King of the hill

I beat Damon Hill once. This was way back in the early 1980s when we were both trying to make our names as bike racers. Damon grew up dreaming of being a Grand Prix motorcycle racer – he wanted to be the next Barry Sheene much more than he wanted to be the next James Hunt.

We got to know each other a little, possibly because we were the odd ones out in the bike-racing paddock. We were a pair of middle-class southern softies, while most of the others were working-class northerners and very, very hard: coal miners and steel erectors, with a few south-east London mafia types thrown in. This was probably why the paddock called Damon ‘Daisy’.

I got nicknamed ‘Mad Mat’. I think I might have had a bit of a death wish back then.

Damon and I raced in different classes so we didn’t see each other on track. He rode a Yamaha TZ350, a proper racing bike, similar to the machines raced in Grands Prix at the time. I rode a Yamaha RD250LC, a street bike with half the horsepower and a chassis to match, in motorcycling’s version of touring car racing.

We finally got to race each other in the Yamaha-backed Pro-Am championship at Snetterton in the summer of ’82. Pro-Am was a notorious British series, renowned for spills, thrills and rather too much cut-throat action. Supposedly, riders invited to contest the series were the nation’s best up-and-coming youngsters, all knowing no bounds and no fear in their keenness to get to the top. The bikes were showroom-spec 350cc versions of the RD250LC.

Each race was preceded by a paddock ‘key party’. A helmet was filled with ignition keys; each rider pulled a key out of the helmet and that was the bike he got to race. The machinery was therefore equal, the racing was televised (bikes were rarely seen on TV in those days), the prize money was inordinately generous and Yamaha supplied, maintained and repaired the hardware free of charge. All in all, a recipe for disaster.

Race bikes on race tyres and street bikes on street tyres behave very differently on the race track, so Damon wasn’t entirely at ease on the RD350LC, whereas I was in my element. I seem to remember that he had a big race coming up the following weekend. When we found ourselves together on track (we were only running mid-pack), I formulated my plan. I guessed that he wanted to get through this race in one piece, so he could be fit and strong for the next Sunday. I guessed that if I leant on him he wouldn’t resist. And he didn’t (see above).

The following year I qualified for the European Pro-Am final at Hockenheim, as part of a five-man British team taking on the Continent’s fastest RD350LC racers. The other members of the British squad (two of whom went on to contest the premier 500cc World Championship for Japanese factory teams) behaved disgracefully: getting drunk, beaching hire cars in fields and scaring the living daylights out of their rivals. Their behaviour reminded me of the Duke of Wellington’s words on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. Surveying his troops ‘relaxing’ before the fight with Napoleon, the Duke said: “I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they frighten me.”

The only foreigner the Brits deemed capable of stopping them going home with the prize money was (funnily enough) a diminutive Frenchman, renowned for his smooth, intelligent riding style. During final practice the fastest members of our squad ganged up on this poor, unsuspecting fellow. They drafted past him on the high-speed run to the Ost Kurve and ran him off the track, in sixth gear. He didn’t bother them in the race, which ended with a British 1-2. I finished nowhere.

Damon went on to win the King of Brands title but, like most bike racers, he struggled to find adequate sponsorship (also, his mother was keen for him to do something less dangerous), so he moved into car racing. I gather he went on to do rather well.