It’s a decade since a Briton took the Formula 1 world championship. Simon Taylor sits down with that man as he reflects on a hard-fought career
Photography: James Bareham
Ten years on from that cold, grey afternoon in Japan when he became Britain’s most recent World Champion, Damon Hill looks fit and relaxed. He smiles a lot, laughs at some of his more ironic racing memories, and can look back on the peaks of his career with quiet satisfaction. He’s a family man now, absorbed by his life with wife Georgie and their four children, as well as various business interests and fund-raising work for the Down’s Syndrome Association.
The dark, brooding eyes that I remember from the days when he was fighting his often lonely way up the motor racing ladder are calmer now. They’re the eyes of someone who has come on a long journey – a journey that began when his father’s light aircraft plunged into a golf course near Elstree on a foggy night in November 1975.
“He’d just retired and was running the Embassy Hill team. I’d started to go to races with him, and it was a lot of fun. It was a small team – in those days you could build an F1 car with four people, a few sheets of aluminium and some rivets. The team shuttle was a tiny Fiat 126. I remember in Barcelona going from the hotel to the track at Montjuich Park with about 10 people squeezed in.
“When he died, it was like having your head chopped off. I was just 15. I’m 46 now, the same age dad was, and Joshua is 15, like I was. I realise now how important that time is between a father and a son. You need that bit, from 15 to 20, to get yourself into the adult world. I sort of went into cold storage, I was left hunting around.
“Dad didn’t want me to go into motor racing. He said I was too intelligent to be a racing driver; I proved him wrong there! When I was seven, I remember watching TV at home one afternoon and there was a newsflash saying Jim Clark had been killed. I had to tell my mum. He’d been dad’s championship rival all those years, and by then they were team-mates, racing together. I’d grown up with all this, drivers who were mum and dad’s friends coming to the house, and accidents happening in the background, and my little head going round thinking, ‘what’s going on here’? When Ayrton was killed 25 years later, a lot of F1 drivers were completely stunned that someone could die. I felt like saying, ‘Didn’t you know racing drivers can get killed’? I grew up knowing that.
“Dad’s story was an inspiration – he’d come up from nothing: he was just a mechanic. But he wasn’t an easy man. I was terrified of him. My becoming a driver was a way of standing up to him. Maybe if he’d lived and I’d got to 18 I would have been able to say, ‘Dad, you’re wrong’. But I had to establish myself beside him, and the only marker he left was as a racing driver. Now I feel I can say to him, ‘Hey dad, I’ve been round Spa in the wet, I know what you’re talking about’. It’s a bonding.”
We’ve met at an appropriate place for a British champion, the RAC’s Country Club at Woodcote Park. Damon eats healthily – asparagus and artichoke soup, mushroom risotto, a glass of New Zealand red. I cast his mind back to his start in racing, on two wheels. There was no silver spoon to help him: after Graham’s death the Hills’ 25-room mansion at Shenley had to give way to a semi in St Albans, and Damon famously became a motorcycle messenger.
“I didn’t have to become a despatch rider. I could have got a proper job. But I don’t like people telling me what to do, that’s my problem. And I went racing, bought my own ’bike, prepared it, did it all on my own. John Webb helped me, though – he knew my father’s name was good for the gate. In 1984 I won just about everything I did, 40 races. One day my ’bike broke, the big end seized. I went up to John Webb in the Brands Hatch bar and said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t race this weekend’. He got the barmaid to open the till, fished out £100 and gave it to me. He said, ‘Go and find someone in the paddock who’ll rent you a ’bike’. So I went to the paddock, rented some fellow’s ’bike, and won on that too. I remember thinking, ‘Bloody hell, it’s not the ’bike, it must be me!’”
Today, most F1 drivers have been karting since the age of eight, but Damon had none of that. So did racing on two wheels develop his technique? “Of course. You try racing in the wet on a ’bike, aquaplaning through Paddock Bend. It gives you a very sensitive backside.”
