Tough Guys: Graham and Damon Hill

Bette Hill says one word that links son Damon and husband Graham is "tough". As Damon leaves F1 for good, he looks back with Matthew Franey over his own career and that of his legendary father

1 Williams F1 driver Damon Hill winning the 1996 Japanese GP at Suzuka

Hills Sr and Jr both had the inner steel needed to succeed in F1

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

Think for one minute about the hardest thing you have ever done in your life. Remember if you can the sleepless nights, the mental anguish that came from your own uncertainty. Then think of this:

It was late in 1996 that Damon Hill arrived in Suzuka, Japan. Weeks earlier his once seemingly charmed career in Formula 1 had been tossed into the air when his team owner Frank Williams decided to release him from his contract when the year’s racing had run its course. For the third season in a row Hill faced the ignominy of letting a world championship slip from his grasp; except now he was weighed down by the need to secure a respectable drive for 1997. This time his rival came not in the form of Michael Schumacher – he had spent an unrewarding year beginning his reshaping of Ferrari – but in that of his own team-mate Jacques Villeneuve. The French-Canadian, already an Indycar champion and possessed of boundless self-belief, had nothing to lose; Hill, by contrast, was on the verge of losing it all.

Think again about the hardest thing you have ever done in your life. And then imagine how it must have felt to be Damon Hill, sitting on the grid for that race, waiting for the lights to turn red.

Williams drivers Damon Hill and AYrton Senna at the lanuch of the 1994 F1 car

Hill was brought into Williams first as No2 to Prost and then Senna

Grand Prix Photo

Suzuka 1996 seemed almost pre-ordained, the culmination of an extraordinary human interest story. It was also the deciding moment in a career that had sprung from almost nothing and yet could still end with nothing. At that time I was working on our sister magazine Autosport. Damon had captured the public imagination that year unlike any other sportsman; a fact reflected by the simple truth that in the 51 issues we published in those twelve calendar months, he was on the cover on over 30 occasions. In the days running up to that final race we had discussed what we would do if he won the world title. And as we did, so we confronted also the stark possibility that, yet again, he might not. It was not a situation we relished.

That’s not to say Autosport carried a torch for Hill. That summer the Grand Prix editor had incurred Damon’s considerable wrath when the magazine revealed to the world his impending departure from Williams. As the championship reached its climax, and as the demands on his time increased to the point where he was besieged by the media, so chances to hear his views appeared inversely proportional to the amount of pages we wanted to fill. Damon Hill was public property at a time when he needed to be at his most reclusive. A quarter of a century ago, this would have seemed a fantastically unlikely story to the young Damon. Then he was the small boy leaning on the pitwall as he watched Jackie Stewart streak into an unassailable lead. Somewhere further back his father, already a world champion, was getting on with his job. That afternoon, in machinery not the equal of the leader’s, he was enduring a more mundane day at the office. The child turned away, raising a weary set of brooding eyes to the skies; if this is motor racing, he sighed deeply, give me football.

From the archive

Laughing as he recalls the image, Damon is refreshingly candid about his attitude to the sport that surrounded him throughout his childhood until his father’s untimely death in 1975. “That sort of grand prix put me off motor racing for a long time,” he admits, and when you look closely at Graham Hill’s distinguished career, and talk at length to those who knew him best, clues begin to emerge as to the reasons for the young Damon’s disinterest. His mother, Bette, casts first light on the influences on her young family in the 1960s.

“Don’t forget that when Graham was racing they did so much more competing than a modern F1 driver,” she reasons. “Every weekend they were racing some single-seater, sports car or saloon. With the stakes so large and time precious, you had to try and remain a human being. When Graham got back with his family he found it very easy to relax.” And, understandably, forget about racing for a few days. So his children saw motor racing much as any other young child views his or her parent’s profession – a job to be done and little more.

If racing was to be Hill jr’s future, it needed a spark and that came, his mother recalls, when aged 11 he had a taste of two-wheeled motoring. “Graham and I always thought Damon was too intelligent to be an F1 driver,” smiles Bette, “But when Graham put him on a Honda trial bike the penny dropped. From that minute it was all motorbikes.”

Lotus F1 driver Graham Hill

Graham led Lotus in similar tragic circumstances to Damon at Williams

Grand Prix Photo

Damon’s accomplishments as a rider are well documented, as are his mother’s concerns about her son’s safety. Not wanting him to continue to the point where his motorcycle career would lead to yet faster machines, she arranged for him to try four wheels. “As soon as he did it,” she recalls, “he told me he wished he’d started five years earlier.”

A couple of seasons of Formula Ford gave Damon a grounding in racing and while some point to early failures as an indication of a scarcely overwhelming talent, it is an opinion that holds less weight with those against whom he raced. As a Formula Three racer he was fast enough to clinch a prize drive alongside Martin Donnelly the prize being backing from Cellnet, a sponsor of Damon’s to this day, and an early source of much needed income. Contracts like that were barely heard of in Britain in the mid-1980s and Damon’s securing of that seat reveals traits that helped his father 30 years earlier and would help him again ten years further on in his own career. “Cellnet wanted to know they had the best two drivers possible,” recalls Donnelly today, “and they sent us off to have our fitness assessed by Jonathan Palmer. It was interesting to see how Damon acted during those tests. We ran on treadmills until we literally fell off and then we were sent training with commandos. We were really put through it. At the end the report said while I was marginally fitter, Damon was more determined. If I did 51 bench presses, he had to do 52. And that’s Damon through his career: determination allied to refusing to lie down and play dead. In that way he’s a bit like Nigel Mansell.”

