Damon on Graham: "Had dad not died I doubt I would have become a racing driver"

Damon Hill lost his father in an air crash on a foggy November night, 40 years ago. Against all expectations – including his own – he followed Graham Hill into the family business, and won on his own terms. Now, in a revealing interview, he speaks candidly about the man he knew, from the perspective of a son who is older than his father ever had a chance to be

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Forty years ago the lives of six families were devastated as Graham Hill’s Piper Aztec crashed on a foggy Hertfordshire November evening. A day earlier 15-year-old Damon Hill, preparing for school, had watched his father readying to leave, headed for Paul Ricard to oversee the test of the new Hill GH2 Formula 1 car. Just another snapshot moment in the hectically busy life of ‘Mr Monaco’, unique winner of motor racing’s triple crown, only months since retired from the cockpit to begin a new phase of life. It was the last time Damon saw him.

There’s never a good time to lose your father, but aged 15, caught between childhood and manhood, the complexities of the father-son relationship at its most bewildering, it was particularly difficult. Especially for two such complex souls – in many ways contrasting, in a few very similar. The patriarchal process was pulled up brutally short at a crucial time, before the moment of challenge, let alone anointment.

“I hadn’t had that ruck,” says the 54-year-old retired world champion. “We hadn’t had that moment where you shout, ‘Dad, you’re wrong,’ and he says, ‘OK, then. Off you go. See how you get on.’ So I still don’t know what that’s like. And I wonder if that’s why it’s always been difficult for me to deal with authority. When I went into teams and was dealing with what I describe as ‘adult males’ you don’t know if you’re an adult male yet or not. Even now, older than dad ever was, I don’t feel that I am.”

It would surely have been a process of some difficulty, such was the enormity of the personality we are discussing here: Graham Hill. And of the behavioural codes of his place and time. Damon: “He was like a god to me. He was my dad, he was famous and successful. Everywhere he went he was just hilarious. But behind the scenes, he was a bit contradictory. Everyone wanted to meet him. But there are people I know who didn’t get on with him. He was a hard man when it came to getting things done, he didn’t cut anyone any slack and was a bit insensitive sometimes. But when you’re in a tough situation you haven’t got time for that. That’s the theory. Now we live in the touchy-feely, you can’t talk to me like that, abuse in the workplace age. But he was brought up in wartime and he was in the navy and when they said jump you jumped. I grew up with that.

“But we could have a laugh. He was a very funny man, loved to muck around. So on the one hand he was a disciplinarian and on the other he was a clown. So you end up thinking, ‘Which bit can I do, then?’ Can I do larking about? Yes. But when you overstepped the mark he’d cut you down, because he had a way of saying the thing that would go to the quick and a lot of people felt the sting of that. But you know, he wasn’t a bad man; he was kind beneath it all. He was a bloody hard worker and lived life to the full. He left a pretty indelible impression.” In an earlier interview, Damon summarised his father’s place in the public’s affections thus: “He had a quality of humanity, which is the thing that makes sports people transcend whatever it is they’ve done. He transcended being just a mere sports person.” The raconteur, the flirt and the clown were the public face. The grimly determined character behind the mask answered to no one.

“He was totally in charge of his own life,” says Damon. “It’s like that recent Niki Lauda tweet where he said, ‘I do whatever I want and no one tells me what to do.’ That applied to dad. They are of a type: self-made men and there was a whole generation of them in Britain in the ’60s. They made their own judgment calls. He said he hated being in the navy, that it was two years wasted. But I don’t know. I think maybe it taught him quite a lot actually.

“If you listen to my dad then listen to Colin Chapman it’s weird; their voices are almost identical. There’s a slightly squeaky intonation with a hint of north London thrown in. Then the tight moustache and the slicked-back hair and their mannerisms. It’s like these people were so long together they became parodies of each other. They were sort of WWII pilot archetypes. You can see how propaganda works. You present a nation being made up of these characters and then people just slot in. David Niven, my dad, Terry Thomas, Errol Flynn – all fit in the same mould. These people formed the archetype, an image that becomes common currency. Just look at Dick Dastardly – that is my dad! In the ’50s they lived out of each others’ pockets. There’s a great picture of my mum with Hazel Chapman on a day out down in Brighton.”

Graham Hill and Colin Chapman were of a time and place and each answered only to themselves. But they partnered up – in 1958-59 and again in 1967-69 – through mutual interest. “We used to go to their place,” Damon says, “and even though I was young I always sensed them not fitting together very well. They were each their own men.

“Similarly, I think when Bernie Ecclestone bought Brabham and dad was the driver, Bernie had a bit of trouble accommodating him. Dad, Chapman, Bernie – can you think of any more self-determined, independent characters? Dad was at that time almost transcending the sport, in that he’d become the public face of motor racing. He jokingly called himself ‘The Ambassador’, and he was a galvanising force. So Bernie was having to deal with this guy who was actually getting to that senior position in the sport of being a voice and spokesperson.

