It's 25 years since Damon Hill won the world championship at Suzuka. I remember it well because I was one of many fans willing him over the line during the early hours of Sunday morning. I was glued to a tiny TV set in my bedroom. It was the same TV set that, two years earlier, transmitted the death of the sport's greatest-ever driver, Ayton Senna - so to see the unassuming Hill take the sport's ultimate honour after the tumultuous journey which began on that terrible May Day in 1994 was particularly heart-warming.
Damon had been Prost's understudy in 1993, and was the clear number two at Williams when Senna arrived in 1994. He had the expectations of his family name to bear, but as far as Williams was concerned, he was simply there to support Senna and the team in racking up points. Then, after the tragedy of Senna's death had unfolded at the edge of the ultra-fast Tamburello corner, this quiet, unassuming underdog was suddenly thrust the Williams' team baton. Don't forget that back then it was at the top of its game; good enough to make Senna desperate to move there from McLaren, and even offer to drive for Sir Frank Williams' team for free - although, in fairness that was more of a political gesture than a genuine proposal.
After the death of Senna, the pressure on Hill must have been unbearable. Especially when the FW16 car was still proving edgy to drive on the limit, and the scale of the challenge to beat the sport's next 'GOAT' in-waiting, Michael Schumacher, was becoming readily apparent. Despite that, Damon only just lost out to Schumacher at the last race of the 1994 season in Adelaide. And only then after the unbelievably talented but equally ruthless German had fallen off the road and, well, let's just say, not avoided crashing into Hill as meaningfully as he might.
1995 wasn't Damon's best season, but by 1996 the stars had aligned - in terms of the quality of the FW18 and Hill's ability to drive it consistently enough to deliver a championship - and the rest is history. Patrick Head was once quoted as saying "One of the nicest things about Damon is that he is normal...he doesn't treat all the talented people who work here as if they are just minions." The 1996 world champion, then, was proof that nice guys can finish first.
The anniversary of that day in Suzka, when Murray Walker famously had to stop talking because of the lump in his throat, fell on October 13th. I only realised that because the man himself mentioned it casually when we met two days earlier at the launch of the Mustang Mach 1. I was strapped into a Ford GT at the time, sitting next to him as we were circled the Thruxton circuit, easing past 150mph through the fast section. He's still quick, then, and incredibly smooth. So smooth that it crossed my mind, somewhere between Goodwood and Club, that he'd learned an awful lot from Prost in the year they were teammates.
I've always thought that Hill is an underrated driver. Anyone who took over from Ayrton Senna to lead the best team in F1 at the time - and then do battle with the best living driver at the time - was always going to bear harsh comparison. It didn't help that he was dumped after winning the world championship by Williams and had to take a drive in an uncompetitive Arrows the following year. But to me that's where his talent shone. He proved he was a driver that, like all the best talents, could win an F1 race in a back-of-the-grid contender - well, almost, bar the 50-pence washer that thwarted his fairy-tale win at Hungary in 1997 - and in multiple cars, when he went on to win with Jordan in 1998.
Okay, both those events occurred with a contributory back story - at Hungary it was with the assistance of the Bridgestone tyres while at Spa; in the Jordan, it was the elimination of an unbelievable number of his rivals throughout a race in very wet conditions. Still, he managed to stay out of trouble that day where others did not, and had the political nous to get the team to call off a late challenge from teammate Ralf Schumacher.
The other thing I learned about Hill in the GT was that he has the unofficial lap record at Thruxton. That was secured during an event in 1993 celebrating the circuit's 25th anniversary. Hill told me he was only there "because Frank asked if I could do him a favour and drive the car." The car was the Williams FW15C and he lapped it in 57.6s at an average speed of 147mph. That takes some balls if you know Thruxton, an old-school track with little run-off. And it was achieved before the pronounced bumps that affected the fast back stretch were removed in 2000.
I asked him if he was intending to break the record that day? He shrugged and said "Not really. There's only one way to drive an F1 car and that's flat out. It was only when I got back [to the pits] they told me I'd beaten the lap record." To which he added, "It's an unofficial record, though; we weren't actually racing." Self-effacing as ever. And perhaps a reminder that you shouldn't shy away from meeting your heroes.
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