Formula 1’s only second-generation World Champion, the one and only Damon Hill, is celebrating his 51st birthday today!
The son of the late Graham Hill, Damon clinched the 1996 title after several seasons playing second-fiddle to Michael Schumacher and Alain Prost.
Like his father, Damon was a late starter in motorsport, spending his early years racing bikes before switching to four-wheeled competition in 1983, amid a wave of media hype. His initial performances were far from promising, but he gradually earned his stripes in Formula Ford, moving to the British F3 championship by 1986 and was a genuine frontrunner by 1987.
A switch to Formula 3000 in 1988 brought little in the way of results, and despite his illustrious surname, he was never able to secure decent financial backing to propel him up the grid, and it wasn’t until 1990-1 that his form improved.
Despite some poor reliability in those seasons, his drives were enough to impress Frank Williams, who signed him as the team’s test driver in 1992, and Hill applied himself well. He joined the floundering Brabham team mid-season, and did well to qualify the beastly car twice before the outfit folded.
His breakthrough came when Nigel Mansell stalked off to IndyCars in 1993, and he managed to persuade Williams and Patrick Head to give him a go in a the main game as Alain Prost’s team-mate. He 1993 Williams FW15C was a super car, and Hill showed his skill by shadowing Prost en route to the Frenchman’s fourth championship crown. His maiden win took a while, as he led the surrendered his lead to Prost in Spain, broke down while leading the British Grand Prix, and cruelly suffered a puncture while leading the German Grand Prix with a handful of laps to run.
Finally, his breakthrough came at Hungary – a circuit that would later give him much success in subsequent years (he achieved a run of podiums from 1993-7 that included two wins) – and he followed this up with more success at Belgium and Italy to finish a highly creditable third in the championship standings.
With Prost’s retirement, in stepped Ayrton Senna for 1994, but their tenure as team-mates proved all too brief when Senna’s life was taken with that accident at San Marino. With incredible resolve, he was thrust into the role of team leader and lost out on a popular title by a single point to Michael Schumacher when the German collided with him in the season-ending race at Adelaide. His most impressive race came in Japan, where he won in torrential conditions to keep his championship aspirations alive.
A favourite for the 1995 title, he began the year strongly but lost his momentum as Schumacher began to hit his stride to claim back-to-back titles. It was a series of embarrassing gaffes – two collisions with Schumacher and crashing out of the German Grand Prix while leading – that would convince Williams to dispense with his services at the end of 1996.
For the following year, he set about to prove the doubters wrong, winning half of the season’s races to take an emotional title. But it was too late to salvage his role at Williams, and he jumped ship to Arrows on a high-salary deal, that would yield little in the way of results, save for a surprise near-win at Hungary.
After an embarrassing season, he left Arrows and joined Jordan for 1998, and after a shaky start he drove with great skill to take the team’s first win at a soaked Spa-Francorchamps, his 22nd and final win. Clearly past his best and utterly unmotivated, he trundled around for a final season when he should have hung up the keys, quitting the sport at the end of 1999.
Off the track, Hill’s reputation as a gentleman has never been in question. He maintains an active role in motorsport, only recently quitting his post as the president of the BRDC, after leading it through one of its most successful periods, with highlights including securing a long-term contract for Silverstone to host F1 for many years to come, as well as the circuit’s popular refurbishment.
[Images via AtlasF1, F1 History, The Cahier Archive]