Damon Hill is one of the best known and loved former British racing champions.
Despite a late entrance to the sport Hill proved himself to be a determined and consistent racer, his World Championship win in 1996 making him the only son of a former world champion (his father was Graham Hill) to achieve this feat. With a career seeing 22 wins and his 1996 Championship title, Hill’s position was cemented as a legend of Formula 1 racing.
Damon Hill entered racing unusually late at the age of 23 when he began racing motorcycles. Working as a motorcycle courier to fund the sport, he went on to win the 350cc Clubman’s Cup at Brands Hatch in 1984.
A course in racing cars at Winfield Racing School in France followed, before he made his single-seater debut a year later in Formula Ford, his helmet bearing the blue and white of the London Rowing Club in tribute to his father. The end of term Formula Ford Festival saw Hill finish fifth overall with one win under his belt, and being credited with an award for Best Newcomer. This boost led on to his first full season in 1985, kick starting the career that was to follow.
Hill progressed steadily through Formula Ford in 1985, racing his way to third place in the Formula Ford Festival and taking six wins for the Team Van Diemen. The end of the year saw him move into the UK Formula 3 Championship, a decision out of line with normal practice, bypassing FF2000.
His quick rise to Formula 3 saw Hill slowly work his way up from finishing ninth in the 1986 British Formula 3 championship, racing with Mooncraft, to fifth in 1987 with two race victories. Consistently performing well, Hill reached third position in 1988, also winning the support race at the British Grand Prix.
1989 saw him racing for Mooncraft and Middlebridge in the Formula 3000. Despite having seen success in Formula 3, and claiming three pole positions in 1990, Hill ended the championship in joint 13th, a disappointing result for a driver who undoubtedly had so much potential.
1992 saw Hill make his debut into Formula 1 with the Brabham team. At 32 he was at an age when many drivers would have passed the peak of their top competition career.
Qualifying for two races that season, he made his debut at the British Grand Prix. A 16th position finish followed by 14th at the Hungarian Grand prix was discouraging and the end of the season saw an end to his relationship with Brabham.
The first win of his Formula 1 career came in 1993 at the Hungarian Grand Prix, racing for Williams, the first of two victories there. His driving was consistently improving, as he benefitted from driving alongside his more experienced Williams team mate, Alain Prost.
Hill completed his first season in Formula 1 in third place, behind Prost and Ayrton Senna. With three wins in Hungary, Belgium and Italy, along with two pole positions, it was clear Hill’s capabilities were beginning to show. His promising performance continued into 1994, where he began to match the level of his more experienced team mates and come within one race of winning the championship.
The highlight of the year for Hill was victory at the British Grand Prix, achieving a win that had eluded his father. This accomplishment saw Hill awarded the 1994 British Sports Personality of the Year.
Finding himself as team leader after the retirement of Prost and the tragic death of Senna, and having struggled up until that point in a season dominated by Michael Schumacher, Hill’s win in Britain saw his confidence back on track. Taking four more wins that season the title came down to the final race in Australia where he was one point behind Schumacher. In a controversial collision both failed to finish, with the title going to Schumacher.
By 1995 Hill was clearly the top driver in his team and he soared into championship pole position. Schumacher seemed intent on defending his title and Hill had some disappointing performances, a glimmer of hope only evident in his final race where he finished two laps ahead of his closest rival, an exceptional performance in Formula 1 history.
Williams started to have doubts about Hill as a result of this season and, with media criticism starting to grow, Williams made a decision not to renew Hill’s contract after the 1996 season.
The year to follow, however, proved to be by far the most successful for Hill, seeing him at the peak of his career and finally securing his position as World Champion. Qualifying for all 16 races on the front row and in his best ever season claiming five fastest laps and eight wins, Hill fought off stiff competition from team mate Jacques Villeneuve to take the title.
Despite the triumph he was still dropped by Williams, a decision which angered his loyal fans. Behind only Nigel Mansell, Hill was the best driver Williams had seen, with 21 victories for the team. The well deserved championship position also saw Hill become one of only three people to be awarded the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award twice.
Williams’ rejection wasn’t the end for Hill and in 1997 he announced that he would be driving for the Arrows team. This was an unusual choice, especially since the Arrows were bottom of the Constructors Championship and his world title put him in high demand with superior teams like McLaren. However, the team were beginning to develop under new management and they gave Hill a chance to race and improve his technique.
Initially it seemed Hill was suffering from being behind the wheel of a less competitive car, with a disappointing performance at the start of the season, but he recovered, taking his first point for the team at the British Grand Prix. This race saw him qualify in third position in a car whose previous record was ninth, a tribute to his driving ability.
The Arrows weren’t able to provide Hill with the great success he wanted, however, and in 1998 he switched to Jordan, taking his first victory since the end of his time with Williams at the Belgium Grand Prix. This was the first success for the Jordan team there. The year saw him contribute to Jordan’s 4th position in the Constructors Championship and take 4th position himself, proving he was still an exceptional driver.
1999 was crunch time for Hill. Hopes were high but it seemed Hill had reached his peak, and after a crash at Montreal he announced his plans to retire. Finishing in fifth place at the British Grand Prix gave Hill a boost to see out the rest of the year, but his final race of the season suggested he was right to call it a day, spinning off the track at Suzuka in Japan.
The Continuing Story
Despite retirement Hill’s popularity has failed to lessen, with his status as a legend of Formula 1 and a bit of a celebrity unquestionable.
Within racing realms he co-founded PI International, the Prestige and Super Car Private Members Club, and had his name used in a BMW dealership with which he became connected. He is also a regular contributor to top selling magazine F1 Racing, and in 2006 became president of the BRDC (British Racing Driver’s Club).
Hill’s TV appearances have been numerous, appearing on Top Gear in 2005, setting a record at the time on their test course, and having his life enshrined in a red book on This Is Your Life. He will also no doubt be remembered for his Pizza Hut stuffed-crust pizza advert, appearing alongside Murray Walker.
Music, has been a long time passion of Hill’s, (he often played in front of Formula 1 fans at the British Grand Prix) has revived itself in his retirement. Hill has played alongside Beatles’ star George Harrison and appeared on the opening track of Def Leppard’s album Euphoria, even getting a ten second guitar solo slot. His most recent band was the Conrods, a cover band which played up until 2003.