steering motion was a simple arc, only adding as much lock as would get the car round the corner, minimising energy and momentum lost through extraneous steering movements. Similarly he was kind to his car, being able to get around problems by adapting in the cockpit (something admittedly other drivers might’ve been better at, Schumacher being an prime example) and most of the time he was just plain fast.
And here is my write-up of my favourite Damon Hill race (and it’s not even one he won!!):
Hungarian Grand Prix 1997
For UK readers, you can watch short highlights of the race on the BBC website here:
The drive that (nearly) surprised the world.
Damon Hill, after his title winning year in 1996, had left Williams and taken what was viewed as a rather odd decision to join the midfield Arrows team. It was rumoured that he had had offers from both McLaren and possibly Ferrari, as well as interest from up-and-coming Jordan, but he took the number 1 to the Leafield team, who only scored one point the year before and had never won a race in their 20 year F1 history. The season started embarassingly for Damon and the team when he had to retire on the parade lap, having qualified a lowly 20th, some 5 seconds off his former Williams teammate Jacques Villeneuve. More reliability woes hampered Damon’s season until a breakthrough in his home race saw him take the Arrows to 6th place and a very popular point for the home crowd. It was the Hungarian race a few weeks later that really summed up Damon as a driver and put a nice bit of glory on his otherwise disappointing season.
In 1997, for the first time since 1991, there were two tyre suppliers in Formula 1. Bridgestone were the newcomers, and there were certain tracks over the course of the year that really suited the Japanese rubber over it’s American Goodyear rivals. Hungary was one of those and the weekend saw the Bridgestone-shod teams display an increase in competitiveness relative to the previous order of the grid. Hill had always been particularly good at this circuit, a slow winding track that masks deficits in horsepower and requires a smooth driving style for the constant weight transfer going on between the seemingly endless stream of corners. Aside from his debut year in the awful Brabham, Damon had never been off the podium in Hungary, and he went about keeping that record up in the best possible way in qualifying by planting his A18 Arrows-Yamaha 3rd on the grid, just 3 tenths off pole position. The next Bridgestone runner in comparison was Rubens Barrichello in 11th, and he was 2 seconds faster than his teammate Pedro Diniz. Come race day, and a hot Grand Prix beckoned.
Damon got a good start and assumed 2nd, benefitting from Villeneuve’s poor getaway from 2nd and falling to 5th. It looked like the Arrows was going to do the leading Ferrari of Schumacher a favour, holding up the cars behind on a circuit notorious of lack of overtaking opportunities, save for a chance going into Turn 1. The Ferrari was particularly heavy on it’s Goodyear tyres in the heat, and the Arrows inbetween Schumacher and his title pursuers would do him no end of good. But as the race settled, it seemed like Hill was actually catching Michael, and by lap 11 the Arrows was close enough behind going down the pit straight for the Brit to dive down the inside of the Ferrari and snatch the lead going through turn 1! Incredible!
The race then became a matter of Hill vs. the hard tyre compound-shod Williams Frentzen, whose gamble was paying off in the hot conditions. However, a broken fuel valve caused the German to retire, and left Damon with a comfortable lead over his ex-teammate Villeneuve. Schumacher was now struggling with the tyre-hungry Ferrari and had fallen back into a fight between himself, his younger brother Ralf in the Jordan, and Johnny Herbert having a great race in the Sauber. All looked very comfortable for Damon to take his first victory since Japan 1996, and the Arrows team’s first win ever. He was driving as smoothly, yet quickly, as he had done in the supreme Williams’ the previous years.
But luck wasn’t on his side. After driving serenely and pulling away from the following cars, on lap 75, with 2 to go, Damon was seen to be weaving his car erratically down straight sections, and pulling very slowing away from corners. He was losing momentum, and it was obvious that some mechanical problem had intervened and was threatening his race. There was a leak in the hydraulic system, which was now causing problems with the throttle and gearbox, both operated hydraulically. The Arrows was now crawling as it came into the last lap, and it was just a case of if Villeneuve could catch Hill before the race finished, if the Arrows could even make it that far. Villeneuve’s Williams did get past him quite early in the lap, and such was the gap to Herbert’s Sauber behind that Damon could crawl across the finish line 9 seconds adrift of the winning Williams and 11 ahead of the following Sauber. It was a very cruel end to what looked for most of the race like one of the great wins of the modern F1 era, but alas it was merely to be one of the great drives of both Hill’s career and that decade, fortune just falling short of letting Arrows win. It showed that Damon was still one of the world’s top drivers, regardless of what car he was in.