Damon Hill follows his father to F1 title

1996 Japanese Grand Prix flashback

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Damon Hill became the first ever second-generation Formula One driver to win the world championship on this day 20 years ago.

He was the overwhelming favourite heading into the final round of the 1996 season. But Hill carried an unusually high burden of pressure even by the standards of most world championship contenders.

He had missed out on championships twice already in the previous two seasons. In 1996 he had his best chance yet thanks to a formidable Williams-Renault, a weakened opposition and a rookie team mate. But in the preceding two races at Monza and Estoril he’d missed opportunities to put a lock on the title.

In Italy he was leading when he clipped a tyre stack, putting him out. He led early on in Portugal, too, and with team mate Jacques Villeneuve stuck behind Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari it seemed the title would finally be his. But Villeneuve sprung an audacious pass on Schumacher, then jumped Hill through the pit stops to capture victory.

Even with that success, Villeneuve’s shot at the title at the Suzuka showdown was a long one. He arrived nine points behind Hill with ten available for a win. As Hill had won seven races to his four, only victory for Villeneuve with his team mate placing outside the points-scoring top six could deny Hill the title.

Hill faced the added pressure of knowing this would likely be his last shot at a title. Williams had already announced they would dispense of his services once the chequered flag fell in Japan. Hill was bound for Arrows, a team which had never previously won a race. Already 36 years old, having reached F1 later in life than his rivals, this was Hill’s last and best chance to emulate his twice-champion father.

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Villeneuve flies to pole

Villeneuve’s title hopes were a long shot
Rain affected the build-up to the race. This made for a treacherous surface at a circuit which, then as now, was one of the season’s most demanding.

This was Suzuka’s tenth time hosting the world championship and Hill couldn’t help but dwell on what had happened to his compatriot Nigel Mansell in F1’s first race there. A crash during practice left Mansell injured and unable to beat his team mate to the title.

Villeneuve, who had already showed an affinity for F1’s fastest tracks by out-qualifying Hill at Spa, rocketed to pole ahead of his tentative team mate. Hill only moved up to second place on the grid with his final effort.

Several of the F1 circuits had been unfamiliar to the rookie Villeneuve, but Suzuka he knew well from his days in Japanese Formula Three. Pole position kept alive his slender hopes of emulating Mansell by winning consecutive IndyCar and F1 titles.

The circumstances of Hill’s impending departure inevitably prompted claims Williams would favour the driver who was staying. But as Hill pointed out, the team had gone to additional trouble and expense to ensure a fair fight. The use of a spare car was normally rotated between drivers and this weekend was supposed to be Villeneuve’s turn, but the team brought an extra chassis for Hill, too.

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“If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Williams it’s that their sticklers for providing equal equipment to both drivers,” he said. “They sent a spare car out to Japan, although it wasn’t my turn for the spare car.”

Michael Schumacher, beginning his last race for now as reigning world champion, took third on the grid after suffering a loss of power on his final run. He was watched on by brother Ralf, who had just won the Japanese Formula 3000 championship and would make his own F1 debut at the first race of 1997.

Suzuka was rife with rumours that Ferrari’s technical team for 1997 would be bolstered by the arrival of Ross Brawn from Benetton, who had engineered Schumacher’s first two titles. Benetton, who had already lost the constructors’ title to Williams, were still without a win in 1996. Their highest qualifier was Gerhard Berger, who shared the second row with Schumacher, while Jean Alesi languished down in ninth.

Mika Hakkinen had experienced a repeat of McLaren’s alarming front wing oscillations in practice. He took fifth on the grid and shared row three with Schumacher’s team mate Irvine, who had not used new tyres on his final qualifying run due to a communication error.

Behind them Heinz-Harald Frentzen started his final race for Sauber from seventh position before moving to Williams in Hill’s place. His team mate Johnny Herbert started six places further back having crashed heavily at 130R during practice.

