Friday, 3 October 2014

Twenty years on - Damon's greatest day

Damon Hill. Just where does he fit?

By this I mean in the sport's historical pecking order. We know he's a world champion - indeed were it not for what was most likely a professional foul he'd have two - but such is F1's odd way that only is helpful to a certain point. Indeed it for a few becomes almost an implement with which to beat him; I've heard even the dubious title of 'The worst ever F1 champion' attributed to him on occasion.

Damon Hill
"Damon Hill juillet 1995" by Alonso
at French Wikipedia - Transferred from
fr.wikipedia to Commons.Self-photographed.
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia
 Commons -
But generally I've often felt that he is sold a little short. True, he wasn't an artist; more an artisan. One who achieved success more via perspiration than inspiration. And part of the conundrum expressed may be explained by that the sport's historiography for some reason isn't one that readily rewards that sort (similar could be said about Damon's father Graham).

Perhaps too his personal story didn't help: one who pretty much directly got into the best F1 car there is, and at an advanced age and without much glowing from the junior formulae on his CV all may have led some to conclude that success rather landed on his lap. Perhaps also in an absurd way Damon's understated and dignified persona, that couldn't have been further from the precious and haughty archetype superstar of the modern age, didn't help either.

Yet whatever you think of Damon his statistical achievements - a world championship and 22 race wins - are not the sort of thing you just fall backwards into. And while it nevertheless would be stretching things to call him a great he was one capable on occasion of producing truly exceptional performances. He genuinely can point to a few races which, without hyperbole, deserve ranking among the best of anyone from the sport's pantheon.

His Hungarian Grand Prix in 1997 will always have its advocates of course, when he came within an errant 50p washer of securing for him and Arrows the most unlikely win in the sport's history. As will the 1996 Japanese Grand Prix when Hill, under pressure, secured his title finally with a flawless drive. His drive in Monaco earlier that year, when he routed the field in the rain, should also be ranked among them even though a later engine failure perhaps led to it being too readily forgotten.

But in my view there was one that probably trumped all of them. One that we're close to 20 years on from. That in the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka in the 1994 season.

And what likely added to it was that very few saw it coming. Indeed not many more thought he had it in him at all. Further it could hardly have been done in more trying circumstances. Talk of coming of age in sport or in anything isn't always appropriate. But this felt a lot like one.

The 1994 year by that stage had become all about two rather polar opposite rivals - Hill and the lauded Michael Schumacher - and their rather unlikely championship tete-a-tete. The two entered the event but five points apart in the drivers' table with Schumi ahead. It was the fifteenth round of the season, and the penultimate one. But plenty felt that Hill was something of an imposter. Arguably with reason too, as even with the facts outlined he had not yet beaten Schumacher in straight fight in any round that season. And if that seems impossible given everything then it only sums up just what an odd out-lying campaign F1's in 1994 was.

It is a season that of course now rests in historical infamy. It started with tragedy, then descended into acrimony, perhaps even more so than the notorious 1982 year had. But unlike that year which had 11 different race winners and much on-track drama, this was a season characterised also by tepid competitive entertainment and insulting Schumacher and Benetton domination. For much of the campaign it looked like the title would be all his well before the end of the European season.

But in the British round at the mid-year point matters began to tilt. And the acrimony mentioned almost entirely centred on the self-same Benetton team.

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow, and it all started with the apparently trifling act of Schumi managing to overtake pole man Hill twice on the Silverstone race's warm-up lap. Against the rules. And in the early laps word was that he faced a five second penalty as a consequence. The usual graphic didn't appear on the TV feed though and Schumi didn't peel into the pit lane so most dismissed it as misinformation. But then, astonishingly, it was shown on the TV screen that Schumi was to be black flagged. Michael ignored the signal three times and all the while we were witness to the unedifying sight of Benetton team members arguing with officials in the Silverstone pit lane as the race was going on. The team's beef was that the penalty communicated made no mention of the stop-go and it assumed therefore that the five seconds would be added onto his race time (a slightly odd assumption given time penalties not in the form of a stop-go - aside from those given near the end of races - were almost unheard of at the time).

Michael Schumacher in the Benetton B194
dominated much of the season
"Benetton B 194 4841" by Flominator - Own work. Licensed
under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via
Wikimedia Commons -
Eventually the said officials relented and allowed Schumi to serve the stop-go belatedly, and gave the team a slightly paltry fine afterwards. But FIA President Max Mosley took a different view, not only disqualifying Schumacher from the British race but kicking him out of two more in addition (which - after appeals - was served eventually in Monza and Estoril), as well as lightening the team's wallet by a whacking great $500,000.