“But dad didn’t think in the same way as Bernie. Not many people – if anyone – was going to catch Bernie out but later on, when Bernie began to build up the teams as a group and dad had his own team, he was not part of that group and I think it may have been that he’d sided with Paul Metternich at the FIA. I’m not sure how that would have all panned out. There was a kind of respect there but dad and Bernie had similar histories in a way. It was the wild west in those days. Because there were no rules yet telling them what they couldn’t do. Then if anyone said, ‘Hey, that’s not right’ it was too late; they’d already done it. Because of that, they made their own lives. When you get two people together like that they don’t get on very well in the same room.”

Even in death, Graham was one tough act to live up to – and Damon was caught between establishing his own identity and following in his dad’s footsteps. “Yeah, ‘not quite as good as his dad’ is the epitaph I guess I have to live with,” he laughs – the laugh of an audience member, the recipient of the joke even when he’s the teller. Maybe that’s just another inevitability of being Graham Hill’s son. The straight-faced delivery of the one-liner that has everyone around in stitches of laughter – that was Graham’s territory. “Yeah, but the funny thing about his extrovert character, is that originally he wasn’t. Not according to my mum, anyway. She describes him as an introvert when they met. He was quite quiet apparently but somewhere he fell in with the wrong crowd or something and said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m a lion tamer!’ It’s the usual thing: you live your life, then you go motor racing and everything changes. He was having a ball and he was good at it. He was a good performer – and sport is about performance. So he performed as a racing driver but he also performed in his role out of the car, playing this larger than life character and people loved his cheeky sense of fun.”

In the character Graham projected, Damon believes he over-played the plucky trier role. “He is recalled as a valiant grafter rather than as a natural driver. But partly that was down to how he categorised himself. He had incredible powers of concentration – and determination is part of that. Determination is a kind of accolade in our society whereas actually he probably did have quite a lot of talent. You cannot win 14 Grands Prix, two world championships, an Indy 500 and Le Mans just on determination. But he did work very hard at it too – maybe even too hard. There’s definitely an argument that he didn’t need to change everything on the car 20 times. Certainly, the mechanics say he had them pulling their hair out in frustration because he didn’t let up. But he wanted to win. He didn’t want anything to go by that might cost him a victory – and in those days the cars were very fragile so doing clever things with your gear ratios, for example, might make a difference. That was your trade and you’d take that from one place to the next – you were the computer with all the data.”

That wasn’t even the most fundamental difference between then and later, though – as Damon points out. “I don’t think what I did was really the same game as dad’s. It was still a bit dangerous when I was doing it – but totally lethal when he did it and, to be honest, I don’t think I’d have fancied doing it if it had still been like that. I recently watched YouTube footage of the 1964 Indy 500 where two drivers died. There are cars on fire, total carnage. Dad went there and won it two years later and must have done it knowing that could’ve been him. Every time he went out the house from the time before I was born until the day he retired he left the house thinking ‘I could get killed’. Contemplating that now makes me wonder what it must have been like. I don’t think I experienced anything in comparison. It’s not foremost in the drivers’ minds now. Back then, it was right there in their face. It got to the point where people just didn’t want to go to another funeral. Mum and dad were always going to funerals – Bruce McLaren, Jim Clark, my godfather Jo Bonnier, the list went on. Even when dad won Le Mans he lost a good friend and I lost my godfather.

“I’ve talked with Paul Stewart about this and I think we’ve both been affected growing up in an environment where there was that much fear. There’s a bit of a distance people keep. Mechanics talk about it – they didn’t get close to drivers because they didn’t know whether they were going to lose them or not. There’s a distance you keep and they become slightly scary, partly because they are doing this big scary thing. I think the danger made them wilder as well – made them party harder and be a bit more crazy. Which is entertaining for us, except of course…

“There’s a lot of mythology about it – being resigned to one’s fate, which is seen as being a brave philosophy. But actually it’s not very nice for everyone around you. The fear just crept in. At first you’re too young to really understand it but you know there’s something going on that’s not very good. Dad’s mood was very reflective if something bad had happened. In Mr Monaco he talks about Jo Siffert dying. I was there that day at Brands Hatch [as an 11-year-old in 1971]. We were sitting in the grandstands and the au pair who looked after us took our hands – me and my sister – and led us away. With black smoke rising up in the air. Not a very nice afternoon when your daddy’s in the race. But you don’t… you’re not quite there yet. You’re kinda getting it but then you’re full of bravado. A lot of this stuff you carry around inside you and you don’t realise it’s there until something happens, like Imola ’94, and then it all kind of kicks off. When you’re growing up you don’t properly deal with it. You just put on a brave face and carry on. Nowadays they might call it post-traumatic.”