1996 Japanese Grand Prix grid

To the surprise of no one, Minardi pay driver Giovanni Lavaggi failed to qualify after lapping almost two seconds slower than team mate Pedro Lamy in an updated version of the team’s 1995 car. In his six appearances for the team he’d failed to beat the 107% time on three occasions, including at the Hockenheimring and Spa.

Row 11. Jacques Villeneuve 1’38.909
2. Damon Hill 1’39.370
Row 23. Michael Schumacher 1’40.071
4. Gerhard Berger 1’40.364
Row 35. Mika Hakkinen 1’40.458
6. Eddie Irvine 1’41.005
Row 47. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’41.277
8. David Coulthard 1’41.384
Row 59. Jean Alesi 1’41.562
10. Martin Brundle 1’41.600
Row 611. Rubens Barrichello 1’41.919
12. Olivier Panis 1’42.206
Row 713. Johnny Herbert 1’42.658
14. Ukyo Katayama 1’42.711
Row 815. Mika Salo 1’42.840
16. Pedro Diniz 1’43.196
Row 917. Jos Verstappen 1’43.383
18. Pedro Lamy 1’44.874
Row 1019. Ricardo Rosset 1’45.412

Did not qualify:

Giovanni Lavaggi, Minardi-Ford, 1’46.795

1996 Japanese Grand Prix

With the constructors’ title already settled and both FW18s occupying the front row, the stage was set for a thrilling duel between the championship protagonists. An aborted start due a problem with the Mercedes engine in David Coulthard’s McLaren served only to heighten the tension.

And then, as the lights went out, it evaporated. Villeneuve spun his wheels and Hill was instantly by into the lead. His rival fell to sixth, and in that instant Hill was almost assured of the title.

Schumacher had also started sluggishly behind Villeneuve allowing Berger and Hakkinen through, while Irvine slotted behind in fifth. Alesi’s miserable weekend ended quickly as he spun into the barrier at the exit of turn two.

While Villeneuve focused his attention on Irvine, Hill had to beware an attack from behind in the opening stages. At the end of lap two Berger took a speculative look down the inside at the chicane but misjudged the move and damaged his front wing. Hill was fortunate to survive the attack just past the pit lane entrance, and while Berger limped back to the pits he held up several of the cars Villeneuve was chasing.

By lap 11 Villeneuve was all over Irvine and the next time by he forced his way past the Ferrari at the chicane. He then reeled off the fastest lap of the race so far, almost a second quicker than Hill was lapping at the time, and was rapidly bearing down on the next Ferrari.

However the first fuel stops were looming and Williams opted to bring Villeneuve in rather than lose more time behind a Ferrari. But any time gained by pitting was immediately lost when he had to be held in his box as Rubens Barrichello’s Jordan came by.

The upshot was Schumacher was easily able to keep his position ahead of Villeneuve when he pitted the next time around. On top of that he jump Hakkinen’s McLaren for second place. And when Hill lost time in his pit stop in similar circumstances to Barrichello it brought the Ferrari driver within range of the race leader.

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By lap 19 Hill had a one-and-a-half second lead over Schumacher, who held a similar lead over Hakkinen. Villeneuve was next, two seconds behind the McLaren and edging towards it. but late in his second stint came another blow to his fading title hopes.

Hill was champion before he took the chequered flag
Believing a rear tyre was going down, Villeneuve headed for the pits earlier again on lap 32. Schumacher and Hakkinen came in on the same lap and their order was preserved, except Villeneuve now dropped behind the recovering Berger. And that was soon to prove the least of his problems.

Rounding the fearsomely quick turn one for the 37th time, Villeneuve’s right-rear wheel parted company with his car. The Williams was pitched into a gravel trap and nosed into a barrier while the wheel alarmingly landed in a spectator area, fortunately without hitting anyone.

From the very start of the race events had gone against Villenevue and this was the final blow. Hill was now the world champion. The team quickly got on the radio to tell him but Hill wasn’t ready to celebrate yet – or even say anything at all.

