Motor racing glory runs in the Hill family, but Damon is determined not to bask in his father’s shadow
Not since Jackie Stewart stepped into a BRM back in 1965 has a British driver graduated to F1 with such good equipment, so early in his career. And nobody is more aware of the magnitude of the opportunity presented to him than Damon Hill. For weeks the prospect of getting the second Williams-Renault seat alongside Alain Prost was so tantalisingly close that it hardly bore thinking about. Every young racer dreams of the main chance, but there it was in reality, poised almost within the 32 year-old Londoner’s grasp.
Now, of course, the agony is over, and Hill has settled down to the role of testing in preparation for his first full season of F1. But the memory of that limbo period is too recent to have faded. “The worst part,” he admits, “was the thought that I might end up with nothing. I was warm about the Ligier chance, but on the one hand, with no disrespect to Ligier, you’ve got the best drive in Formula One and then the chance of a good drive in Formula One. I thought, ‘If I hang on for the best drive and the Ligier drive, Ligier can’t wait much longer’, and I stood a chance of losing both. And I thought, ‘Well, what do you do?’ If I’d plumped for second best, how would I feel if Frank turned round and said, ‘Why didn’t you wait? I would have given you a try with Williams if you’d just waited.’ I daren’t try and put any pressure on him at the time.
“The worst thing was just waiting, not being able to do anything. I was absolutely fine when I was testing at Estoril, because I knew at least I was in command of my own destiny, to some degree. But the limbo period was awful.”
Williams’ faith in signing Hill, who has only two Grands Prix behind him with the uncompetitive Brabham, surprised some observers, particularly since it meant turning down established F I racer Martin Brundle. It was not something done lightly, either, which perhaps made comprehension all the harder for the latter. What did not influence Frank at all, and it is telling, is the fact that Damon is the son of former double World Champion Graham Hill. Yet write of the son, and inevitably the influence of the father must be taken into account.
Norman Graham Hill: To enthusiasts in their hundred thousands the world over, he was Mr Motor Racing. He was the perfect ambassador for British motorsport, with his erect bearing, the clipped speech and that bristling military moustache. Today we are used to Nigel Mansell’s popularity with mass audiences, but Hill was every bit as lauded. Throughout the sport there was genuine affection for him and his wry sense of humour. He loved his motor racing wholeheartedly, and motor racing in turn loved him. Even the man in the street recognised just how much he had put back into the sport.
Now, 17 years after his father and the small team he had built perished in that flying accident at Elstree on November 29 1975, Damon Hill prepares to take the same Oxford blue helmet and its famous eight vertical white flashes representing the oar blades of the London Rowing Club, into battle again at the head of an F1 field. Graham used to say that he liked a sport that let him sit down but Damon carries the colours simply because they were his father’s. It’s a nice emotional touch, but he is careful to keep his antecedents in perspective and to have others do the same. Being the scion of a famous family can be a double-edged sword, witness Donald and Gina Campbell, the Brabhams.
The English in particular have always been uptight about nepotism, real or imagined. The Americans take a more relaxed view. Sons attempting to emulate deeds of famous fathers are actively encouraged, rather than discouraged, as Al Unser Jnr and Michael Andretti would testify. In Europe you have to go back to Alberto Ascari before you find a son whose own performances earned him what some perceive as the right to be compared with an illustrious parent. It’s as if some devoted observers are offended by unsuccessful attempts to live up to great reputations.
After Graham Hill’s death his family had some desperate readjustments to make, financial as well as emotional. Even now Damon chooses his words carefully when he talks about it.
“It’s wrong to say having a famous dad was difficult. Of course there were the advantages of fame and wealth a trials bike, good education, nice holidays. But from the first moment at primary school you’d be singled out: people would smile at you and make references. I was six when Dad won Indy, eight when he took his second World Championship. I didn’t give a jot then, but people around you respond. It could be embarrassing in front of friends, when you wanted to be the same as them, not different. But it wasn’t difficult; I didn’t know anything different.
“The loss of my father was much worse than anything else. You can always replace things, but you can’t reverse the death of your father.
