Modern times

In politics, you’re only as good as your last speech. In motor racing, too, memories are short. Happy the World Champion who chooses just the right moment to retire, while he is still remembered for his glories, and not for the afternoon drives of his career.

On 13th October 1996, in the melee of well-wishers, hangers-on and press that clogged the muddled area behind the Suzuka pits after his title victory, Damon Hill could have raised his glass and said: “That’s it. I’ve achieved my life’s ambition. I’m now retiring.” If he had, he would have gone down in history as a great World Champion who’d won 21 Grands Prix out of 67 starts, a remarkable 31.3 per cent, statistically putting him ahead of Senna, Prost and Stewart and behind only Fangio. Ascari and Clark.

But, quite rightly, he didn’t retire. Only one World Champion has ever retired straight after winning his first world title. That was Mike Hawthorn, 41 years ago, when the huge financial rewards enjoyed by today’s champions simply didn’t exist. So Damon went on to earn £15 million from his next three years’ work, along with the book signings, the TV chat shows, the pizza ads and the work for sponsors. You or I would have done the same.

But from then on, the only way for Damon seemed to be down. When he won that title he already knew that Frank Williams had decided to drop him: he’d found out the previous July, along with the rest of the world, when he read it in Autosport. At the time Williams denied it, and Hill only found out later that agreement had been reached with his replacement, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, the previous Spring. Such are the ways of modern Formula One. But that only redoubled Hill’s iron determination to win the title – an unconscious echo of the way Enzo Ferrari liked to unsettle his drivers, and set them off one against another, because he thought it made them try harder. (In those days the result of such pressure was sometimes fatal.)

As Heinz-Harald moulds himself into the happy environment of Jordan, we now realise the German was a great talent waiting to bloom. Yet in four years at Williams, Hill won 21 races: Frentzen, in his two years, won one. Meanwhile Hill moved on, to lots of money and very few prospects at the wheel of an Arrows-Yamaha. First time out he failed even to complete the warm-up lap. Then, in this underpowered car, Hill brilliantly exploited a tyre advantage in Hungary, took the lead from Schumacher’s Ferrari, and led for 66 laps. In the press room the tabloid boys prepared their biggest headlines, but less than two miles from the finish a hydraulic leak stuck the car in third gear. He struggled home second, Arrows’ best result for 13 years. This driver still had fire in his belly.

With his 39th birthday beckoning on 17th September this year, his two-year contract with Jordan for 1998-99 was widely expected to be his last F1 foray. And the first half of last season was if anything worse than his Arrows year. Then the car came right.

At Hockenheim Damon finished fourth, 7sec behind the McLarens and ahead of Michael Schumacher. He was in the points in every remaining race save one: if that six-race period had been the championship he would have finished behind only Hakkinen and Schumacher, third equal with David Coulthard. The culmination was that great win in the rain at Spa, Jordan’s first Grand Prix victory and Damon Hill’s 22nd.

So you can’t blame Damon for believing that 1999 could give him a swansong season with a little bit of glory here and there. From the start he was very uncomfortable with his car’s behaviour on the new, harder, four-groove tyres, but in the first three races he qualified within a fifth of Frentzen, and in Brazil ahead of him. There were two annoying early-lap tangles, but at Imola he finished a strong fourth, with a best race lap quicker than Frentzen’s.

I think the moment it all started to unravel for Damon was on Saturday morning at Monaco, when he put the Jordan in the barriers at Rascasse. At Monaco you never regain time lost in a practice shunt, and he could only qualify the hastily-rebuilt car 17th, tripping over Ralf Schumacher four laps into the race as they squabbled near the back of the field. In Barcelona he qualified 11th and finished a lapped eighth. In Canada he qualified a full second slower than Frentzen, and hit the wall 14 laps in. Three days later he announced that he would race no more after the end of the season.

The French Grand Prix was worse and he wanted to stop at once, then relented to make his last appearance at Silverstone seven years almost to the day since his first Grand Prix, when he managed to qualify the uncompetitive Brabham-Judd at last and brought it home 16th.

History, in assessing the past three months, may well try to consign Damon to the pile of champions who outstayed their welcome. But I applaud him for realising the fire was going out and stopping now, rather than plodding on to the end of the year just to take the money. James Hunt was another with the courage to stop mid-season: realising he’d lost the stomach for it, he left the Wolf team abruptly after Monaco in 1979. But others found it hard to realise it was time to stop, tarnishing the memories of their greatness. Nigel Mansell left a sour taste with his ludicrous sojourn at McLaren in 1995. He did just two lacklustre races before he parted company with the team, pulling into the pits to retire in Spain with “handling problems” just as he was about to be lapped by Michael Schumacher.

Alan Jones came out of retirement to become involved in the unhappy Beatrice/Carl Haas Lola project. He did 19 more races, netted plenty of cash, and earned just four points. Jody Scheckter stayed on at Ferrari after he won the title to drive the uncompetitive 312T5; but he’d clearly lost motivation, failing to qualify in his penultimate race and being lapped three times in his last.

Alain Prost was one who did retire at the top: the most prolific Grand Prix winner ever won his fourth title in his final season. Niki Lauda retired, then came back to win another title: and he won a race in his final season. So did Nelson Piquet. Mario Andretti, having started his first Grand Prix from pole, started his penultimate one from pole too at Monza for Ferrari before more success in America. Keke Rosberg nearly won his final Grand Prix.

One World Champion who, it has to be said, did go on too long was Damon Hill’s father Graham. His F1 career lasted 18 years and produced two World titles, not to mention victories at Indianapolis and Le Mans: but his last three seasons produced only one championship point. The final indignity came when he failed, aged 46, to qualify for the Monaco GP – a race he’d won five times before. Unobtrusively, he announced his retirement on the Friday of the 1975 British Grand Prix, and did a lap of honour on race day. Tragically, he was not able to enjoy his retirement and running his own F1 team for long. Four months later he perished, along with his young protégé Tony Brise and other members of the team, when his aircraft crashed at Elstree.

Damon is in a multitude of ways a very different man from his father. In my view – although such comparisons are invidious across different racing generations – Damon has shown himself the better driver. He is also more self-critical, more pensive, sensitive man altogether. But in adversity, in the set of the chin, the narrowing of the eyes, Graham’s genes are there.

Neither father nor son was a born natural in the Clark or Senna mould. Both had to work for every lap time, and neither had an easy ride into F1. Graham, the mechanic, made it when he was 29; Damon, the motorbike courier, had to wait until he was 31.

Both showed bottomless determination and self-belief in the pursuit of their goals; both had to retain that self-belief when others had consigned them to the Out Tray. Both wrote themselves indelibly into the history books, not just as the only father-and-son to have been World Champions, but also for what are now rather unfashionable reasons: Graham the epitome of Battle of Britain gung-ho who, moustache bristling, brought glory to post-war Britain. And Damon the race winner and world champion who behaved like a gentleman, when his sport had become a business.

Damon, our thanks to you, and our best wishes to Georgie and your four children. May you be happy and successful in the chapters of your life that are still to come.