When the ghost of Ayrton Senna's 'passing comment' ruined F1 champion Damon Hill's career
Ayrton Senna was a mercurial figure in F1 and his words held weight. Whatever he said was taken in high regard, and whatever judgment he passed was treated with respect. It was this regard and this authority that ended up ruining Damon Hill's career.
What happened to Damon Hill?
Damon Hill inherited the team leader role at Williams after Ayrton Senna's tragic death in 1994. In 1996, with reigning F1 champion Michael Schumacher in a struggling Ferrari, Hill was able to capitalize and win the title. The celebrations and euphoria were short-lived, however, as he was replaced by Heinz Herald Frentzen for the next season.
The young German was racing for Sauber at the time and had been Michael Schumacher's teammate on the 1990 Mercedes World Sportscar Championship team. Frank Williams was impressed by Frentzen and got caught up in rumors of him being faster than Schumacher in the Mercedes sportscar. He subsequently went on to sign the German to replace Hill.
What role did Ayrton Senna play in Williams' decision?
In all of this, Ayrton Senna had a major role to play. The Brazilian made a passing comment two years earlier that left a big impact on Frank Williams' mind.
In a recent appearance on the Bring Back V10s podcast, Frank Williams' son, Jonathan, revealed Senna's comment that made a lasting impression on his father. In what was Heinz Herald Frentzen's first F1 weekend, the German was followed around the track by Senna during a practice session. After returning to the pits, the Brazilian asked who the new Sauber driver was.
When informed that it was Frentzen, Senna praised the German and said that he was a very strong driver. This left a mark on Williams' mind as he proceeded to sign Frentzen for the 1997 F1 season to replace Hill. The move was the ultimate disaster for Damon Hill's career. After this season, he would never drive for a front-running team.
More importantly, his teammate Jacques Villeneuve, the driver he beat for the title in 1996 would go on to win the 1997 F1 drivers' title. Had Hill not been replaced, there was a strong possibility that he would have become world champion in 1997 as well, and in all likelihood spent the rest of his career in a top team.
This was, however, not to be as Hill would spend the rest of his career in midfield teams before he retired from the sport for good in 1999.