With John Webb’s help Damon moved into Formula Ford, where he had a lot of success in 1985 before grinding through three seasons of F3 and three more in F3000. Always there were money problems, and repeatedly his career seemed to have hit the buffers. But he never gave up knocking on doors. In 1991 he netted a testing role for Williams, starting a relationship that was to endure for six years. In 1992 he got a race deal with the almost bankrupt Brabham team. After five failures to qualify, he finally started his first grand prix at Silverstone. It was two months before his 32nd birthday, dreadfully late to embark on an F1 career. Watching his uncompetitive and woefully underfunded BT60B-Judd finish in last place, four laps behind, we could hardly have guessed that a year later he would be a grand prix winner, and four years later he would be World Champion. So did he always believe in himself?
“No, I’m a massive doubter. A humongous doubter. But it’s okay for me to doubt myself. If someone else doubts me, that’s not allowed! I think life’s a test. I’m not religious but I do believe that we have one life, just one chance to define ourselves. And I’m stubborn. I am quite obsessive when I get stuck into something. I’ve always found that, just when you think the way forward is impossible and the route is barred, something crops up, and you’re ready for it because you’re still looking for that little chink, that opening.”
And something did crop up. Williams replaced Ricardo Patrese with Alain Prost for 1993. That put the nose of No1 driver Nigel Mansell seriously out of joint, and he left F1 for Indycars. Mika Häkkinen and Martin Brundle were both considered for the Williams No2 seat, but Patrick Head and Adrian Newey had been highly impressed by Damon’s progress in the testing role, and Damon found himself with a one-year race contract. At once he rose to the challenge. He finished third in the Championship behind Prost and Senna, won three races on the trot and got on the podium 10 times.
“I have utter respect for Alain Prost. His style was effortless: he could be blindingly fast without ever seeming to do anything. He was charming, but I never learned a thing from him. And that’s the right way to be. Why should he give me any help? Team-mates is a misnomer – you’re not mates, you’re racing each other. Of course, if you’ve agreed to team orders in your contract, then you have to live with that. I talked to Jean Todt about driving for Ferrari after I left Williams, and he said I’d have to drive to orders behind Schumacher. I said, ‘Forget it. Unless I get equal position with Michael I’m not doing it’. Why would I sign my own death warrant?”
For 1994 Alain Prost retired, and Damon found himself alongside Ayrton Senna. “Ayrton was a powerful figure. He always walked into a place like he owned it. He was on a quest for what was right and what was wrong – although what was right was right for Ayrton, and what was wrong was wrong for Ayrton – but beyond that there was something else. He wasn’t always totally admirable – I mean, knocking Prost off in the first corner in Suzuka in 1990 was a bit questionable! But he had an enormous amount of charisma and presence. There was an utter seriousness about him, an intensity.
“I never got close to Ayrton like, say, Gerhard (Berger) did. But I learned a lot just watching him in testing. He was very insistent on getting his message through: he would explain something over and over to the engineers until they’d got it. Because they couldn’t be in the car with him, he had to be positive they really understood.
“I never went into this seeing myself as a number one driver. I thought, this is great, I’m team-mates with Alain Prost, and then, great, I’m team-mates with Ayrton Senna. And then Senna died, and suddenly I was thrown into the deep end. I had to raise my game. And I don’t think I was prepared for that. It was horrible: his clothes still hanging up in the changing room, everyone in shock.
“I’m very confident I know what happened with Ayrton. A lot has been written about it, but there’s no doubt in my mind. A number of factors made the car difficult to drive, the low tyre pressures after the slow safety car laps and so on, and he got into a tank-slapper over the bumps and the car got away from him. People don’t want to accept that the great Ayrton Senna made a mistake, but even he made mistakes – he’d fallen off in Brazil two races before. This is not to detract from Ayrton in any way. He was a great driver and a great human being. But I’ve gone through it over and over; I’ve analysed it. It was just a tragic accident.
“At Imola we had to line up again, and we had to do the race. There was some question that Ayrton’s power steering might have played a part in the accident, so they disconnected it on my car and I did the restart without it.
On the grid we didn’t know Ayrton was dead. Everyone said it was serious, but that’s all they told us, so we just got on with the job.” For the record, Damon had to pit for a new nosecone, restarted last, and stormed back up to sixth, setting the race’s fastest lap on the way.