“When I got the word that Jacques was out, it threw me for a while,” he admitted after the race. “I just couldn’t take it all in as I was driving.” But Hill got back into his rhythm and reeled off the final 16 laps without fuss.

A few laps before the end of the race he passed by close to the pit wall as if preparing to celebrate his triumph. He finally saw the chequered flag on the 52nd lap – the race distance shortened by a lap due to the aborted start – and the championship celebrations could finally begin.

1996 Japanese Grand Prix result

No.DriverTeamLapsTime / gap / reason
15Damon HillWilliams-Renault521:32’33.791
21Michael SchumacherFerrari521.883
37Mika HakkinenMcLaren-Mercedes523.212
44Gerhard BergerBenetton-Renault5226.526
512Martin BrundleJordan-Peugeot521’07.120
615Heinz Harald FrentzenSauber-Ford521’21.186
79Olivier PanisLigier-Mugen-Honda521’24.510
88David CoulthardMcLaren-Mercedes521’25.233
911Rubens BarrichelloJordan-Peugeot521’41.065
1014Johnny HerbertSauber-Ford521’41.799
1117Jos VerstappenFootwork-Hart511 Lap
1220Pedro LamyMinardi-Ford502 Laps
1316Ricardo RossetFootwork-Hart502 Laps
2Eddie IrvineFerrari39Collision
18Ukyo KatayamaTyrrell-Yamaha37Engine
6Jacques VilleneuveWilliams-Renault36Wheel
19Mika SaloTyrrell-Yamaha20Engine
10Pedro DinizLigier-Mugen-Honda13Spun off
3Jean AlesiBenetton-Renault0Spun off

Hill succeeded Schumacher as champion
Villeneuve was phlegmatic in defeat. “Quite a few races from the end I knew that I wasn’t going to win the championship,” he said later, “but I still wanted to make it hard for Damon.”

As ever the final race of the season was a time of change for many, including some who didn’t know it at the time. However Hill now knew he would be carrying the number one on his car when he returned in 1997 in his Arrows-Yamaha.

Hakkinen took third for McLaren in their final race in Marlboro colours, ending a 23-year association between team and sponsor. Berger concluded Benetton’s first win-less season since 1988 in fourth place.

Martin Brundle finished his final race in fifth place having out-qualified and out-raced team mate Rubens Barrichello, whom it later transpired was on his way to new team Stewart. Brundle did not know it at the time, but this had been his final grand prix.

It was also the end of an era for British F1 fans as the BBC broadcast its final F1 race for more than a decade as ITV had picked up the contract. Brundle would become part of their coverage team alongside veteran commentator Murray Walker.

For Walker, watching Hill become world champion was a personally moving experience, and his famous commentary on the final moments of the race were both eloquent and emotional:

“There are the team in their blue and white London Rowing Club caps, matching the helmet of Damon Hill, which matches the helmet of his great father, Graham Hill. This is going to be a mighty emotional occasion for a lot of people, not the least of whom is myself. And Damon Hill will be concentrating in the cockpit there but when he comes out of it his arms will go up, his helmet will come off…”

“That is his wife, Georgie, she’s seen her husband become world champion, now she’s seeing him win the Japanese Grand Prix because he is almost home. This is something that many people didn’t think could possibly happen, they thought Damon would drive a cautious race. But he fought. He fought from second on the grid, he passed Jacques Villeneuve, he took the lead, he stayed there, and Damon Hill exits the chicane and wins the Japanese Grand Prix.”

“And I’ve got to stop, because I’ve got a lump in my throat.”

Over to you

Did you attend the 1996 Japanese Grand Prix? Did you watch it at the time?

Share your memories of this race in the comments.