It got worse for Schumi as he a few weeks later was also disqualified from the Belgian race due to having too much wear on his 'plank' underneath the car. Scratch four races therefore, or quarter of the season if you prefer. And Damon had managed to take full advantage by winning all of them. Suddenly from it being a cakewalk with three rounds to go the returning Schumi's lead over Hill was a scant solitary point.

There was dark muttering at all of this, with particularly from the Enstone direction plenty of mentions of 'witch hunts' (perhaps related to Benetton boss Flavio Briatore explicitly and publicly questioning his and other team principals' confidence in Mosley earlier in the year), or perhaps even that F1's invisible hand was seeking to ensure a close title finish. But then again things might have been even worse for the squad, with the FIA rather in contrast to its demeanour post-Silverstone appearing to give Benetton extreme benefit of the doubt over whether the team had used supposedly-banned 'launch control' in the San Marino round earlier in the year (which set a few tongues wagging as to the extent that dark arts were aiding Benetton's other-worldly dominance) as well as when it self-admittedly removed a safety filter from its refuelling nozzle, which led to the famous spectacular blaze in Jos Verstappen's pit stop in Germany.

There was some dark muttering at Hill too, to the effect that he might not be up to the fight. Even though - just as his father had in 1968 - he had shown immense fortitude in picking up a grieving team after the loss of its star driver, and in his case had to do it with but 21 Grands Prix to his name. Indeed Renault (Williams' engine supplier) had such a lack of faith in him that it pushed for Nigel Mansell to return to occupy the other Williams seat when his Indycar commitments didn't clash.

But in so doing the company probably, strangely, did Hill a favour. In France where Nige first appeared Damon qualified ahead, indeed took his first pole of the year. Then in the race left him. Bernie Ecclestone's words said in Magny-Cours turned out to be highly prophetic: 'at Silverstone (the next race) we will see a different Damon. He will be more confident and more prepared to take charge. And the team will be more prepared to listen'. Those in the Williams camp noted that after the French race Damon indeed walked conspicuously a few inches taller.

But nevertheless a few maintained that he was no better than his car and that his presence in a title fight was rather elevated. And Schumacher shared this view seemingly, judging by the content of a rather crude barb he aimed at Hill prior to the Jerez race. Still - as Hill's defenders maintained - at the very least he had to deliver in Schumi's absence. And he did.

Following his two-race hiatus for Schumacher in the season's third-to-last round in Jerez it rather swiftly looked like business of the very usual sort though. Any thoughts of rustiness, crumbling to pressure or indeed to anything else were disabused as Michael took pole then won the race from Damon at a canter. Hill admittedly had been rather hobbled, when his team - wrongly as it turned out - thought due to a rig glitch he'd been given 13 litres less fuel than intended at his first stop. This crippled his race, as it meant not only an earlier than intended second halt but also that Hill carried unnecessary extra weight from that point on.

Yet with all of the various controversies now one way or another passed it looked like whatever doubt that had been created by the acrimony was over and the service of months previously before it had all kicked off was resuming. Even more so as everyone gathered in Suzuka for the penultimate round, and Schumi again looked like he had the place to himself. In Friday's qualifying he was comfortably fastest, and even the 0.4 second gap back to Hill in second on the final timing screens didn't tell the whole story, as Schumi had done it in five fewer laps and using only one set of tyres to Hill's two. Our eyes backed up the concept too with the Benetton looking nailed to the track and Hill's FW16B nervous, particularly at low speed. And come Saturday morning's running it looked possible that Hill wouldn't even be the quickest Williams, with Nigel Mansell appearing by now up to speed and Schumi's closest challenger. But as it was the day's qualifying session was rained on, meaning that the Friday order was that framing the grid (in the days that qualifying was split across Friday and Saturday sessions).

It rains a lot in Japan, with rainfall levels around twice even that of Britain. Suzuka being as it is in a coastal area is particularly associated with the stuff. And it appeared that most of it wanted to be dumped on the area on race day. From early morning it was present and clear that it was of the persistent variety.

It was still there at the time of race start, and perhaps unthinkably to the modern eye the race started both on time and without the aid of a safety car. The standing start went off without much drama; Schumacher leading from Hill. But the start of lap three rather made up for any dramatic deficit. The pack came round to the pit straight to find hailstones bouncing off the surface and a track that rather resembled a lake. Cars seemed to float off in all directions though the victims somehow were confined just to three (though sadly included Johnny Herbert who was making his debut for Benetton and was running in third).

