It’s hard to believe that Damon Hill‘s World Championship win was 25 years ago today. In some ways it feels like a lifetime ago, and yet in others it feels like just yesterday we were all getting up early with our Union Jacks (or ‘Union Flags’ as the more pedantic amongst you will know, and be only too keen to point out!) hoping for a memorable win that had been years in the making.
For me, Damon’s quest for the title had begun in earnest at the 1994 Spanish Grand Prix.
The Englishman had earlier been drafted in by Williams at the beginning of 1993 as an inoffensive partner to Alain Prost who’d come out top in the Mansell/Senna/Prost power struggle for a seat in F1’s most dominant team.
And a great job he did too, picking up a number of wins en-route to third place in the WDC, behind Prost and Senna. (And as we all know there’s no shame being third place behind those guys).
Going into 1994 it looked like Damon would be expected to do a similar job for Ayrton Senna who’d replaced Prost at Grove – taking points off rivals, backing Senna up when required, and picking up the odd win here and there when Senna wasn’t able to – in order to seal another WCC for Williams.
But all that changed at Imola when Senna was killed and Hill was thrust into the team leader role he’d had little time to prepare for.
After regrouping at Monaco in the following Grand Prix, entering a single car & failing to complete a single lap in the race, Williams’ season began again at the following round in Spain with Hill not only in the role of senior driver (to new team-mate Coulthard making his F1 debut), but also as the spearhead to World Champions Williams’ 1994 title charge.
And he began the fightback with a win that planted world-champion elect Schumacher firmly in Williams’ sights.
As we all know, while Damon came close that year, it wasn’t to be, and worse still, a lacklustre 1995 in a championship-worthy car all but sealed Hill’s fate as Sir Frank Williams – not someone you could ever accuse of being overly sentimental – resolved to replace Damon with Heinz-Harald Frentzen when his contract was up at the end of ’96.
And so going into 1996 if Damon was going to win a title with Williams, it was now or never.
Sir Frank had recruited reigning Cart & Indy500 Champion Jacques Villeneuve – son of F1 legend Gilles – seemingly as the future of the team, putting Damon on the back foot from the get-go. And, when at the season opener in Australia, on his Formula 1 debut, Villeneuve qualified on pole and would only be only denied a win by an oil leak, it was clear that Damon’s route to the title would not be an easy one.
However, experience told, and Damon won four of the first five Grands Prix to cast some shade on Villeneuve.
A double retirement for Hill in Spain and Monaco, coupled with a win for Villeneuve in Germany, Britain, Hungary and Portugal meant that the title would go down to the last race in Japan, albeit with a handsome lead that meant Hill would need just a solitary point to take the title.
Villeneuve struck the first blow in qualifying when he slotted his Williams FW18 on pole position ahead of his team-mate in second – perhaps focussed on bringing his car home in the points and doing as little as he needed to take the title.
However, when the lights went out, Villeneuve made a poor start and dropped to sixth while Hill led. And worse still for Villeneuve, his team-mate was beginning to pull away.
Gerhard Berger almost threw Villeneuve a lifeline by taking Hill out with a lunge at the last chicane, but thankfully the Austrian thought better of it and damaged nothing but his own front wing.
From there it was plain sailing for Hill, who led every one of the 36 laps, until Villeneuve retired when he lost a wheel and the Briton was confirmed as 1996 Formula 1 World Champion, before taking the chequered flag in first place.
It was the first World Championship for the son of a Formula 1 World Champion (father Graham won the F1 World title in 1962 and 1968).
While Damon Hill might not have been able to capture the imagination of the British public in quite the same way as a Nigel Mansell, but his family ties (his father is a British sporting legend), the struggles he’d been through with the death of his team-mate and having been cheated (FACT) out of the title in 1994, and having been seemingly unfairly treated by Williams for whom he’d now driven his last race, as well as being a thoroughly and obviously decent chap meant that he was held in a great deal of affection by the public, who were overwhelmingly delighted, and not least a little bit emotional, at his success.
Murray Walker summed this up best as Damon crossed the line, uttering the now famous words:
“And I’ve got to stop, because I’ve got a lump in my throat”