Welcome to Freeze Frame, our look back at moments from this week in automotive history.
13 October 1996 – Damon Hill wins the Formula 1 title at the Japanese Grand Prix
Your author no longer wakes at the crack of dawn to catch Grands Prix in the furthest-flung corners of the globe. But on October 13, 1996, me, and I daresay a larger than average swathe of the British population, arose in the darkness to cheer on, potentially, our country’s next Formula One world champion.
52 laps and just over an hour and a half later, Damon Hill was first across the line in Suzuka, Japan, his title rival Jacques Villeneuve already out of the race, and sealed his first and only F1 title by a margin of 19 points.
In doing so, Damon Hill became the first son of a Formula One champion to take a title himself. While the Canadian had put up the toughest competition in 1996, for those of us watching, Hill’s victory was also a blessed relief after two tough years of competition with Michael Schumacher.
If you’ll allow us to play the “what if” game for just a moment, it’s easy to forget how strong a fight Hill had put up the year before his 1994 dice with Schumacher and Benetton.
Hill’s hat-trick of victories late in the 1993 season, at Hungary, Belgium and Italy were vindication for cruel losses in the previous two rounds, both of which he’d been leading. In the British Grand Prix his engine expired, and in Germany, with a commanding lead over Prost, a tyre blew, pitching him out of the race. In only his second year in the sport, Hill finished third in the title behind Prost and Senna.
1994’s finale was more memorable and oft-debated; whatever your view of the incident, it’s fair to say that Hill’s outcome was desperately unlucky and Schumacher’s one-point margin rather more fortunate. In 1995, the battle was nothing like as close, the dominant German taking nine wins to Hill’s four.
In 1996 though, Hill undoubtedly started on the front foot. The Patrick Head and Adrian Newey-developed Williams FW18 was possibly the best Grand Prix car of the decade, immaculately prepared and perfectly adapted to the season’s rules, including the high cockpit sides introduced in the wake of Senna and Ratzenberger’s deaths in 1994 – a detail Newey managed to render with less aerodynamic penalty than any other car that season.
Schumacher had also moved to Ferrari, a team in turmoil, and the squad’s F310 (its first V10) was a recalcitrant beast – though not enough to stop him taking one of the greatest victories of his career at a wet Spanish Grand Prix.
But in the end, Hill and Villeneuve made the best of what they had. Villeneuve often looked the quicker of the pair, including at the opening Australian Grand Prix, where only concerns over the health of his car – coating Hill’s FW18 behind with a layer of oil – led to them switching places. Hill delivered though, taking four victories from the first five races, then another three as the year progressed. But Villeneuve was stronger in the second half, and put himself an essential nine points behind after a victory at the penultimate round in Portugal. If Hill had a nightmare in Japan and Villeneuve won, the title would have gone Canada’s way.
The Brit need not have worried. He gapped a slow-starting Villeneuve off the line after a restart, and despite an early challenge from Gerhard Berger, slowly put distance on the rest of the field. Villeneuve lasted until lap 37, when a wheel bearing failure took him out of the race.
Hill no longer needed to even finish, but the Brit maintained his lead to the end – crossing the finish to one of the most memorable lines ever uttered by the late Murray Walker; “And I’ve got to stop, because I’ve got a lump in my throat.” Murray wasn’t the only one; few Grands Prix have been so worth getting up early for.
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