“I didn’t feel anything about what happened for years, although some of the aftermath made me very angry at times. Sometimes now I keep feeling it would be nice to have had a father around, so we could share things together. I didn’t see much of Dad, but he had an enormous influence on me, on my attitude and sense of humour.” Graham bought him the trials bike and described him as a natural rider, and Damon admits he was initially bored by cars. He first thought of bike racing in ’76 when watching the Transatlantic races at Brands with Barry Sheene and Kenny Roberts. “I was starting to get interested in motor racing in 1975, and wanted to understand what was going on, but I never got any indication of whether Dad might approve. At the start I had only patchy success, so at the end of 1983 I tried cars. John Webb organised me an Argo JM16 for the BBC Grandstand series.” One leading F3 team manager witnessed his early races, and later said of them: ‘I felt sorry for the kid. He just didn’t seem to have a clue what he was doing.’
“Cars were a total culture shock,” he admits. “All of a sudden I had to fiddle with the vehicle rather than simply trying harder to go faster. It was no longer a matter of getting good tyres and checking that the chain wasn’t loose, and the cornering was so much faster.” He went back to bikes in ’84, preferring once again to be the guy to beat. Of his days in the junior formulae he once said: “The way I saw things I just had to be racing. I’d been reading one of Niki Lauda’s books and I figured if I was really convinced I could do it I’d take a gamble and let things sort themselves out. I borrowed a huge sum on the understanding that it would be paid back.”
He has never revealed the source, although there has never been a shortage of suggestions. “Money still has a fixed value as far as I’m concerned. To get into F3 I did a deal with Dick Bennetts, which bought us time to find the money to repay the loan.” Subsequently he transferred to Murray Taylor Racing when Bennetts switched late to F3000 following the death of his intended team leader Bertrand Fabi during testing at Goodwood.
The incident inevitably made him briefly question his enthusiasm for the sport, but he had already seen such moments. “The darker side of it is thankfully rare, but I remember Dad coming home one day very, very quiet and saw the news film of Jim Clark’s death, but I wasn’t too sure what it all meant. I was only eight. “When Bert was killed I took the conscious decision that I wasn’t going to stop doing that sort of thing. It’s just not competing, it’s doing something exciting. I’m at my fullest skiing, racing or whatever. And I’m more frightened of letting it all slip and reaching 60 and finding I’ve done nothing. I was in for a penny, and I’d be in for £100,000. I decided I’d still go for it, but the most crucial of all, I’d do it to the fullest, not half-heartedly.” His father’s sentiments precisely.
Graham made it to the top on his own efforts. In his early days nobody gave him anything. It all came through sheer persistence, hard work and blatant opportunism. As Damon later would, he began his career on motorbikes, taking part in scrambles and rallies, and it is strewn with examples of that ability to turn nothing into something. He talked his way into another driving school job on the strength of his four-lap experience at the first. He signed on the dole and travelled to Westerfield in Kent from north London every day while his father thought he was off at a ‘proper’ job. He haunted the Steering Wheel Club so frequently that nobody ever thought to question whether he had actually paid a membership fee.
He was second in his first heat and fourth in the final of his first race, in a Cooper 500 in April 1954, and after that he never looked back. Tirelessly he parlayed his services as a mechanic into regular drives in other people’s cars.
That first year he met Colin Chapman at Brands at the August Bank Holiday event and became an unshakeable attachment to the emergent Team Lotus. He was beached, completely out of money, unable even to afford the fare back to London. Without a second thought he hitched a ride back in the team van, and to his benefit Chapman immediately assumed he was a friend of partner Mike Costin’s, just as Mike was assuming he must be a friend of Colin’s. Neither discovered their mistake at the time, and by the time he arrived back home Hill had enjoyed a free meal and talked himself into a mechanic’s role with the team.
Graham was approaching 40 when Clark was killed, and this was a time when motor racing was spawning fresh championship contenders such as Jackie Stewart and Jochen Rindt. As Denny Hulme would two years later, Hill quelled his own emotions in the aftermath of Hockenheim, and somehow found the reserves to lead Lotus back. He won the Spanish GP at Jarama, and went on to take his second title.
It was said of him that he lacked Jim Clark’s natural flair, that he really had to work at everything he did. The same has been said of Mansell in comparison with Senna. Yet both Hill and Mansell enjoyed sterling successes. Now, by happy irony, one of racing’s wheels has come full circle. If Hill had much in common with Mansell, and Mansell was the last man successfully to parlay test driving duties into a regular drive with the same team, there is something wholly apposite that the man replacing him at Williams should be Damon, the latest to achieve that trick.
