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!’”
Hill was a despatch rider (here in 1983) before realising he was quite handy on the race track
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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 Riccardo 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.