That’s the opinion of Stirling Moss, who reckons that Britain’s current World Championship leader is still on a learning curve. Simon Arron spoke to him
When Damon Hill crossed the line to win the San Marino Grand Prix – he became in terms of race victories the second most successful Englishman, and the fourth most successful Briton, in the history of the Formula One World Championship. His 17th triumph took him ahead of Stirling Moss in the record books, and Moss never lower than third in the World Championship from 1955-61, yet never higher than second is confident that Damon will this year claim the crown which somehow always eluded him during his own career.
“I don’t see any real threat to Damon in the championship this year, but having said that I do believe that the very best driver in the world, by quite a long margin, is Michael Schumacher. I don’t mean just a little bit. I think he’s head and shoulders above anybody else, including Damon. I don’t think even Senna enjoyed Schumacher’s margin of superiority.
“The top of motor racing is normally, to me, like a pyramid. At the summit you’ve got your Fangio, your Clark, your Senna or your Schumacher. Usually you have two guys propping him up. They’re pretty close, waiting to take over. I think there’s a big gap now. There’s Schumacher, then that large gap, then the rest of them, led by Damon. You can’t really tell who’s next. Maybe Coulthard, or Hakkinen on his day, or Barrichello. There are quite a lot who are fairly close. That’s the big difference in how racing has been this last couple of years. I don’t think there’s a top three.
There’s a top one.
“One has to realise that Damon is doing a good job with the best car, but Schumacher is doing a brilliant job with a moderate car. If the moderate car becomes a good car, which it appears it could, then I think it could become very much more difficult for Damon as the season goes on, but I’m inclined to think that if he drives as intelligently as he has been doing, he’s likely to have enough of a lead that it won’t matter.”
That said, Moss is very much aware of how far Damon Hill has progressed in a very short space of time, and that his compatriot’s best is, in his opinion, yet to come…
“You have to remember that it’s only a couple of years since Damon was still only a test driver. To go from that to be leading a World Championship team is one hell of a big step. “If anything, he is suffering from the fact that he’s still not that experienced. He’s looked upon that way, because he’s done pretty well. He’s had incredible success in a short space of time, yet if you talked to most members of the general public they probably think he’s done more Grands Prix than Martin Brundle, for instance, which he obviously hasn’t.
“I think this creates a problem for him. He’s had, and has got, a good car, but he’s still got a learning curve to complete, even though he’s now got 17 Grand Prix wins under his belt. He’s still got a lot to learn, albeit less so now than a year ago.
“Last season, what he did with Schumacher at Silverstone was ridiculous, really. I mean every time I see that accident I think, ‘No way should that have happened.’ That was enthusiasm, impetuosity, stupidity. . . whatever way you want to put it. It was foolish. The wrong place to try to do it, at the wrong time.
“I think he’s learned by that, which is very important. And he’s still learning. Before he reaches his zenith he has to go through an awful lot of things like that. I’m glad to see this year he appears to be building on that, rather than standing still.
“I think Damon Hill 1996 is definitely more competitive than the 1995 version. I think his driving has improved. This year he’s been using his head more, no doubt. But he’s not like Schumacher when it comes to passing at the right place.
“When Schumacher made a move to pass Alesi at the Nurburgring in 1995, it was clean and it was definite. I don’t mean that Damon is dirty. What I mean is that Schumacher had such good momentum that the other guy saw the whole thing, not just a wheel in the corner of his eye. I think a lot of that is because Damon didn’t have the same level of confidence.
“When you’re racing, apart from needing talent and all the other things, you have to have the respect of all the other drivers. You mustn’t confuse respect with fear and apprehension, although there are obviously elements of that involved.
“Back in my time, there were certain drivers whom you knew would try to do things when they shouldn’t, and there were others whom you knew would try to do something and they had the ability to do it, even if it wasn’t the norm. I think Senna falls into that category very much. I think Schumacher does. I think that Damon hasn’t yet built up sufficient admiration, respect or acceptance from the others, where seeing his helmet with the stripes doesn’t mean quite the same as it would seeing Schumacher’s, or Senna’s before that.
“I think he’s got to be able to weigh things up with more clarity and more objectivity. One of the things that racing calls for is being able to take a motor car and put it in to a situation where most people would lose control, and make that work to your advantage. When you overdo it, go beyond the call of duty, the car becomes unstable.
A driver has to be able to utilise that instability to their advantage. If you go into a corner and the back end starts to break away, if you back off fast or put your foot on the throttle quite a bit, you can accentuate what the car has done. The guy who can balance his machine even though he has put it into a virtually uncontrolled manoeuvre, the guy who can hold it longer and better, is going to come out on top, and that is something a person of Damon’s calibre is going to have to work at. Some people can do it easier than others.
“At the moment, I believe that Schumacher can put his car in positions where anybody who saw it would think, ‘Christ he’s out of control.’ But the person doing it is in control. Not only that, they have used the likelihood of being out of control to their advantage. I think that’s something Schumacher can use more than any other driver at the moment.
“If you go into a corner, and the car does something that you weren’t expecting, because you hit oil or whatever, then you’re behind the car, you’ve got to catch it up, overtake it. It’s through experience of having to react to situations so many times that you know what to do to get on the level with it. The more easily you are able to deal with that, the safer you feel. And the safer you feel, the more easily you are able to deal with it.
“Look at snooker players. They know just where to hit the ball, with how much top, how much bottom, side or whatever to make it go where they want. It’s the same in motor racing. You have natural talents, like Jim Clark. Then you have to take that natural talent and work at it.
“Damon’s skills are increasing all the time. but it takes time to hone them.”
Out of the cockpit, much has already been made this year of Hill’s different approach. Moss can see the benefits.
“I think his external attitude has changed. I think he probably feels better in himself, but I think he could still make himself more public-friendly, “Damon’s father was an extrovert, a funny man. But he wasn’t as good a driver. Graham was easier for the public to accept because of the way he appeared to be. But he was also extremely nervous, far more than I’ve ever noticed Damon to be. Graham before a race became impossible. When I say impossible, I mean he wasn’t easy to approach because I think he felt the strain. I think Damon is an introvert who people have tried to make into an extrovert I think he’s seen that, and has decided he’s going to do his own thing, which is for the best.
” Finally, there’s the media. Quick to build Hill up in their eagerness to find a headline-maker to replace the outgoing Mansell, the nationals were, at times last year, even quicker to knock him down. An occupational hazard, counsels Moss.
“I look at my scrapbooks and think, ‘My God!’ All the flak I got about crumpet and this sort of thing, about being a gearbox wrecker when I knew it wasn’t my fault.
“I remember dropping back in one race because I said to Rob [Walker], ‘I’m fed up with this shit. I’m going to sit in second place and take Jack Brabham before the end. Then Jack went over a brick which burst my front tyre and that was that. You have to learn to take all this. It’s one of those things.
“I think that Damon probably has had a hard time from the press, but that’s something which you have to learn to take if you are one of the best drivers in the world.”