Joe-Pinions: Sports

14 Feb 2012 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 6)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 14/02/2012

Today we’ll be looking at the driver occupying the sixth spot in my personal top 10 F1 drivers list.  But before we proceed further, if you want to review which drivers took spots 10 thru 7, read these posts:

10. Nigel Mansell

9. Jean Alesi

 8. Gilles Villeneuve

7. Nelson Piquet

And now, we resume our countdown with one of motorsports’ true gentlemen.

6.  Damon Hill

He was never the most talented.

Never the fastest.

Never regarded as an all-time great.

You know what, though?  All these things are true enough, but they don’t matter.  Not to me.

Damon Hill's helmet livery: A modern interpretation of his father Graham's famous colors

Damon Hill…  what can you say about him that would merit a place on any top 10 list that has him just one spot shy of its top half?  How can I rate Damon Hill higher than Nelson Piquet, arguably an all-time great?  Higher than the legendary Gilles Villeneuve?

I’ll say it now, then.

I really liked Damon Hill.  For a short time, he occupied the void left when my old favorites from the 1980s-early 1990s had all gone from the sport.  He bridged the gap between the two drivers who occupy the #1 and #2 spots in my personal countdown.

Though Damon, son of 2-time F1 World Champion Graham Hill, won twenty-two Grands Prix and one Drivers’ World Championship, for most of his career he occupied the position of underdog.  It’s true that most of his successes were achieved whilst driving an Adrian Newey-designed Williams-Renault, undoubtedly the best car-engine combination for most of the 1990s.  Given that he had such great equipment to work with, how could Damon be an underdog?

I suppose that that’s a bit of an absurd assertion.  However, I think that things aren’t as simple as they might appear.  For one thing, it’s all too easy to forget the narrative behind all the stats and facts.

Damon started his path onto motorsports quite late.  In fact, he didn’t even start his racing career on four wheels!  Instead, Damon Hill started racing motorbikes at age 23.  To put that into some kind of context, by that age both Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel had already been an F1 World Champion.  To really hammer the point home, Spanish hotshoe Jaime Alguersuari has already had almost three complete seasons in F1 at age 21!

At his mother’s urging, Hill swapped his bike racing leathers for a Nomex car racing suit in 1983.  For the next few years, Hill won races and pole positions in various junior formulae.  However, he never managed to win a championship at any level.

Consequently, Damon never attracted any truly serious interest from any of the big Formula 1 outfits.  No team wanted to take a gamble on him to fill their racing vacancies.

In 1991, however, Williams Grand Prix decided to hire Damon as their test driver.  Through the 1991 racing season he split his time testing and developing the various electronic gizmos on the Williams-Renault.  Based on just how awesome the FW14B turned out to be, with its all-singing-and-dancing active suspension, its now bulletproof semi-automatic transmission, and traction control system, you could say Hill was a superb tester.

The following year, Hill continued testing for Williams.  However, he also finally had his proper Grand Prix debut, taking over Giovanna Amati‘s seat at Brabham.  Sadly, Brabham was by then a pathetic shell of its former self.  To his credit, however, Hill did manage to qualify the ridiculously poor BT60B for two races, the British and Hungarian GPs.

When Nigel Mansell decided to “retire” from F1 at the end of the 1992 season, a vacancy at Williams opened up.  After many weeks of uncertainty, Frank Williams decided to fill the empty race seat with Damon Hill.  It was the most logical decision, given Hill’s familiarity with both the Williams team’s methodologies and the car the team was going to race in 1993, the Renault-powered FW15C.

1993 was a successful year for Damon.  In what was essentially his true rookie year in F1, he managed to win a hat trick of races (Hungary, Belgium and Italy), take a few pole positions, and finish third in the final World Championship standings (behind Ayrton Senna and the 1993 World Champion, teammate Alain Prost).  He deferred to his teammate in the early part of the year, but came on ever stronger as the season progressed.  He would have had a higher points total at the end of the year but for two heartbreaking car failures at the British and German Grands Prix, his Williams blowing an engine and suffering a race-ending puncture in successive races.  He did demonstrate the full extent of the Williams-Renault FW15C’s potential by racing into 3rd place in Portugal after being forced to start at the very rear of the grid due to stalling prior to the first formation lap.

It says much about Damon that his 1993 teammate, Prost, thought very highly of him.  The four-time world champion credited Hill for helping him understand the FW15C, particularly its innovative technological features (aside from inheriting the FW14B’s full complement of gadgetry, the FW15C also added anti-lock brakes and optimized aerodynamics).  Prost thanked his 1993 teammate, as well as praising him for some truly great performances during their time together (particularly in Great Britain, Belgium, and Portugal) and for being a true gentleman.

The following year, of course, was one of F1’s (and auto racing’s) most traumatic and horrifying seasons ever.  At the outset, nobody, of course, could have known just how awful the year was going to be.  Hill, though, probably thought that he was going to be in for a tough time anyway.  Prost retired, and Ayrton Senna slotted in to take his place at Williams.  To paraphrase what an F1 journalist said at the time, going from Prost to Senna was a bit like graduating high school and entering into university.

Not surprisingly, Hill never out-qualified Senna, the acknowledged master of the art of qualifying in Formula 1.  Nevertheless, by virtue of Senna’s inability to bring his Williams home in the first two grands prix, he led Senna on points, 6-0 (he finished 2nd in the season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix).  By everyone’s reckoning, Senna’s own included, the third race, the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, would be where Senna would finally launch himself into the championship standings.

