When Damon Hill casts his mind back 20 years to the Imola weekend that claimed the lives of team mate Ayrton Senna and Austrian Roland Ratzenberger, it is with a sense of disbelief.
The passing of time, the success of the award-winning documentary ‘Senna’ in bringing to a new audience the story of arguably the greatest Formula One driver of all time, has changed his perspective.
For Hill it has also stirred up old memories. What was once so painfully real, is now ‘something else’ as the May 1 anniversary approaches.
“The ‘Senna’ film was quite shocking in many ways,” Hill, who went on to become champion with Williams in 1996, told Reuters.
“It was a shock. You are looking at the film and the events that were unfolding and you are finding it quite difficult to believe that you were involved in that event. It seems so far away and so…”
Hill, always one of the more thoughtful drivers, paused as he reached out for the right words to express himself.
“We’ve changed so much,” continued the 53-year-old Briton. “It’s difficult to believe that it was real. And maybe that’s what helps us through with everything, as human beings.
“It was certainly very real at the time. The whole weekend was like a big ramping up, every day there was more and more to this ultimate tragedy of losing the superstar Ayrton Senna.”
Hill’s late father Graham, a double world champion who was killed in a plane crash in 1975, led his shocked Lotus team through the aftermath of Jim Clark’s death in 1968 and the younger Briton had to step up and do the same with Williams in 1994.
It was, said Hill, the biggest test of his resolve in what is still one of the most dangerous of sports even if Senna remains the last driver fatality during an F1 weekend.
“Everyone in F1 asks themselves ‘Why are we doing this?’,” he explained.
“A lot of people say ‘you’re doing it because it’s dangerous and there are bound to be people who get killed doing it, that’s part of the thrill of the sport, the danger.’ Actually, I would argue it’s absolutely not.
“[Imola] stopped everyone in their tracks, it made everyone in the sport reassess whether or not what they were doing was justifiable, worthwhile, morally defensible.
“What came out of it was changes in safety…the sport itself grew up and how many more lives were saved afterwards because of these safety improvements we’ll never know.”
While triple champion Senna had just joined the team from McLaren, Hill already had a season alongside four-time champion Alain Prost. Winner of three races in 1993 but the clear number two alongside Senna, he became leader by default.
Ahead of Senna in the standings before Imola, Hill went on to finish runner-up in that year’s championship – a single point behind the young Michael Schumacher who celebrated his first title with Benetton.
Just two races after Senna’s death, Hill led his traumatised team to victory in Spain – with David Coulthard making his debut for Williams as the Brazilian’s replacement – and followed it up with wins at Silverstone, Spa, Monza, Estoril and Suzuka.
“We managed to get the win in Barcelona. And then that really sparked off a career for me…up until then I had kind of considered myself to be probably an understudy to people like Ayrton or Nigel [Mansell],” he said.
“But this was not the way you’d choose to be chosen as team leader as such. It was tinged with very mixed emotions.”
There are those who argue that Hill, despite his determination, would not have become world champion had Senna lived. His response is clear.
“I would not disagree with them. I totally would not disagree. Sometimes opportunities come up which are unexpected, what are you supposed to do? Turn them down?” asked the Briton.
“I am sure that a lot of drivers envy my opportunity in the sport and I did get some lucky breaks. But to talk in terms of losing a team mate as a lucky break is perhaps not the right way to express it.
“How long would Ayrton have carried on? We don’t know the answer because he was actually 34,” added Hill. “He might even have decided to call it a day at the end of that championship. It’s difficult to know.”
One thing he has no doubt about, however, is just how much he could have picked up from his team mate.
They had testing, races in Brazil and Japan – with Senna qualifying on pole in both as well as at Imola – and then the Brazilian was gone, mourned by millions at a funeral that brought Latin America’s biggest nation to a standstill.
“I hardly got a chance to learn anything from Ayrton. I just was learning to appreciate quite how good he was, as if I needed to learn that,” said Hill. “It was obvious how good he was.
“But I was always taught never to put anyone on a pedestal. I saw him as a target, someone I could hopefully take some challenge to as Mika [Hakkinen] did when he was with McLaren [in 1993].”
After Imola, with the ageing circuit removed from the calendar in 2006 as Formula One increasingly looked to new frontiers, everything changed.
On his return to the circuit this month to film for Sky television, Hill saw for the first time the statue erected in memory of Senna in a park near the flat-out Tamburello corner where the Brazilian had his fatal crash.
If the place has become something of a shrine, Hill – who finished sixth that fateful day behind winner Schumacher after the race was re-started – had no doubt the real spirit of the man is elsewhere.
“Ayrton is not about Tamburello or Imola,” he said. “Ayrton is about who he was to Brazil.” (Reuters)
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