“The parallel is very similar to Nigel getting the drive at Lotus,” he agrees. “I mean, Colin Chapman thought the bloke was worth giving a chance and signed the bottom of the contract and all the rest of it. So I think that’s quite a close comparison.”
From an early stage he established a solid relationship with Patrick Head, and he readily acknowledges the help he had to settle in. “He’s been very good with me, because whilst he’s made it clear that I need to do the job in the car, in the early days he was always very encouraging and gave me room, if you like, to make the odd mistake and to learn the ropes. When I first started in the test he said, ‘Just build up very gently. We’re not expecting you to go and break the lap record. We just want to get the work done.’ So he made it easy for me to start with.”
It took Mansell some time before he had the chance to go for times when he first began testing the Lotus. It was the same with Damon. “The first couple of tests I did were with the TG3, I think, the semi-automatic gearbox, bolted on the back of FW13B. I did a day’s running — well I didn’t do much running at all, actually, because it kept breaking! But the moment we started running with FW14, I think it was Imola where I took over from Riccardo, where I first was able to really push it. That was the early part of ’91. Because he’d done times, and I was within a second or so of what he’d done, I felt that that was the first time I’d been allowed to push the car. I’d never been to Imola before, so I was quite pleased with that. The car was in a condition that required me to drive quickly, otherwise they wouldn’t have found anything out.”
He believes that the test drive route is now the one realistic way for drivers, especially British drivers, with little or no sponsorship, to get into Formula One. “The test route or by trying to get yourself into a car, whatever it is. People have asked me why would I want to have driven a Footwork the old F3000 car, I hasten to add. Why did I want to drive such a heap of junk? And why did I want to drive the Brabham? But if you can’t drive anything else, you’ve got to drive something, haven’t you? If you stand still you’re not going anywhere.
“At the end of 1989 the Cellnet thing had finished the year before. I had no sponsorship not for want of trying, but it’s just very difficult to get people in England interested for the sums of money you’re talking about. It’s very, very difficult here to get people to put money up for motor racing. So 1 decided whatever opportunity (get of driving a car, I’m going to have to make bloody good use of it because it might be the last chance. When I went to the first round of the European F3000 Championship at the beginning of 1989, having wanted to do it but been unable to find the money, I saw old Colin Bennett from Cobra and he said: ‘Ere, do you wanna drive my car?’ because he’d just started the European championship. And of course I said yes, because I hadn’t got anything else to do. He gave me the opportunity of a few races in the British rounds for not very much money, and I think because of that I got the chance to drive with Richard Lloyd at Le Mans, and so I was kind of picking drives, not through bringing any money but because people thought I was capable and they needed somebody to put in the car.
“Then I got the chance to test the Footwork 3000 and I knew I wasn’t going to turn that down if they offered me the chance of a drive. And it sort of went like that. So if I hadn’t done all those things, just driven whatever I had the chance to drive and tried to make the best of it, I wouldn’t have got the Middlebridge 3000 drive. And then when I got that fortunately it was a good car and I was able to run at the front, even if it did break down.”
That was crucial. It convinced Frank Williams that he could lead motor races. When he signed him last December, Frank did so because he was quick, and he fitted into the team. Effectively, Damon Hill had made his own luck. Had made something happen instead of sitting about waiting for other things.
“That was how I got the Williams test, which also came about because Mark Blundell left when he got the Brabham drive. I mean, if you look at my CV it’s pretty miserable, really. By comparison to a lot of these guys, who win Vauxhall Lotus, who win Formula Three, Formula 3000. But if I’d had the backing earlier on think I might have had one of those titles, but then I’m not complaining about anything.”
He rarely has, to be fair. There was a celebrated incident back in 1984 when Fleet Street used a comment he denies having made to illustrate the suggestion that he was a spoiled kid, and it was picked up in the letters page of our weekly sister Motoring News. He admits he hated the paper for a while, but the whole thing was out of context. In the intervening years he has never once come across as arrogant, bitter or jaded, even in the darkest times. In fact, Britain’s best-placed F1 pilot of 1993 has an engaging charm that will undoubtedly stand him in good stead as his stature grows.
And grow it certainly will, even though he is the first to acknowledge that he still has much to learn. “I’ve learned an awful lot so far about F1,” he stresses. “But there are far more variables, a lot more things to take on board. You just don’t do any development in 3000 to speak of. You don’t have to look after the tyres necessarily; they never blister. Within reason you run what you brung in 3000. In Formula One, especially testing with Williams, you’ve got the brake people turning up with new kit to try, you’ve got an engine manufacturer constantly making changes to its power unit, mapping, different camshafts, different this, that and the other. You never go out with the car in the same condition, so you have to have your wits about you. The workload is much higher and the whole thing’s a constant learning curve.