It never happened that way, of course.  Senna was killed on the seventh lap of the San Marino Grand Prix, and Damon Hill, with barely a year’s worth of F1 racing under his belt, found himself in the unlikely position as Williams’ team leader.

Much like his father Graham did with Lotus in the wake of Jimmy Clark‘s own fatal accident, Damon Hill galvanized the Williams team.  With amazing dignity, grit, and determination, he helped keep Williams together in the face of unspeakable horror.  His admittedly lucky victory in Spain was the second race since Senna’s fatal accident, but the sight of Williams personnel weeping not in grief but in relief and joy, spoke volumes.  Few grand prix victories were as emotional as that first Williams win after Senna’s death.

With the mantle of Williams team leadership now firmly on his shoulders, he challenged Michael Schumacher.  In terms of talent, Damon was unquestionably Schumacher’s inferior; however, Damon’s talents as a test driver came to the fore as the year progressed, helping transform what had been a very difficult machine into a finely-honed race winner.  Not only that, but Hill also possessed, if not a champion’s raw talent, a true champion’s will.  He ignored all the distractions and kept his eye on the target.  Nowhere was this demonstrated more clearly than at the Japanese Grand Prix.  Run in torrential conditions, Hill managed to beat Schumacher by 3.3 seconds by the end of the disjointed race.  Furthermore, by beating Schumacher in Japan, Hill closed the points gap to a solitary point.

More than any other race he would ever run, the 1994 Japanese Grand Prix stands out as the race that makes me think of Damon Hill.  Grit, determination, the obstinate refusal to bow to a superior opponent when the circumstances gave him every excuse to simply give  in…  these are the elements in Damon Hill the racing champion that I came to love and appreciate.

At the next race, the 1994 season’s final grand prix at Adelaide, Australia, Hill pressured Schumacher into a mistake.  Unfortunately for Hill, Schumacher drove his Benetton into Hill’s FW16 and broke the Williams’ left-front suspension.  The “accident” ended the chase for the championship (I will never believe that Schumacher lost control of his car at the precise moment when Hill was alongside and clearly going to overtake; Schumacher barged into the Williams with full and malicious intent and absolutely no regard for any consequences).  In the pits, Hill maintained his dignity, vocalizing not his private disappointment or anger at being taken out of the championship, but of his sadness and disappointment at not winning the championship for Frank Williams, the team, and Ayrton Senna.

I became a firm fan of Damon’s with that display of class and dignity, rare as it sadly is (and continues to become) not just in Formula 1, but in all of sports.

And so I followed Damon’s F1 career with great interest, cheering for his successes and lamenting whenever he made the inevitable mistake of judgment or when fortune simply did not smile upon him.  I cringed in 1995 when he crashed into his great rival Michael Schumacher not once, but twice, that year in badly-misjudged overtaking maneuvers.  I wept inwardly when he lost the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix on the final lap after leading easily for the last third of the race in an Arrows-Yamaha that almost routinely ran at the back end of the grid.  Of course, I nearly wept from the joy of seeing him ascend to the top of the podium as the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix winner, taking the Jordan Grand Prix team’s maiden win as well as his final victory.

Damon Hill, a champion and a gentleman

But perhaps I was happiest for Damon when he won the 1996 Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship.  After a largely disappointing 1995 campaign marked by a certain desperation in his driving, a season-long attempt to match a superior rival now driving a car with equal horsepower, Hill bounced back and took the following year’s championship (Schumacher’s Benettons were previously powered by Ford; starting in 1995, however, Renault ceased to supply Williams exclusively and provided their superb engines to Benetton as well).  While critics would say (correctly) that his greatest rival’s challenge was blunted somewhat by moving over from Benetton to Ferrari, one could argue that Hill’s 1996 season was tougher than ever since he was now challenged by a dangerous rival within the same team.  A driver’s most lethal challenger will always be the other fellow in the sister car, since he provides the most direct comparison (that is, assuming the team provided equally-good cars to both drivers; you can’t ever say that during Michael Schumacher’s time with Ferrari, in my opinion).  Jacques Villeneuve, son of Gilles (and himself a future F1 World Champion) replaced David Coulthard at Williams in 1996 and had a brilliant rookie campaign, but Hill’s superior experience and familiarity with the team and the car added up to outscoring the brilliant French-Canadian by almost twenty points at season’s end.

Damon Hill was never ever the fastest or most stylish of Grand Prix drivers, but he nevertheless captured my F1 fan’s heart by being one of the sport’s true gentlemen.  He won 22 grands prix and took 20 pole positions, great numbers for a driver not recognized as a one of the sport’s great talents.  Critics would (all-too correctly) say that Damon needed to have a great car in order to get those results.

But it’s all too easy to underestimate Damon and not give him his just due.  After all, it’s not enough to just have a great car under you.  You still have to get in and drive the thing and get to the checkered flag before everyone else to get those results.  And Hill was almost always teamed up with drivers who weren’t exactly slouches (1997, his one year with Arrows, saw him teamed up with then-novice Pedro Diniz, who himself proved to be a bit underrated in his latter years); even against an all-time great such as Prost, Hill could still win the odd race (or three, in ’93).

Hill won all his battles with an admirable dignity and class, qualities which are lamentably in such short supply these days.  It’s all too easy to cheer on the most obviously talented participants, but talent alone is not enough for me.

Character counts for a lot, and in this way Damon Hill will always be a champion amongst so many pretenders.

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