Williams celebrated the championship success of their departing driver

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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33 comments on “Damon Hill follows his father to F1 title”

  1. And 20 years later Nico Rosberg, another champion’s son is set to emulate his father (?)

    1. The fia should give the trophy to Rosberg already and been done with this boring season because the stats are all in his favor.

      1. Jonathan Parkin
        14th October 2016, 12:38

        Ahh but as a wise person said once; ‘Hang on kids, it’s not over yet’

  2. Ahhh Williams were so disrespectful to Hill for dropping him for 1997. One can only imagine what Damon could’ve done with the car Williams had in ’97. Could’ve easily have been a 2 time champion, then move to Mclaren for ’98 which he nearly did if Ron hadn’t offered him such a bad deal. Could’ve been a 3 time champ, possible even a 4 time champ if ’94 had gone differently. Ifs and buts!
    Love these historic pieces.

    1. I totally agree. I was never a Damon fan but I felt he got screwed by Frank Williams.

    2. Hill was dropped after a dismal 1995 season, he knew how 1996 would end. The reason Hill ended up at Arrows was because that was the only team willing to meet his salary demands.

    3. @dave124 @photogcw Doesn’t get talked about too often but there treatment of Damon also cost them Adrian Newey.

      Adrian had grown really close to Damon, Had taken over as his race engineer for 1996 & thought incredibly highly of Damon’s ability to give feedback that helped improve & develop a car.
      Adrian actually pushed Ron Dennis to sign to Damon for 1998 in place of Coulthard & it went as far as Ron making Damon an offer (Albeit a half-hearted one) which Damon turned down in favor of the Jordan drive.

      1. @gt-racer I did not know that about Adrian Newey. Thanks for the info.

  3. “And I’ve got to stop, because I’ve got a lump in my throat.”

    Whenever I watch that footage I still get a lump in my throat. Damon clinching the title that day is still one of the most vivid and cherished F1 memories I have. He came so close to emulating his father by guiding the devastated Williams team to championship glory in 1994 just like father Graham has in 1968 with Lotus. He was well beaten in 1995 and drove incredibly well to seal the deal in 1996.

    You can say what you want about him, but he is a world champion and on his day he was quicker than Schumacher, Hakkinen, Prost, Senna, Villeneuve, Berger and Alesi. He is a legend and a true gentleman.

    1. @geemac I must admit I had goosebumps rewatching that bit. And even at the time I remember thinking he was laying it on a bit thick with the ‘Hill fought from second on the grid’ stuff; it wasn’t as if he overcame some huge, insurmountable obstacle in that particular race. But it’s the sincerity of the emotion that shines through. A terrific piece of commentary.

      1. I think that was just the culmination of 3 seasons worth of emotion getting the better of him. He was sincere and enthusiastic in his praise, so fairly typical of Murray.

        It is still a way more measured bit of commentary than when James Allen had a crisis when Button crossed the line in Hungary in 2006. :)

  4. Keith is being so fair. One article on “Greatest championship comebacks”, another on “father-son” wins :) :)

    1. Nice one ☺

    2. It definitely wasn’t planned that way! This was prompted by it being the anniversary.

  5. You have a very different opinion of Hill than I have, but fair game.

    1. Sorry, meant for @dave124

      1. Well Damon was my childhood hero driver so possible wearing rose tinted glasses! But I do think people underrate him. Any driver who can say they were robbed of certain victory whilst driving for Arrows has to be better than your average Frentzen!

        1. The rise and fall of Frentzen is actually really relevant when trying to raise Damon in the eyes of naysayers.

          Damon was thrust into a team leading, title winning position quite early in his F12 career and he acquitted himself really well, competing strongly and eventually winning the title. Frentzen had a few seasons to get settled in F1, built his reputation up, got his big break (quite rightly) and then blew it.

          People say “well anyone could win the title in an FW18/FW19”, but you still have to go out there, win races and get the job done. Damon did that, and for that he deserves some respect.

          1. @geemac Agree.

