There are striking similarities between the careers of Damon and Graham Hill, but the new World Champion is very much his own man reckons Paul Fearnley
The role of sporting ‘son of’ can be fraught: progeny either fail to live up to expectations, have any success they might achieve put down simply to the advantages awarded them via their birthright, or ‘disrespectfully’ exceed their parent’s exploits.
Damon Hill’s father was a sporting icon, beloved of the nation, motorsport fan or otherwise, yet Great Britain’s latest Formula One World Champion avoids any of the above pitfalls with aplomb.
Like his 1996 Williams team-mate Jacques Villeneuve, another famous ‘son of’ , Damon makes it clear that he races on his own terms. It is true that his crash helmet is bedecked with the London Rowing Club colours that his father made so famous, and that he dedicated his 1994 British Grand Prix victory to his father, for this was a race he never won, but that’s it. This season was about Damon Hill and Damon Hill alone; the father/son scenario is simply a hook for the media.
“I’ve read a lot about trying to live up to my father’s record. I don’t know where that comes from I’m not in competition with my father,” insisted Damon during his recent triumphant press conference at Selfridges. “I simply adored him. I thought he was fantastic and I’ve never wanted to take anything away from him, He died 21 years ago that’s an awful long time and I’ve long since handled that emotion.
“This season was completely something that I wanted to do, something I’d set up I’d got myself into the situation. I had set out on this task of winning the championship, doing it for me, and for all the reasons that were relevant in 1996 not for any other.”
To be the son of a Le Mans-winning, Indy-conquering double World Champion is to have your future mapped out for you. That is the assumption. It is a theory, however, that played little part in Damon’s struggle to the top of his high-profile trade. He was just 15 when Graham and four other members of his fledgling Hill Formula One team perished in a plane crash on the approach to Elstree aerodrome. Legal and financial complications in the aftermath of this tragedy ensured that Damon had the name but very little else when he took his tentative first steps into motorsport. And this only brought extra pressure.
It certainly didn’t bring sponsors flooding in. His early two-wheeled racing career (a punk music-loving teenager bucking the trend, much to mother Belle’s concern) was funded by three hazardous years as a London dispatch rider. Ten years ago he was buzzing about the capital delivering other people’s messages, now he was just “buzzing” as he delivered his own message.
The buzz is of the sort that only a World Champion can experience, and the message is concisely and wittily put. He is undoubtedly Graham’s son. He may play them down, but the startling similarities are too many to ignore…
A spell as a Lotus mechanic was a means to an end for Graham. He badgered for drives and eventually proved his skills to an initially sceptical Colin Chapman. Damon’s early career was similarly chequered, but given an opportunity as a Williams test driver, he so impressed the team with his commitment, speed and concise feedback that he was chosen as Nigel Mansell’s replacement to race alongside Alain Prost in 1993.
“When that happened I thought, ‘Well, I’m in with a shout here’,” says Damon disarmingly. “I had got my hands on a machine that could win races. I thought, ‘There’s nothing going to stop me now’, but it took a few more years than I thought.”
Of course, there are contrasts: Graham’s first GP win came at his 34th attempt (the 1962 Dutch for BRM); Damon had already chalked up five victories at the same point in his F1 career. But the similarities continue to stack up. At 32, Damon was a late starter in F1, while Graham was six years older than Jim Clark and four older than John Surtees, his major contemporary rivals.
Both Graham and Damon have been labelled perhaps unfairly as drivers who have had to work hard at their games to replace a shortage of natural talent.
Both men nursed their teams through the loss of the greatest drivers of their era – Clark and Ayrton Senna – showing great dignity yet boosting morale with their continued, indeed increased, competitiveness. Had Damon avoided Michael Schumacher’s wayward Benetton at Adelaide in 1994, he would have repeated his father’s World Championship win in his most difficult of seasons, 1968.
These shows of fortitude greatly raised both men’s stock with the general public. In 1994, Damon was voted the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year. Surprisingly, this was an award never bestowed upon Graham, yet he regularly held viewers of this programme spellbound thanks to his double-act with Jackie Stewart; the Scot was the straightman as Hill gave a display of dazzling Bob Hope-style timing and razor sharp wit. His appeal is easy to appreciate.
Damon is more low-key. He is however, by no means the corporate automaton that the sport’s paymasters increasingly demand. His father would have approved of his post-Suzuka party stunt of riding a moped into the hotel’s foyer, although Graham might just have ridden it up the stairs and parked it in somebody else’s bath tub.
His father had a darker side, however, which would have given today’s press a field day. He never came under the media scrutiny his son is subjected to. It was only last season that they were labelling Damon a whinger. He had given some honest answers and these had been turned against him. There was talk of him being replaced at Williams by Heinz-Harald Frentzen no less and his confidence and form appeared to crumble in the face of the impossibly self-assured Schumacher.
But a two-week self-exploratory Bali holiday saw a new Damon Hill breeze into Adelaide to dominate the final Grand Prix of 1995.
This were the beginnings of the man we see today. A man who is holding court to the nation’s assembled media a man it is impossible to dislike. The pressure is off. He’s relaxed, easy-going and amusing. He certainly wins the PR battle with Williams hands down. He is euphoric, of course, but his answers are measured and considered. If his Suzuka win was one-in-eye for the team, then he is letting his fans do the jabbing. Damon’s is the hand of friendship.
“It wasn’t quite the pat on the back I had been expecting!” he joked of his Williams P45 scenario. “I’ve grown used to it now – every season there is some kind of drama in the middle to try and put you off your balance. I just carried on and put it out of mind. The only thing from the this season was to win the Championship – what happened after the last race I’d almost dismissed as being irrelevant. I never even looked beyond the end of the season, I just started out with the intention of winning this time. While it was a bit of a blow not to come back with the team after I’ve been doing so well, I wasn’t going to let it affect me; I’d rather go away with something rather than without the drive and without the Championship…
Everything’s comes up roses. The challenge of Arrows lies ahead but a relaxing Christmas with the family comes first.
A man with a famous name, who has made it off his own bat. A man like Graham Hill, only different.