Forget 1996, and all the success that brought for Britain’s Damon Hill. The 1994 Japanese Grand Prix, in the mind of this Williams fan, is remembered as Damon’s greatest race.
It was also proof, if it were needed (it may have been needed), that he belonged at the same table as Michael Schumacher and the late Ayrton Senna who began the season as Williams team leader but succumbed to injuries sustained in a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix six months earlier.
In an echo of 1968 where Damon’s dad Graham Hill was pushed to front and centre of Team Lotus in the aftermath of Jim Clark’s death at Hockenheim, Damon was promoted to a position in which he was unaccustomed: He led the Williams team, a team expected to challenge for the championship, with a mere 21 Grands Prix starts under his belt.
Dad Graham won the 1968 World Championship. Could Damon possibly repeat the feat 26 years later?
Going into the weekend of the 1994 Japanese Grand Prix, Hill trailed world champion elect Michael Schumacher by five points with two races of the season remaining – Japan and Australia.
Should Schumacher win, and Damon fail to finish on the podium, it would give the German an unassailable lead in the championship and the title would be his.
Almost half a second behind Schumacher in qualifying, it didn’t look great for Hill going into Sunday’s race, and it steadily worsened as the race approached.
Torrential rain on the morning of the Grand Prix meant for a wet race, and Michael Schumacher was renowned for finding grip, speed and time on a wet track that nobody else could.
The title was slipping from Hill’s grasp.
The 1994 Japanese Grand Prix started in torrid conditions causing a number of drivers, including Schumacher’s team-mate for the conclusion of the 1994 season Johnny Herbert to spin off and into retirement. Those who continued did so very cautiously, Schumacher at the head of the field, Hill in second.
By lap 13, no fewer than nine drivers had retired, largely due to the difficult conditions when Gianni Morbidelli crashed heavily causing marshals to run to his aid. Seconds later Martin Brundle lost control of his McLaren at exactly the same spot and ploughed into these marshals, breaking one poor soul’s leg.
The race was red flagged, with Schumacher, crucially (for the outcome of the race), six seconds ahead of Hill in second.
Conditions improved, and the second part of the race was restarted. Unlike today, in 1994 when a Grand Prix was stopped, once it was resumed, it would do so in grid order, and the gaps that existed between the cars at the end of the first part would be added to times at the end of the second part, giving us our final result.
It was known as an ‘aggregate result’ and it was all very confusing, only in this case it made for a thrilling finale to the Grand Prix. (The 1994 Japanese Grand Prix was the last time a Formula 1 race was decided on aggregate).
What it meant was that Schumacher had to simply stay ahead or within six seconds of Hill and he’d be the winner.
Surely ‘regenmeister’ Schumacher was more than capable of doing this, and the real threat to Williams and Hill’s race and championship was that a single mistake by the Briton and it would be all over?
Lap 22, and Schumacher pitted for tyres from the lead. It was his first of two stops. Hill and Williams had opted to stop just once.
This meant that Schumacher was behind Hill, now in the lead, but his newer tyres were allowing him to lap much quicker than Hill, and he closed to within the six seconds he needed for the win.
As the chequered flag approached, the two drivers were within touching distance – at least on the timesheet, if not on track. Had Schumacher done enough or was Hill’s late race pace enough to stave off his challenge?
As Hill crossed the line it was still not clear who our winner was. A nail biting ten or so seconds were to follow before Schumacher finished and the electronic timing system revealed Hill to be the winner, with Schumacher three seconds back in second place.
Hill’s Championship was still alive, and the fight would go to Adelaide in Australia for a showdown.
Tune in for next week’s instalment to find out who won!
Not really. We all know that Schumacher unscrupulously robbed our Damon of the world championship he so richly deserved for an outstanding season in the face of crippling tragedy for himself and for Williams, with a dastardly and deliberate turn of his wheel taking Damon out of a race he needed something from.
If only Damon could have picked up another measly two points from somewhere over the course of the season he’d be champion irrespective of Schumacher’s tricks.