Damon Hill was the main rival to Michael Schumacher during the 90s and he managed to win the 1996 F1 title with a dominant display.
His father was a racing champion. Even the mother was a sporting champion, winning a medal in the European Rowing Championships. So, it was no surprise that the son would also have plenty of sporting talent in his veins. He would start as a motorcycle racer with plenty of talent. But, he made the switch to Formula One car racing. The results were not spectacular to begin with, but in 1996, Damon Hill finally achieved his dream. The title win in 1996, at a time when he was involved in a bitter tussle with Michael Schumacher, was evidence of the raw talent that Hill had in his career.
Damon Hill came from a family of affluence. His father, Graham Hill, was a world champion in 1962 and 1968. The exploits of Graham Hill afforded his family a very comfortable life, living in a palatial mansion. But, in 1975, Graham Hill died in a plane crash. The family fell on hard times. Damon Hill had to work as a labourer and motorcycle courier boy in order to just fund his education. It was during these times that he developed a passion for motorsports, just like his father.
Hill started his motorcycle career in 1981 but he did not achieve great success. Further, his mother was worried about the safety of riding on bikes. It was on her advice that Hill decided to switch over to car racing. From 1985 onwards, he raced in the UK National Championships. In the very next year, Hill was racing in the British Formula Three Championships. His best year came in 1988 when he finished third.
Normally, drivers who would achieve success in Formula 3 would gain direct entry into the elite club of F1. But, the lack of sponsorship money meant Hill had to wait a few more years. After trying out in the British F3000 championship with limited success, Hill was in Formula One. Hill raced for Brabham but did not achieve success. After Brabham collapsed after the end of the 1992 season, Hill was unexpectedly called up by Williams.
The Williams call was a stroke of luck. Ricardo Patrese left Williams to join Benetton. Even then, Williams had the services of Martin Brundle and Mika Hakkinen to call up. But, Williams chose Damon Hill to partner four-time champion Alain Prost.
In 1993, Damon Hill won his first race by securing a great victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix. For some races, he was in the lead, putting veterans like Prost and Aryton Senna behind. But, mechanical failures saw him lose the lead on multiple occasions. In Portugal, Hill started from the back after stalling on the opening lap. But, he stormed through the field to take third. Hill could have finished the season at the second spot in the driver’s championship, but Aryton Senna denied him by winning the last two races of the season. Still, it was a decent start for Hill with the Williams team.
In 1994, Aryton Senna joined Hill in Williams. However, it was Michael Schumacher who dominated the start of the season with consistent wins. But, tragedy struck the sport when Senna died in the San Marino Grand Prix. Hill, who had an experience of just one year in F1, was now a lead driver. In the Spanish Grand Prix, Hill won the race in emotional circumstances.
Things changed dramatically for Hill in the British Grand Prix. Schumacher was disqualified and banned for two races for ignoring the black flag. Hill won the race and achieved what his father could not. The fireworks between Hill and Schumacher began. The German stated that Hill was not a world-class driver. But, Hill got the better of Schumacher in a wet race by winning in Japan. This got the gap down to one point between Hill and Schumacher heading into the Adelaide Grand Prix.
It was at that time that a major controversy broke out. Schumacher ran off the track and hit the wall with the right-hand side of his Benetton while leading. Coming into the sixth corner, Hill moved to pass the Benetton. The two collided, breaking Williams’ front left suspension wishbone. This forced both drivers to retire and Schumacher won the title by one point. The accusations would linger on for a decade. Hill stated in 2007 that Schumacher deliberately caused the crash. Experts opinions remained divided.
In 1995, Hill started the season with two wins but Schumacher won seven out of the remaining 12 races. Both continued to have altercations. Schumacher and Hill both had suspended one-race bans. Schumacher’s penalty was for blocking and forcing Hill off the road at the Belgian Grand Prix; Hill’s was for colliding with Schumacher under braking at the Italian Grand Prix. But, in the Australian Grand Prix, Hill ended the season on a high by winning the Australian Open.
However, in 1996, Hill had the benefit of having a very quick car. He started in all 16 races and qualified on the front row in all. The British driver won the first three races but he faced stiff competition from his team-mate Jacques Villeneuve, the son of the legendary Gille Villeneuve. Hill would win a further eight races to end the season with 97 points. Hill secured the F1 title in grand style but the win was bittersweet.
It was learnt that he would be dropped by Williams for the 1997 season. Hill joined the Arrows team but the car was crippled by an uncompetitive engine. His best finish came in the Hungarian Grand Prix when he was leading the race. But, a hydraulics failure saw him drop to second and a win was robbed for him.
In 1998, Hill signed with the Jordan team but his rivalry with Michael Schumacher did not end. During the Canadian Grand Prix, Hill moved across the track three times to block Schumacher. The German took second place by running over the kerbs at the last chicane. Hill then ran fourth after his only pit stop before retiring due to an electrical failure. After the race, Schumacher accused Hill of dangerous driving.
In the German Grand Prix, Hill secured a point for Jordan but history would be created in the next race in Belgium. A massive pile-up at the start resulted in most cars being ruled out of the race. But, it was the collision between Schumacher and David Coulthard that blew the race wide open. Hill was leading the race ahead of Ralf Schumacher, the younger brother of Michael and his teammate. Jordan secured a historic 1-2 and Hill won his first race since departing Williams.
In 1999, Hill decided to retire from F1. He wanted to retire after the end of the British Grand Prix but decided to race for the whole year. Hill secured points in Hungary and Belgium but in his last race in Japan, he spun off the track and came into the pit lane due to mental fatigue.
After his retirement, Hill entered into a career in broadcasting and was also the president of the British Racing Driver’s Club. He also developed a career in music. Hill devoted more time to music and played with celebrity bands. This included Spike Edney’s SAS band and Pat Cash’s Wild Colonial Boys. Hill also formed his own band, The Conrods, which was active between 1999 and 2003. The band played cover versions of well-known songs from The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Kinks.