Features - Interview
FEBRUARY 1, 1994
BY JOE SAWARD
That weekend, as Damon wandered around the paddock like a lost soul, the newly-crowned World Champion Nigel Mansell blew a gasket and announced to the world that he was quitting Formula 1 and going to the promised land of CART racing. It was typical Mansell melodrama.
That afternoon Damon might have dreamed that Frank Williams would give his test driver the chance to partner Alain Prost, but it must only have been a dream. The chance of F1's top team blithely handing its second seat to a Grand Prix novice was so slim it was not really worth considering. Frank Williams and Patrick Head did not have a record of gambling on drivers.
Traditionally they had always picked up talents proven with other teams. Hill's F1 future in Monza 1992 did not look very rosy and yet within three months Patrick Head, a man convinced that Hill had what it took from Damon's testing, had ground down Frank Williams's resistance. Damon was confirmed as the second driver. The many F1 cynics asked why? What had Damon proved in the junior formulae? The national newspapers immediately began to build Damon into a star and long before he had the chance to race, expectations were high. Here, so they said, was Mansell's successor.
Hill was in a difficult position but he kept his head down and did well in testing, although Prost never really looked as though he was pushing to the maximum.
Damon's season began disastrously in South Africa. He made a mess of it on the first lap and spun. Later he was taken out by another enthusiastic novice while trying to fight his way back up through the field. Afterwards Damon would only say that he was glad his Williams debut was over.
The pressure was now off. He finished second in Brazil and at Donington, but blew it in San Marino and then in Barcelona, we began to see a new Damon. He began to look threatening to Prost in racing conditions. In Barcelona his engine blew as he chased the Frenchman and by the mid-season Damon was able to follow Prost as he wished, and added another two second place finishes. Only once did he beat Alain in qualifying and the critics whispered that this was normal, because Prost always wins while making his team mates look good.
And then came Silverstone and Hockenheim where Hill had Prost beaten only to suffer two last-minute failures. It was hard to equate that such a thing was possible. Clearly Prost must be losing his edge.
Then Damon started to win. In Hungary the race fell into his lap as everyone else had trouble and he seemed a bemused winner. In Belgium he drove a strong race and took advantage of a poor Prost pit stop to win again. In Italy he was right behind Prost when the Frenchman's engine blew. There were question marks in the minds of the F1 critics. But if the critics were tough on Damon, saying that it was Prost's failure rather than Hill's success, Damon was tougher on himself, pushing himself along. He ended the year third in the wolrd championship with three victories to his name. And all that after taking part in just 18 GPs. It was one of the most successful GP apprenticeships ever. He was re-signed by Williams and will be team mate next year to Ayrton Senna.
It really is an extraordinary story. An amazing fairytale which Damon is the first to admit.
"Yes," he says with a smile. "It has been extraordinary. That's fine. I've done it. It is history. But motor racing is not about saying "I've done that". You have to keep proving yourself."
For a moment he sounds like every racing driver. Perhaps it is an essential part of the psychological make-up of these driven men but it seems they can never allow themselves to sit back for a moment and enjoy their success. They are always too busy talking about the next race. As soon as a chequered flag is waved they seem to be waiting for their next green light. One is often left wondering if they really can be so focussed or whether it is just a pose to enhance their 'professionalism'. When you talk often enough to F1 drivers you find out that most of them say what they are supposed to say and not what they really think. The younger ones do not know the difference because they have lived and breathed racing from their early childhoods. They don't know anything about life and cannot tell you what they like to do in their spare time - except fitness training. They are boring 24-year-old plastic Action Men who can talk of nothing but racing. Only as they grow older and richer do they begin to realise that there is more to life than motor racing; that there is such a thing as family life or intellectual activity.
Damon is different. He was a late-starter in motor racing, a late-starter in F1 and a man in a hurry. He has a sense of perspective about F1 and is willing to admit that he has his faults. He seems like a rounded character, but is he?
"Actually, I have a split personality," he admits. "One half of me thinks I am better than everyone else and the other half keeps doubting me. If other people doubt me the half that thinks I am better comes out but sometimes I have doubts and need to prove myself to myself. So I am motivated by this stick-and-carrot routine which I go through.
"Now with such a good season achieved the doubts are back. Now I have to think about next year and making sure I have the best second season in F1 history. I have to keep it up. Motor racing is about consistency of performance. People do not pay any attention to flashes in the pan. Everything will be totally different next year. We will have cars with passive suspensions and there will be different team mates and more competition. It's going to be a totally different ballgame.
"I'll have to start all over again."
This time he starts at an advantage. As any driver will tell you confidence is the most important thing when you are right out at the edge. Damon's confidence is sky-high. He has given a good account of himself against Prost.
The next hurdle is how to cope with the mighty Senna...