            Having the best car is obviously give you a nice advantage, But you still need to be good enough to get the most out of it & beat your team mate who has the same equipment. Damon was good enough to get the most out of that car & beat a highly competitive team mate.

            Heinz-Harold Frentzen showed the next year that having the best car & been ‘good’ simply isn’t good enoughto win races let alone contend for championships.

  6. Jonathan Parkin
    13th October 2016, 13:34

    Can I ask why even in the refueling era why a race was shortened by a lap because of an aborted start

    1. A guess – presumably because the fuel burnt off in going around the circuit to form up once again will have a bearing on the pit strategy, leading to complaints from teams (even though that slow-paced lap wouldn’t consume as much fuel as a race lap).

  7. The end of the 1996 season was when I became an F1 fanatic. The championship state after the Portuguese GP had made me curious so I set my alarm clock to wake up early to watch the Japanese GP but I got the time wrong so I saw only the final laps. Still, it was enough to make me addicted and I have never deliberately missed an F1 race since then.

    Following F1 was obviously much harder back then. My main source of information was a Latvian sports newspaper, which dedicated several of its black-and-white pages to F1 coverage after every GP. Thankfully, one of Latvian free-to-air TV channels showed every race and every qualifying session live after Eurosport lost their broadcasting rights at the end of 1996.

    As for that F1 section in the Latvian newspaper, the 1996 Japanese GP edition contained a speculation that Frank Williams might have “mixed the cars” as Hill’s car was probably the one that was supposed to lose a wheel…

    1. I think we had it on Eurosport at the time too. That was quite solid commentary in Dutch at the time. But I too remember the stress of not knowing when to get up, or oversleeping from those first years (started a couple of years earlier) – I stopped getting up for the “saturday morning” cartoons, instead getting up even earlier for qualifying and the races!

  8. For every healthy mind and F1 lover (as a sport), Damon has the 1995 title too.

  9. Great article!

  10. All respect to Damon(and again, I’m not a huge Damon fan) but we should remember it was also Michael Schumacher’s first year with Ferrari. And that John Barnard-designed car was problematic, to say in the kindest words. It changed in appearance from race to race, often broke down and Michael still managed to win 5 races. I believe it was Eddie Irvine who said “anyone can win in the Williams”.

    1. Schumacher won 3 races – Spain, Italy and Belgium – and other times it would break down in formation laps (France)

  11. This was the first F1 race I watched. For some reason I just got up at 6 am (seemed like extremely early at that time, later on it was much nicer to wake up for Australian GP even earlier).

    One of the things I remember being speculated (at least here in Finland) after the race was the strange-ish pit stop strategy by McLaren that robbed Häkkinen of his first GP victory, as McLaren had the pace to be on top in this race.

    And regarding Hill’s sacking, I suppose he was just another driver that wanted too much money. At that time Williams had the philosophy that it would be much better to spend, say, $20M on designing and developing the car rather than paying that for a driver.

  12. Articles like these are the reason I read F1 Fanatic every day. Good job Keith!

  13. The time gaps between the cars in qualifying is astonishing! The top ten is covered by almost 3 seconds, which these days is sometimes more than the gap between the fastest and slowest cars. And Alesi out qualified by Berger by more than a second! If that happened in 2016 he would be absolutely slaughtered by the fans and media.

    Berger was slightly unfortunate with his damaged nose in the race as back then the pit entrance was before the chicane, so whereas now he could have ducked straight in for repairs but in the race then he had to do an entire lap with his front wing askew.

    1. And a few years earlier the gaps tended to be even larger.

      I recall the days when the guy in 10th could be 5-6 seconds off the pole time with the guy starting last 10+ seconds off the pace. Heck it wasn’t that uncommon in 1992 for the Williams to be 1.5-2 seconds faster than the car in 3rd.

  14. I remember the press conference after this race – Hakkinen praised the track designer for Suzuka, without knowing that he had died more than a year earlier.

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