Graham’s retirement from the cockpit – announced at the 1975 British GP – seemed to offer the hope of all that fear dissolving, and the chance for Damon’s relationship with his father to develop fully. “There was a huge sense of relief when he decided to stop – from all of us, my mum especially. I was there at Silverstone when he did his lap of honour and waved at everyone and it was a bit of a tear in the eye moment. I think he wanted everyone to say, ‘Oh it’s a really sad day’ but actually everyone was thinking, ‘Thank God for that’. So when he died it was kind of a double blow. Because you’d seen him put an end to the most dangerous chapter of his life and then he lasted only four more months.”

Damon’s enthusiasm at this stage wasn’t for racing cars but motorbikes. “I tried karts once or twice. Dad saw me driving and I was all chipper because I thought I’d done well. He responded with his classic kind of reserved and slightly in-check compliments. He withheld his enthusiasm because he obviously didn’t want me to do it.

“Well, you can’t do one thing yourself then tell you children not to do it. So that was always in my mind. I was asked from a very early age whether I was going to be a racing driver. Because I’m very contrary my inside answer was, ‘No, I’m bloody not. Especially if you want me to’ and I also had very little interest in cars. A motorbike to me was an appealing thing. They clicked completely but I didn’t quite get cars. It lacks a dimension. You can get on a bike and have much more freedom and you use your whole body and stuff.

“After dad died I was pretty rudderless for quite some time and totally off the leash. A few of dad’s friends tried to be helpful but I didn’t want any. I could sense a lot of my friends were mindful of what their parents might say about what they were up to in a way that I wasn’t, so I always felt sorry for them. I wasn’t under that restraint. I don’t think my dad was under that restraint from his parents either.

“Had dad not died I doubt very much I would have become a racing driver. Going into cars from bikes was just because there was a commercial imperative for me to do so. Because I failed initially – I didn’t get to the finals at the Winfield race school, didn’t do well in my first season, it bugged me and that’s where the competitive bug comes out. I think every very competitive person has a chip on their shoulder somewhere. A raw nerve where if someone suggests that you can’t do something, you recoil and react. Then it all kicks off – and you’re off again, the blinkers are on. But dad’s was quite a legacy to live with – he set quite a high bar. Comparison was inevitable but if you’re a racing driver you’re constantly compared anyway, to every other driver. His career record was amazing. But he only won 14 GPs! [Damon won 21.] If he was still around I’d never let him forget it! But you wouldn’t have got me in one of those cars going around the Nürburgring in the wet with no crash barriers.”

It’s interesting to speculate how it would have panned out for everyone but for the crash. “We were all getting into this Graham Hill Racing thing and it was starting to take off. I think he’d probably have taken the team on a similar trajectory to that we saw later with Williams.”

But that fateful flight ended it all. Motor racing lost arguably its greatest ambassador – and a troubled 15-year-old kid lost his dad before he’d really worked out who either of them were. “There’s no answer,” he says about the accident. “The inquest didn’t definitively answer everything – could offer only theories. This guy Jan Bartelski wrote a book about unexplained air crashes. In the chapter on dad he goes into a lot of detail and permutations – because there had been a lot of assumptions.

“Don’t forget the whole estate was sued. Everything got taken apart in every respect and it’s actually not as simple as saying it was an error of judgment. This guy doesn’t conclude that. It’s a terrible shame. It haunts my mum. What happened? We never really got an answer and probably we’ll never know.

“So yes, lots of conflicting feelings. But eventually I’ve kind of developed the philosophy of weren’t we lucky to have had what we had. Weren’t we very lucky to have had Graham Hill for the time we did. And I do think he had a ball.”

The Elstree accident

Key facts about a crash that has never fully been explained

The headline points from the inquest of Graham Hill’s plane crash painted a picture of a somewhat cavalier approach to flying safety, with the suggestion that he overruled recommendations of not landing at the fog-bound Elstree, rejecting the alternatives of the less conveniently situated Luton or Stansted, that the plane exceeded its take-off weight limit and did not possess a valid airworthiness certificate.

However in his book Disasters In The Air, Jan Bartelski (father of former downhill skier and sometime rally driver Konrad) paints an altogether different picture. The former Canadian Air Force pilot devotes a full chapter to the Hill accident, delving deep into the circumstances and details and makes the following points.

• Hill’s choice of landing at his local strip of Elstree rather than Luton or Stansted was not without logic, given that there was little difference in the reported visibility at each of them.

• ‘Unsatisfactory assistance’ from London’s radar operations took Hill on a poor approach path, not aligning him accurately in conditions of poor visibility – and with a premature change from the original heading.

• The poor approach heading he’d been placed on could conceivably have led Hill to mistake railway lights at High Barnet station for ‘obstruction lights’ at Saffron Green, commonly used by pilots as guidance for Elstree landings, causing him to make his final descent too soon.

• Hill’s disorientation could have been compounded when he was informed that his range to Elstree was four nautical miles when in fact it was 4.5.

• The take-off weight was only an estimate by accident investigators and if accurate would have represented a six per cent excess, just one per cent above accepted tolerance.

• The plane was meticulously maintained but the non-validity of airworthiness was a paperwork oversight from it having previously been registered in the USA.