Features - News Feature
MARCH 1, 1996
Is Damon Hill a worthy champion?
BY JOE SAWARD
To place Damon in a historical perspective is, of course, impossible. Generations of racing journalists have been asked to put together silly lists of "The top 10 racing drivers of all-time". But how can one possibly compare different racing eras, with the different cars and different demands on the drivers? How would a Tazio Nuvolari or a Juan-Manuel Fangio do in a modern F1 car? We will never know.
There is a marked tendency in these lists to overstate the importance of the men of the moment. Some drivers will fade with time.
The only thing one can really say with any certainty is that anyone who has won the World Championship was an enormous talent and all had good cars in which to do it. Perhaps sometimes there were better cars and better drivers who did not win the World Championship but that is the essence of racing. You do not win the World title in a bad car just as a cart horse does not win the Grand National.
One of the great skills of the most famous World Champions was the ability to pick the right car at the right time. The master of this was Fangio who won his five titles with four different manufacturers: Maserati (1954-1957), Alfa Romeo (1951), Mercedes (1955) and Ferrari (1956). Fangio was the first driver to go from top team to top team to find the best car and few have done it since with success.
Racers who switch teams and win second and third titles should, logically, be considered in a better light than those who won all their titles with the same team and yet, when you read the lists of who people think were the best drivers of all time, you will always see Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark and Ayrton Senna - all of whom won all their titles with the same teams.
In the same lists you may not see Jack Brabham who won titles with Cooper and then with his own cars; Emerson Fittipaldi won titles with both Lotus and McLaren but his name is rarely on the lists. Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost all won titles with different teams.
Finding the best car may be the logical thing to do if you are the top driver but a lot of World Champions jump to the best overall package - with money as a major consideration. Their ambition tends to be blunted by success. Some think they will be able to build up a team to be successful - like Michael Schumacher is currently doing with Ferrari and Damon Hill is hoping to do with Arrows next year but they will sometimes find themselves struggling as James Hunt did with Wolf or Emerson Fittipaldi did with Copersucar.
Today, more than ever, being in the right car at the right time is important. Damon Hill was fortunate that he was in the right place at the right time in 1991 when Williams was looking for a test driver. Two years later he was lucky to be in the right place when Nigel Mansell stomped off to Indycars just after Riccardo Patrese had signed a deal with Benetton. Williams had Prost under contract but suddenly there was a gap for Damon. He had earned that chance as the team's test driver. Patrick Head is not an easy man to convince but Damon did it and it was Head who convinced a sceptical Frank Williams. Damon learned from Prost in 1993 and was soon capable of beating Alain. He learned from Senna before Ayrton was killed. And then, in painful circumstances, he became the team leader.
His starts-to-wins ratio is one of the most impressive in Formula 1 history. Fangio is way ahead of everyone with a 47% win rate. Alberto Ascari, the great Ferrari champion of the early 1950s, recorded a 41% rate and Jim Clark's record with Lotus in the early 1960s stands at 35%.
After Suzuka Damon has a win rate of 31% ahead of Jackie Stewart (27%), Michael Schumacher (26%), Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost (25%) and Stirling Moss (24%). Jacques Villeneuve has a 25% record as well - four wins in 16 races.
By comparison Nigel Mansell has a win rate of only 16%. Despite this heavyweight record Damon is still not considered to be an all-time great. People argue that he has always had the best car at his disposal and should have won World titles in 1994, 1995 and 1996. They forget that Hill's career has coincided with that of Schumacher.
Damon does have weaknesses - but most champions have had their faults. The remarkable thing about Hill is that he continually learns and improves. If people doubts him, he proves them wrong. He makes mistakes and admits them, however embarrassing that may be. Because he was thrust into the spotlight early on his errors have been well-publicized. Most drivers have the good fortune to make their mistakes in backwater teams.
The most remarkable thing about Damon is that he has won the World title with ever having raced go-karts. In the modern era that is extraordinary. The last World Champion without karting experience was Niki Lauda in 1984. Karting is a world in which drivers in their teens develop their driving skills. Diving passes become a reflex for the kartists. It becomes second nature. That is something that Damon never experienced. This has sometimes meant that he been slower through traffic than the other stars of today - all of whom (except Gerhard Berger) were karting stars.
The ability to overtake is just one of many skills needed by the top F1 drivers of today. It is not just a question of who can drive the fastest. One must be able to drive not only fast but consistently fast. One must be enormously dedicated, motivated and fit. One must understand the highly complex engineering which goes on in F1 and help guide the engineers to give one a better car. One has to understand race strategy and how races can be won and lost. At the same time one needs to be patient with media and able to withstand pressure both on and off the race tracks; one must present the right image for the sponsors.
But probably the most important talent of all these days is that one must have the ability to be in the right car at the right time. The greatest driver in the world is not necessarily the fastest man on the race track. The fastest man in the world will do nothing in F1 if he is driving a Forti. Some drivers surround themselves with managers and flunkies to do their thinking for them. Some manage by themselves. Some do not manage at all. Damon has done most of his thinking for himself. He is not closed off to people by over-protective managers who get upset if anyone dares to speak to their driver without permission. He has a small staff to deflect some of the pressures of being famous but usually at races he has a few mates knocking around. He has shown himself to the a consummate professional. Yes, he has made mistakes but if you do not make mistakes you do not win.