This did result in a safety car appearance, which bottled everything up until lap 10, the weather by then having relented a little. At the point of release though Schumacher really got the jump on the pursuing Hill, helping himself to a 4.8 second lead almost before anyone could blink. But soon attention was taken away from the scrap at the front as the rain intensified once again. Three laps after the re-start Gianni Morbidelli hit a puddle at Dunlop Curve and rearranged his Minardi on the barriers. A caterpillar tractor appeared to clear the car, and a few marshals accompanied it on the danger side of the barrier. However on the next lap around Martin Brundle's McLaren hit the same puddle. As he spun towards the tractor Brundle 'really though that was it...I just closed my eyes, not expecting to be able to open them again'. As it was he somehow missed the tractor at the last split-second, but collected a marshal instead who was lucky to escape only with a broken leg. A few armchair critics took aim at Brundle for not slowing for yellow flags, but as the Englishman pointed out such were the conditions he couldn't even see his own dashboard let along what the marshals were waving...

Damon Hill's Williams FW16
"Williams FW16B front Donington Grand Prix Collection"
by Morio - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
The marshals now waved the red flag, and as the cars that remained gathered on the pit straight a permanent halt to the whole thing seemed a genuine possibility and was advanced by several team principals to the stewards (a certain Eddie Jordan being chief among them). Schumacher paced around nervously. Hill, meanwhile - with echoes of Villeneuve and Senna before him - stayed strapped into his car in full garb and helmet. Staring ahead, focussed.

Amazingly at this still relatively early point just 15 of the 26 starters remained. Perhaps even more amazingly, 13 of that 15 made the eventual finish.

Twenty minutes or so later there was indeed a re-start, as the rain had eased to more of a drizzle. The race was to be run to a finish at lap 50, three short of the original total. And for the first time ever (not including Indy 500s) an F1 start was enacted behind the safety car - in effect creating a rolling start - such was the accompanying danger of the conditions.

But with one door opening another closed, as it was also to be the last Grand Prix ever to be decided by aggregate times. These days of course when there is a red flag the re-start is just that, with the pre red flag action counting for nothing other than giving us the starting order for the second part. Then though for any re-started race that was red flagged after lap 3 the final result was achieved by adding together each driver's times from the two parts, those before and after the stoppage. Battles would therefore be on the watch rather than necessarily on the track. Confusion ahoy.

One upshot of it this was that as Michael Schumacher was 6.8 seconds ahead of Damon Hill at the end of 'part one' so long as he finished no longer than that after Hill in 'part two' he'd be the one ahead.

Come the green flag it looked more of the same though. Hill wasn't left as previously, only being a couple of seconds adrift (on the road) this time. But Schumi still looked comfortable out front. The rest were left though, with the leading pair both lapping in the 1m 57s and the rest not getting under two minutes. This was a game for two players.

But just five laps into this phase the game started to change, as Schumacher peeled in for fuel and tyres. Refuelling wasn't permitted in the red flag phase and it seemed he was going for a two-stop strategy. He emerged officially in second but in actuality stuck in traffic and spray behind Mika Hakkinen's McLaren much further back.

Hill marched on with a lighter fuel load and a clear road, and we now had a role reversal from the previous race in Jerez, indeed probably the first time that entire season that Williams had the upper hand on Benetton on a Sunday (if we are not to include Schumi proceeding with only fifth gear for most of the Spanish round). His lead over Schumi, from it being 18.7 seconds after the German pitted, lap-on-lap went up like this: 21.7, 24.0, 26.3 and 29.5.

Indeed it transpired later that Schumi's 'two-stop strategy' wasn't even what it seemed. During the stoppage the stewards spoke of the possibility stopping the race at the lap 40 mark (the 75% point at which full points would be awarded), and doing so behind the safety car if the weather worsened. The Benetton team therefore fuelled its charge enough to reach that point. But right now it meant he had to haul around an ugly-handling, as heavy, machine. Michael to his credit refused afterwards to use being behind Hakkinen as any sort of excuse, stating that such was his car's deficiency at that point he wasn't capable of going quicker anyway.

But for all that Michael struggled Damon lacked for nothing in putting him to the sword when the opportunity arose, putting in as he did the sort of spell that any of the sport's greats would have been proud of.

Five laps later Hill pitted himself and maintained the lead on the watch (though with Jean Alesi and Nigel Mansell, themselves locked in a furious race-long battle for third, ahead on the road briefly before pitting themselves). We found out later that in a day for oddities Hill's pit stop contained another, as his right-rear refused to budge and the mechanic on the wheel decided smartly that it was in good enough condition to leave on.

The aggregate-corrected lead for Hill stabilised at roughly the five second mark for a while, but from around lap 30 Michael - with fuel burned off, a clear track and the car more to his liking - really cut loose. He ripped strips out of Hill's advantage every time around and come lap 36 sailed straight past to lead again on the watch. For those watching on who were struggling to keep up with the corkscrew-like considerations it seemed that, while it took a rather roundabout route to get there, the usual way of things had reasserted itself.

