NEWS FEATURE

Damon's dreams come true

It was in December that Frank Williams decided that Damon Hill should partner Frenchman Alain Prost in the Williams team in 1993. Hill had raced in only two Grands Prix for Brabham but he had completed 18,000 miles of testing in his two years as the Williams test driver.

Six months later Damon is an established F1 driver.

"I was a lucky guy to get the most competitive car in my first season in F1," he admits. "It was a fantasy, but there I was with the best car. And I knew that people would quickly point the finger and say: "He's bloody lucky to get a car like that, he should be doing better". I knew I was vulnerable.

"I have had a tentative start. I've been conservative and I have got results that cannot be taken away from me and now I feel I can really start to put the pressure on a bit more and turn the wick up a bit.

"In the remaining races I have to show that I have every right to be in the Williams. I have to keep a constant check on my own performance, but if I know at every step of the way that I am giving value for money in my driving and I am not soft-pedalling anywhere then I am happy."

Damon hasn't won any races. Can he see that happening?

"You know you can win races from the first time it happens. You win and then you go up to the next level of the sport thinking: "It is going to be more difficult and more competitive with faster cars". And if you win a race in F3, you say: "Right, now I know I can do that" and you look at F3000. F1 is no different in that respect than any other championship if you have the car to do the job. When the time is right and in the right circumstances I will win a race. I don't think getting hung up about it will help me.

"All sport is in the mind, isn't it?" he says. "A lot of people have the capability of achieving the top level in sports. It is the mental thing which makes them champions or lets them down. If I read that Frank is going to sign Jean Alesi next week and I start worrying about it I will not perform well.

"There is negative pressure and there's positive pressure. Wanting to win is a positive pressure, it gets the best out of you. You have to learn to dispel negative pressure, otherwise you get into a downward spiral. The mental side is the key to this sport. That is why people like Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell do so well. They have so much self-confidence and so much self-belief that in a competitive situation they are always able to get the best out of themselves.

"Nigel is a fighter and needs to have someone in the changing room slapping him round the head and telling him to hate them. He does that within himself and that focusses his adrenalin and aggression. And when he has done that he's unbelievably quick. You can see it everytime he drives the car. The guy is on a mission every time.

"Everyone has their own way of pumping themselves up. I enjoy racing and I know that if I am relaxed I perform better. If someone said to me: "Damon, this is your last chance to drive a Grand Prix car", I wouldn't spend the time worrying about never driving another one. I'd enjoy it.

"It can always be the last time. You just don't know and you have to approach it on that level.

"I am privileged to be a driving a GP car and extra-privileged to be driving a Williams-Renault. You have to squeeze the performance out of the car and out of yourself is the important thing, but it should be enjoyable. That really is the most important thing. The impression I get from everyone at Williams is that they all want to enjoy it. You can have intense competition and there doesn't have to be strife and angst."

Damon pauses for thought. He is a racer who can eloquently put his motivation into words. Very few can.

So what is his biggest weakness in racing car?

"I'd like to be a second quicker," he says with a smile. He doesn't take himself too seriously. He is still willing to look at himself and laugh. When you are used to the ways of F1 it's rather shocking these days but it is refreshing and very British.

"I am always analyzing my performance and trying to work out where I can improve and get more time. Experience is the one thing that makes you faster. It happens from years of wanting to improve and is such a subtle thing. Slowly, but almost indiscernibly, you get better. I am better now than I was a year ago and slowly I keep inching forward and upwards."

Although Damon has not won a race, a lot of folk in the F1 paddock have been impressed that Hill has been hastling Prost at times, notably in Spain. Did it ever cross his mind that he was an F1 novice with less than 10 starts to his name, fighting it out with the most successful driver in F1 history, with nearly 200 GPs behind him?

Damon pauses again.

"You have to bear in mind that things change from year to year. You don't say to yourself: "This is Alain Prost three times World Champion" you have to say: "This is Alain Prost in the race today". You measure yourself against the performance of the person as it is happening. Your decisions are based on evidence immediately available to you and you just drive.

Has Damon been shocked by just how fast Alain can be on occasion.

"No," he says, almost absent-mindedly. "It hasn't shocked me. It has underlined my suspicions. I have always regarded him as a quick driver. He's very unspectacular but incredibly efficient. Alain's speed is effortless - and undeniable but I feel happy in myself that I can stay in touch with him. I am not trailing in his wake. I don't think I've been particularly overshadowed."

It is all very sensible, logical and intelligent. There are none of the delusions of grandeur you often find when talking to other F1 drivers.

Is it true that his father once said that he was "too intelligent" to be a racing driver?

Damon nods: "At that age I didn't give any indication of wanting to be a racing driver. I didn't want to do what people expected of me. If I had shown any inkling of wanting to do it he would have got me a go-kart, but I think he probably felt that being a racing driver wasn't the height of achievement and asked himself if it is useful to society. And he spent a lot of money on my education and probably didn't want me to blow it all by becoming a racing driver.

"The fact is that I have been hooked on the addiction - just as he was. Racing is a discipline which concentrates the mind. Once it is in your blood there is not much else that really seems to fulfil you as much."

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