But where does he stand in relation to other great drivers. Being a World Champion is the ultimate accolade but even that does not always tell the whole story. Some would argue that the best driver of all never won a World title - Stirling Moss. Some cite Jacques Villeneuve's father as Gilles as the fastest driver ever. Villeneuve could have won the 1979 World Championship but obeyed team orders and let Jody Scheckter win. Ronnie Peterson was a wonderful talent and a gentleman as well. He stood back and let Mario Andretti win the 1978 title. Peterson's logic was that Andretti had developed the car and he had signed a contract to be Mario's number two.
In 1956 Peter Collins did the same for Fangio, handing over his car to the Argentine in Italy.
"I never thought that a 25-year-old guy like me could take on such a big responsibility," Collins told Enzo Ferrari. "I have lots of time ahead of me. Fangio should stay World Champion for another year. He deserves it."
But Collins never did win the title, he died two years later at the Nurburgring.
Such noble gestures are unthinkable these days, to such an extent that Williams doesn't even bother having a number one and a number two. It is every man for himself. There have been times when drivers have helped one another. In 1991 in Suzuka, for example, Gerhard Berger sacrificed his race to help Ayrton Senna win the title. Gerhard forced the pace early on, ruining his tyres but snaring Nigel Mansell into giving chase. Mansell went off. Senna won the title but at the finish he pulled over and let Berger win the race. Mansell did similar at Suzuka in 1992, giving a win to Riccardo Patrese.
Having a technical advantage is part of the game and most champions have happily admitted that they would not have won without the car. Jack Brabham won two titles for Cooper in 1959 and 1960 because he was driving a rear-engined car while others struggled with front-engined machinery. In 1966 he won with a Repco engine in the first year of a new formula. You can say he enjoyed a technical advantage on all occasions but he was still a great champion.
Some would argue that Phil Hill only won the 1961 title because the shark nose Ferrari was completely dominant and his team mate Wolfgang Von Trips was killed at Monza but the American had the speed of a champion, as he proved by becoming the first man to lap the old Nurburgring under eight minutes.
In 1964 John Surtees won the title for Ferrari but only after an extraordinary showdown in Mexico City. It was a three-way fight for the Championship. Surtees had to finish second to win the title but was fourth at the start of the last lap. Clark was set the win the title but his engine blew on that very last lap and Surtees's team mate Lorenzo Bandini pulled over to give John the extra place he needed. He won the title on the last lap of the last race. Clark was unlucky but Surtees was in a position to exploit that misfortune.
There was another three-man showdown in 1968 in Mexico City in which Denny Hulme (the 1967 Champion) was sidelined with a fire and Jackie Stewart with a fuel pump problem and so Graham Hill won the title.
In 1970 Jochen Rindt climbed out of his Lotus at Hockenheim and commented that "even a monkey could win in this car". He did but he died in the car at Monza when a mechanical problem threw the car out of control.
Having the best car does not guarantee success. Jackie Stewart's three titles with Ken Tyrrell in 1969, 1971 and 1973 were not as clear cut as the statistics suggest. In 1973 the Lotuses were quicker than Jackie's Tyrrell but Emerson Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson split points between them and allowed Stewart to sneak through to win.
The 1974 season should have been Clay Regazzoni's year for Ferrari but he had a series of mechanical failures which robbed him of the title. Young Niki Lauda, his team mate, was still making mistakes and so did not challenge Clay. Fittipaldi sneaked through for McLaren to snatch the title. In 1975, 1976 and 1977 the Ferrari was the dominant car. Lauda won in 1975 but in 1976 nearly lost his life in a fiery accident at the Nurburgring. He missed three races. James Hunt was also deprived of three sets of points because of technical infringements. Hunt won the title when Lauda pulled of the dramatic wet race in Fuji. Did Hunt deserve his title? Years later Lauda admitted that James had beaten him with an inferior car.
Hunt had a quicker car in 1977 but it was late arriving and so Lauda won the title that year.
In 1978 Lotus was dominant but in 1979 it was completely different story as Ligier faded, Williams was late becoming competitive and Scheckter won the title for Ferrari. You could argue that he did not deserve his title but Gilles Villeneuve obviously thought he did...
In 1980 Alan Jones was dominant, making the most of his FW07 but the following year he was outpaced by Carlos Reutemann - who disobeyed team orders to win in Brazil. Thereafter the Williams team backed Reutemann but Carlos was outpsyched by Nelson Piquet in Las Vegas and lost the title. And so it goes on. You can argue a case against most World Champions. Keke Rosberg won the title in 982 with one win in a year when Ferrari was dominant but Ferrari's drivers Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi were both involved in cataclysmic accidents. In the years that followed Keke proved his Champion status with some magical victories.
Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell both took a long time to win their first titles: Alain had near-misses in 1983 and 1984 before winning in 1985. He then won an extraordinary victory in 1986, edging out Williams drivers Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell when the Williams was clearly a better car.
Mansell should have won the title in 1991 but Senna beat him in an inferior car. Nigel finally won the Championship in 1992 and no-one would argue that he did not deserve that win.
So it really is not worth arguing with one another. Damon is the World Champion and deserves to be. And if you don't accept that, listen to what Michael Schumacher - that wellknown Damon Hill fan - had to say at Suzuka.
"He has waited a long time for it. For sure it was tough. The only thing you can say is congratulations. He really fought for it. Obviously I really feel he deserved it. "<\#026>