But unbeknown to most the dread 40th lap awaited Schumi and Benetton. The rain by now had stopped and though the track remained perilous there was now next-to no likelihood of time being called early. This would be fought to the end.

And Michael therefore on lap 40 and with ten remaining detoured to the pit lane for his second halt. The stop was close to the 'splash and dash' variety, but still it resulted in putting Hill back into the lead and with almost 15 seconds in hand.

The stakes could hardly have been higher either. Damon had to push as hard as he could in order to keep himself out of the shark-like Schumi's reach, but equally he could not afford any error. That would hand the race to his foe, and with it in effect the title too as Hill being runner-up in the race would require the German to achieve only a sixth-place finish in the final round in Adelaide. A race-ending error would almost certainly hand Schumi the title that day full stop. And given the aggregate situation Murray Walker's habitual 'closing is one thing, getting past is quite another' adage wouldn't apply. Hill's task was to walk a tightrope without a net, with someone yielding a pitch fork bearing down on him from behind.

In fairness though, some similar considerations applied to Schumacher also. While a second place would be by no means disastrous, taking the championship fight to a final round winner-takes-all contest, a DNF for him would allow Hill to cruise to the title in Adelaide by following him home in second. Schumi though despite this never showed any outward sign of settling for second.

But Hill proceeded. Never did he flick into the pit lane for the second stop some anticipated. Never did he fall off. And this despite that the handling of his Williams appeared to be deteriorating; the rear sliding frequently. Likely a consequence of one of the rear tyres, as mentioned, being required to do an entire Grand Prix distance.

Steve Matchett, then one of the Benetton crew, spoke years later that all in that team sat waiting in the garage, almost expectant, for something to ensure 1994's habitual order would be restored. Hill's pace would relent; he'd fall off; he'd have another stop. Flavio Briatore's face indeed as he sat upon the pit wall, which the TV feed cut to frequently (him donning - with typically unorthodoxy - a baseball cap on back-to-front), rather betrayed this too; angst with a noticeable dash of bewilderment. Like normality had been suspended and he was rather impatient for it to be reconvened. But Damon kept confounding them.

Michael nevertheless had the smell of blood in his nostrils, and enacted one of those electrifying short stint sprints that would in time become his trademark. Indeed on his first lap after his final stop he took three full seconds out of Hill's lead and already his winning the day seemed a formality.

The time seized on a lap never was as big again but it remained significant and persistent. The gap lap-on-lap read thus: 12 seconds, 10.1, 8.3, 7.0, 5.2. With two to go it was 4.2, then going into the final lap it was down to 2.4. We seemed on course almost for a dead heat.

Hill scampered around his final tour and crossed the line first, but without the usual celebration or cheers. Instead there was an incongruous silence and still. Everybody waited, and peered for the green and blue Benetton of Schumacher's to come into view. It did, and as he went through the timing beam it was confirmed (indeed was shrieked by a commentating Murray Walker) - three point three six seconds. Hill's lead was in tact, indeed had extended on that last time around. One of the sport's most unlikely and unanticipated wins was his.

And with it came rapid revaluation of Hill's talent. He'd displayed courage and doggedness that day, which most even beforehand hadn't doubted that he had. But with it he'd shown great speed and commitment, and shown it consistently throughout the race, without the slightest hint of an error despite him being required to tread the most precarious and critical high wire. Perhaps that was less anticipated.

And chief among those handing out the plaudits was Michael Schumacher, who paid generous tribute not only in shaking Hill's hand as he sat in the cockpit in parc ferme (as well as administering a slightly friendly-aggressive slap in the top of his skid-lid) but also in his words: 'Damon drove a great race today, I must say' he said. 'Today we had a risky pit stop strategy, and it didn't work out'.

Damon meanwhile reflected on a job, and an unlikely one, well done: 'It was just a question of taking as many risks as I could not to let any of my advantage slip away...In the back of my mind, I kept thinking how nice it would be if I could win, and we could go to Adelaide with just one point in it, but I also had to tell myself to be realistic. Beating Michael is a tall order - this year, he's been the class of the field, and most times he has managed to beat us. But today we got things right.'

The relief wasn't just Damon's either, it was in some ways shared by the sport. This is because in a season of poison away from the track combined with soporific (and sometimes tragic) fare on it we finally had an enthralling race; by far the most enthralling of the year. And even better it set up the first final race F1 title show down in eight years. And one in which neither participant could afford a mere second place.

And for the first half of that final round in Adelaide we had a race that continued 1994's new-found feel good factor. But sadly there was then a sudden return of something rather more appropriate to the 1994 campaign to provide the battle's conclusion.

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