“After that everybody was reeling under the shock of losing Ayrton. I wanted to say, ‘Hey, I’ll do my best’. But remember I was a test driver two seasons ago – I’m not Ayrton Senna, OK? But I got stuck in, and we won in Barcelona four weeks later. It felt good to get a win in. I won at Silverstone, then Schumacher had his two-race ban and was disqualified at Spa, and I won three more. Then we had the wet race at Suzuka.”
In the view of most who saw it, including me, the 1994 Japanese Grand Prix was Damon’s greatest drive. Because of a red flag it was run in two parts, with the winner declared on aggregate. In treacherously wet and difficult conditions, over nearly two full hours, Damon beat Schumacher in a straight fight by 3.3secs.
“It was the most intense race I ever did, no question,” asserts Damon. “I had to win to stay in the frame for the title, and I just kind of ratcheted myself up. The whole race was mad: in the first few laps you couldn’t see a damn thing, all I could see was Michael’s rear light, and I thought if I lose sight of that I’m finished. After the restart I was racing an invisible man – I’d finished the first part seven seconds down on Michael, so it wasn’t enough just to win: I had to beat him by at least that amount. I knew I had to push, but not allow him to push me into making a mistake. I was driving on a different level from how I’d ever driven before. It was an experience which lived with me for a very long time.
“I think what we’re capable of mentally is way beyond what we think it is. If you’re a racing driver you choose to put yourself in an unnatural situation. Most people don’t want to put themselves under that stress: it makes sense to avoid it rather than pursue it. But if you do put yourself there, it can start to become sublime. In the cockpit there’s a solitude: you’re in a private world where you feel at home. You’re focusing so hard on one thing that it’s like a form of meditation, a peace which seems at odds with the apparent chaos of racing. All this leaping in the air on the podium which Michael introduced – before that, drivers used to clamber out of the car at the end of the race with a glazed look in their eyes. You go into a post-race conference and you’re not really there yet. You can’t just switch out of that incredibly intense mental state straight away. It used to take me two days to come down after a grand prix.
“But as a driver you can’t really enjoy your achievements. You’re completely forward-looking: those points are in the bag and straight away you’re looking to the next race, the next points, onwards and upwards the whole time.
“So we came to the final round in Adelaide with me one point behind, and Michael took me out. Typically, my first impulse was to blame myself. I thought, ‘That was a crap overtaking manoeuvre, Damon’. There was an open door, and I went through it, and across he came, Boom! I didn’t know his car had gone off the road, I didn’t know it was damaged. But if you watch the replays there’s no question it was deliberate. Lots of drivers would have done the same. You never know – I might have done it myself…”
Although Damon was second in the championship again in 1995, with four more victories and nine podiums, it was not a happy year. “It was one of those awful years when everything went wrong. I took a lot on myself, started to get into a downward spiral. I got negative press, and it all seemed to pile in on me. You’re up and you’re down with Fleet Street, and the misery of my year made a good story. It did get to me. At Suzuka the championship was lost, everything was crap, I was making mistakes and I ended up in the gravel at Spoon Curve. I remember getting changed in one of those little cabins behind the Suzuka pits, everybody falling over everybody else’s flight bags, and Frank and Patrick were there. I literally didn’t know whether I should be laughing or crying – until then I’d never realised the real meaning of that expression. And then two weeks later, in Adelaide, I took pole, won the race, lapped the field. Everyone else either broke or fell off and I just sailed serenely on. It was daft.”
In 1996, of course, Damon became World Champion with eight wins, culminating in another emotional victory in Japan. “I realised this was my last chance – I was 35, and everybody else was 10 years younger than me. Michael had gone to Ferrari, and fortunately his car was a pile of junk at the time. The real challenge that year was sorting out [team-mate] Jacques Villeneuve.
“I really enjoyed my time with him. Whatever happened he was just Jacques. He never made excuses, never apologised for anything. He has a powerful sense of justice: he despises a lack of conviction or integrity in anyone. Testing at Estoril he said, ‘Do you think you can overtake around the outside of the last corner?’ The engineers said, ‘Grow up, that’s not possible’. And he did it in the race – he passed Michael round the outside of the last corner.”
Predictably, Schuey didn’t see the funny side. “After the race Michael went up to him and said, ‘I don’t think you should be doing that, it’s not really safe’. Jacques was delighted, he laughed and laughed. It was priceless.”