And rather more than a bit like Graham Hill. Ask Bette what one word she thinks best describes her late husband and son in respect to their careers and the answer comes instantly: “Tough”.

“You have to be tough with yourself and other people if you are to be as successful as they were. It must be in your make up from the beginning. Graham very definitely had it. Even towards the end of his career he showed it, even after he broke his legs in America in ’69.” (He had jumped from his stalled Lotus to push start it, but unable to refasten his belts continued to race. A few laps later he crashed and was thrown from the car.) “I don’t know how he did it, he suffered such pain and anxiety but he wanted to get back, so he did it.”

For Damon the stumbling block came not through injury but lack of finance. Unable to raise the budgets to compete competitively in Formula 3000, Hill was forced to soldier on in cars almost unworthy of the name. The break came with the opportunity to first test for Williams and then, after a 1992 season which saw Damon’s Brabham drive sink along with the once great team, an extraordinary opportunity; a break perhaps as big as his late father once offering a race school student by the name of Colin Chapman a lift back to London.

In much the same way as Damon would be shed in 1996, the new world champion Nigel Mansell had failed to agree terms for a further year with Williams. Suddenly the team found itself with a plum drive and no big names to fill the slot. Could their test driver, a certain D Hill, act as a suitable foil to Alain Prost? Damon certainly thought so. “Patrick Head touched on the demands when we talked about me driving for the team. I remember, he said, ‘there’s a lot of pressure that comes from being a racing driver’. To which I replied, ‘I’ll deal with that’. And he said, ‘fine’. That was my preparation for driving for Williams. It’s only now as I’m coming to the end of my career that I have managed to take stock, look back and think, ‘Christ! I didn’t get a bloody warm-up for this.’” Exit Nigel Mansell. Take centre stage Damon. Settling in quickly at a team he knew well and learning from Prost, Damon scored his first win at Hungary that season. Then, after Prost had gained his fourth world title, the team again let a champion leave, the lure of Ayrton Senna this time proving too great to resist. And when Ayrton died, the global reaction was unlike any other since the death of Jim Clark. Then it was Graham Hill to whom the shattered Lotus team looked to pick up the pieces which he did, his unflinching guts and spirit carrying the team to the title. Now it was Damon’s turn, except he was no ten-season veteran with a title under his belt. He was inexperienced, centre stage, and in the glare of the media. Mansell, Prost and now Senna were gone – the tabloids wanted a new hero.

Williams F1 driver Damon Hill winning the 1996 Japanese GP at Suzuka

’96 title finally came after a double dose of heartbreak in preceding years

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

The season-long battle with Michael Schumacher, culminating in that last race crash, had everything the media could have hoped for. Damon took on the role of the gentlemanly Brit, gracious in defeat, stoic to the last. Five years on, he remains incredibly sanguine about those weeks, even though he admits he was struggling at the time.

“When John Surtees won the tide from my Dad in 1964 it was claimed that Lorenzo Bandini was sent to take off my father. There was uproar but it was a storm in a tea cup compared to how they reacted when Schumacher hit me. It went on for days. The upside was the incident defined my career and became a talking point beyond the fairly limited area of motor sport. It became an international incident!

From the archive

“The downside is that I learnt the pressure of the media. You are never off duty. My father was able to get beneath those pressures, be himself and do whatever Graham Hill did in his spare time without worrying about having every dimension of his life covered. I think he quite liked the publicity, so maybe he’d have preferred it as it is now, but his way of coping was to have a few beers, take his trousers down and dance on the table. Do that today and you’re in big trouble.”

Slow and deliberate, Damon picks answers carefully as I ask what else in the sport he’d like changed. On modern F 1 cars he is forthright: “Having driven a Ferrari 250 GTO at Goodwood I’d say modern cars are missing an awful lot. You don’t get a tow, they are too efficient aerodynamically and if you get too close you lose all your grip. That is no good.” On modern Fl drivers he is equally clear “There are only 22 driven and any number of them can be replaced without difficulty. Therefore not many of them have the balls to step out of line. I don’t blame them, they are in such a weak position. In the 1960s the drivers were much more of a force. I could put a case that the sponsors came to the sport because of the drivers and now it’s the other way around. The cart is pushing the horse.”

Of his own future he is less forthcoming. Although “not one for sitting on beaches”, he does not want to run a grand prix team, echoing the poignant memories of his mother. “I didn’t want Graham to build a team,” she admits. “There wasn’t sufficient support or finance. It was the biggest heartbreak and toughest job he ever took on. The saddest thing is he was just getting it together when he had the crash.”

So for now Damon is preparing to spend more time with his family, take stock and reflect on the past 15 seasons. A story that reached a climax one Sunday afternoon at a race track in Japan in late 1996. “I can’t say whether it’s genetic or not, but there has to be some element of that. We both had a kind of reliability when it really mattered – I always felt that. At Suzuka everything was pretty intense but it felt great to be there with that kind of responsibility. I have never felt more relaxed and sure of everything than when I got in the car to start that race. It was,” he says quietly, “incredible.”