“When I first went there I was surprised at the sheer amount of work Williams had to get through, and the speed at which it works. The people there don’t hang around. What they’ll do is do a test, they’ll get an impression from it, they’ll get data and then they’ll go on to the next thing. And then maybe the thing you’ve just tested might come back a month later and they’ll test again, but by doing that, instead of just falling around and sort of umming and erring, they get work done. It’s a product of Patrick’s methods, his modus operandi. He likes to make a decision and get on with the next thing.” If one half of the Williams partnership seems indecisive at times, the other certainly doesn’t…
Since Williams’ decision to sign him his answerphone has clocked up the mileage, and become a valuable buffer so that he and his family — wife Georgie and sons Oliver and Joshua — can enjoy some semblance of peace. “The bugger is watching what you say,” he laughs of the machine. “At the moment I’ve got to be very careful that I don’t appear to come across as an upstart. Although I’m very confident of my own abilities I’m also aware that I’ve done absolutely nothing in a Formula One context and people are asking all these questions about how I’m going to get on with Prost.”
Already he has asked Fleet Street not to expect too much of him too soon, “I don’t want to make any wild claims at all, it’s unrealistic. To expect me to sort of leap in and take on the guy who’s won more races than anyone else, and make him look silly — it’s just not going to happen. It’s far more difficult, Formula One, than that. And I’ve got no illusions.”
Now that he has emerged from the uncertainty, the weeks building up to Kyalami are filled with testing and further physical preparation. “When I first drove the Williams I must admit that I was completely stuffed,” he confesses. “It’s difficult to train for it. You can prepare as much as you like, but only doing it really helps.” A pause. “To be fair, that’s a bit of an exaggeration; I wasn’t as bad as I thought I would be first time out. There was a lot more steering load and g load than I was used to, but I think I coped quite well and that was partly because in ’91 when I raced with EJR 3000, we did more miles before the start of the season than we did the whole year before! And then I did quite a bit of testing throughout the year for Eddie, so I’d done quite a few miles before I got the drive with Williams. I think that 3000 is a very good preparatory formula in that sense. I think the performance level now is high. Hakkinen has done brilliantly to come straight from Formula Three to Formula One. Not many people can do that.
“Having said all that, there isn’t a lot of difference between a slow Formula One car and an F3000 car. The real difference lies between a slow Formula One car and a fast Formula One car like the Williams, which is almost as big as from 3000 to Formula One. Six seconds a lap…”
Prior to races Graham Hill could be withdrawn, a formidable figure, wound up tight with concentration. Then, the national hero became Mr Hyde, dangerously unapproachable. Damon is easier-going, but admits he’s a very self-analytical character. “When I was biking I was a complete bastard in pressure situations, screaming and shouting at people. Now I bottle a lot of it up — at the end of the day it doesn’t do a lot of good getting angry, does it?” He once said: “I don’t really mind being seen as Graham Hill’s son, but it does get tedious when people keep wanting to do the old story ‘What does your mother think about you wanting to follow your father’s footsteps?'”
He acknowledges in himself his father’s habits of fiddling with settings, and checking up on everything, although he’s trying to ease up on them. “Yes, I recognise his traits! In my F3 days I was always checking up on the mechanics, even asking if they’d put enough fuel in the car. I didn’t mean anything nasty by it, but I found myself asking questions like that, even when I was sitting in the car ready to go. I can’t always just leave it at driving; I want to do as much as I’m capable of doing.”
Georgie provides a telling story. “When Frank finally signed Damon I was so relieved and happy. It was brilliant, fantastic! It had been such a long wait. I wanted to run around, buy people flowers, have parties. I got annoyed with him. He was happy, of course, but then he just said matter-of-factly, ‘Okay, that’s dealt with that. Let’s get on to the next thing…
Damon Hill is regarded now purely as a racer in his own right throughout the motorsport world, albeit one now facing a make or break challenge. Of course he’s Graham Hill’s son, but it is an indication of the degree of his motor racing standing that already he has emerged from the shadow of his father’s two World Championships even before he has led his first Grand Prix.