Midway through that championship season Damon arrived at Hockenheim to find the paddock full of rumours that Williams would fire him at the end of the season, rumours that he refused to believe but which turned out to be true. Did he feel shafted by Williams?
“Shafted is an emotive term. You learn that motor racing’s no different from the real world. You think you’re fantastic because you can drive an F1 car, but they’re not overly impressed by just another racing driver. They’ve been around too long. You start to recognise that there’s more to this than just driving. I really loved racing for Williams. I loved Patrick, I loved Frank, I loved all the guys I worked with. I had some tough times, but they gave me the most fantastic opportunity. I got to drive some of the most amazing racing cars ever made.
“So I went to Arrows. It wasn’t a front-running team, but there were a nice bunch of people, there. And it was the only team that would give me a one-year deal. I nearly went to McLaren alongside Mika Häkkinen, but Ron Dennis would only pay me on a results basis, and that was completely unacceptable. I was World Champion, they were going to make marketing capital out of having me in the team, with number one on the car. Ron would never admit that, because he’s had more world champions than hot dinners, but their whole attitude pissed me off. I don’t think I would have been happy there.”
High spot of the Arrows year was the extraordinary Hungarian Grand Prix, when Damon qualified third, passed Schumacher’s Ferrari on lap 11 to lead, and stayed ahead until the 77th and final lap, when the car was crippled by a hydraulic problem. Heartbreak, perchance?
“Not at all. It was just one of those fantastic twists of fate. Goodyear got it wrong: it turned up with some tyres that turned out to be like chewing gum, and my Bridgestones were terrific: the car felt fantastic. People hate the Hungaroring, but I love it. It’s like a giant go-kart track. With the Arrows it was work, work, work the whole way round – a hard race – and I was enjoying myself. When I passed Michael I thought, ‘If it all stops now I don’t mind, I’ve had a fantastic run’. But it carried on until the last lap! Then it went onto tickover. My first thought was, ‘How can I stop Jacques getting past’? I was going down the back straight saying to myself, ‘Wider, be wider…’ and he went past me on the grass flat out. The car should have died, but it didn’t and we were second. That was entertaining.”
Were his last two seasons at Jordan entertaining? “No. It was a nightmare. It was very, very difficult: a delusional team. Eddie’s focus was on the deals, on the business side, and he was distracted. Things needed to change and they did change – Mike Gascoyne came in to replace Gary Anderson on the technical side – and we managed to win a grand prix. But after that I’d had enough. I’d say something to galvanise reaction from Honda and I was in breach of contract because I was saying something negative. It worked, they pulled their fingers out, but all I got was, ‘You’ve upset the workforce; you’ve demoralised them’. Well, what about me? I had to drive the thing. That’s how F1 has become; the drivers are under contract and they’re not allowed to say ‘Boo’. It was all getting litigious and ghastly and I wanted to finish at the British Grand Prix in 1999, but contractually it was impossible. I saw Eddie the other day, and I said, ‘I can see it from your point of view now; you had to get on with the business. But I did win your first GP.’ ”
Today Damon is President of the BRDC, which he sees as an ambassadorial role. “Silverstone is a high-profile £30 million business, and the commercial side of it should be run by professionals. I want it to be run profitably and in the best way, and the club needs to become what it is: an institution for people who are part of motorsport in this country to congregate and enjoy that part of their lives.
“Formula 1 has detached itself from its roots. It appeals to corporate clients, people with only a passing interest in the sport who like to come into the Paddock Club and be seen at the event. The BRDC has a responsibility to the core of the sport, the people who genuinely love it. But you have to move with the times, and recognise that Formula 1 is the pinnacle, and far and away the most visible and fiercely competitive end of the sport. If retaining the British Grand Prix puts the assets of the club in jeopardy then it’s not a viable proposition, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But clearly the best answer is if we can retain the grand prix and, under that umbrella, other levels of the sport can flourish as well.”
We’ve talked for more than two hours, and Damon glances at his watch. He has to go: time for his daughter’s netball practice. After 19 hard years of racing on two wheels and four, 116 grands prix, 20 pole positions, 22 wins, 360 points and a world championship, he has proved a point to himself, to the world, and to his father’s memory. Now, with other priorities, he’s moved on.