INTERVIEW

Damon the conqueror: Damon Hill

The name 'Damon' comes from the Greek meaning 'conqueror'. This year Damon Hill is second in the World Championship, behind Alain Prost and ahead of Ayrton Senna. He has conquered F1 - and most of his critics.

One good qualifying performance in a McLaren has turned Mika Hakkinen - with 31 GPs to his name - into an instant F1 superstar. Damon Hill has done half as many GPs as the Finn and won three of the 16.

But people still say that Damon is only winning because he has a Williams-Renault and because Prost is not the driver he once was. Damon's good fortune in landing a drive in F1's best car has brought its own problems. However, if you are looking for critics, Damon is harsher on himself than many critics will dare to be. He says he has no illusions about his achievements.

"I try to keep myself on an even keel by trying to be as critical of myself as I am of other people," he explains. "I try to separate my performance from myself. I sit there and say: "If someone is being absolutely critical of me as a driver, what could they say." And you come up with things like I only won in Hungary because Alain wasn't even in the race or he lost Spa because of his pit stop.

"I am also critical of myself to try and keep things in perspective. That is very important. There are a lot of factors in the life of an F1 driver which can combine to make you believe that you are somehow above normality. I think that is a mistake to start believing that. But, at the same time, it is important to be confident."

So looking back how does Damon sum up his season so far?

"At the start of the year I felt that given the machinery there were bound to be places where I would win because of sheer chance. I didn't want to rely on that because I knew I had to show my ability. So I looked at the season and made an assessment as to where my best opportunities might come. I decided that with the early part of the season, there were two tracks (Kyalami and Interlagos) which I hadn't been to and therefore I would be finding my feet. I really needed

to do a bit of following and see how things went in a race because I wasn't really able to pace myself at all. After I had run at the front a bit more, got to know what it felt like during a race and how things panned out, we came to the tracks where I knew I should show well and I knew I had to play my joker and really go for it. Silverstone was the first place where I looked like I was going to win and I felt good about Hockenheim too. That was in the bag, but after the race I suppose you could say that Alain had a 10 sec penalty and if I'd have won it it would only have been because he was in the pits for that

long.

"And then in Hungary he didn't get off the line and the race fell into my lap. I was in the lead and 30 laps before the end I knew that I was going to win it if I stayed on the track and I'm thinking: "What if I don't win this one? It is going to be even harder next time". I had a lot of time to think and that is not good for your mind. And when it actually happened it was not so much a celebration but the relief. It was an exorcism anxiety. After each race there is a procedure in which you get taken off to the podium and the TV interviews. After Hungary there weren't many people left in the race and those who were

there were a long way behind, so I was waiting in this garage for a good minute until they arrived. That may not seem like a long time, but it was. There didn't seem to be anyone around telling me what to do and it was five years since I'd

won a race so I was a bit bewildered."

But he didn't look very happy on the podium in Budapest?

"The British tend to shy away from the spotlight," explains Damon. "We don't like being singled out in any way and I think that is something which is important for me to learn to do. Nigel Mansell did a great job of hamming it all

up and obviously loved it. I was happy in Hungary but I would have been happier if it had been a great race where I'd come out on top - like at Spa where I enjoyed myself. I really didn't enjoy myself in Hungary. It was more like slow torture."

That first victory changed Damon's life. How difficult was it to adapt to the sudden adulation that one gets?

"It is not very difficult because you only have to walk into the Williams garage for someone to remind you who you are," he laughs. "There is a good atmosphere in the team which won't allow for any sort of primadonna-ish behavior.

"Away from the tracks this year people have often come up to me, but after Hungary I was going somewhere, walking down the street, and there was this old bloke at a bus stop and I was thinking: "No, he doesn't watch GP racing. He's

too old. He won't know who I am" and as I went by he said "Well done." It completely astonishes me how often I get recognized by so many and such different people. That is a measure of the incredible appeal that F1 has, and

its a good thing.

"But that is all you get and if you are not careful you can start to believe that everything you do is brilliant."

And what about the newspaper coverage?

"It's amusing," smiles Damon. "A lot of it is fairly transparent when you know the situation. Nigel Mansell left a massive vacuum in England. As a British driver he was larger than life. People don't want to pick up their papers and see that everything went to plan and this was what was expected. So there is a hype factor because the journalists have to make more of it.

"I find it amusing. Look at the way they report on the England football team. It is funny - well, not if you're Graham Taylor - but I don't think anyone really believes all of it.

"There is no harm in it, but sometimes it can go too far. I am very much aware that if I am getting good press at the moment I could just as easily be getting bad press. I cannot have the good and forget the bad. You have to accept

it both ways."

Before Mansell disappeared to Indycar racing, he made several comments supporting Damon's candidature for the second Williams. Is Damon a Mansell fan?

"I've always been one,' he says. 'He's hasn't always done it the right way but he has always followed his own style. He's stuck to it and he's a fantastic racing driver. I saw him win his first GP at Brands Hatch in 1985 and like everyone there I was willing him on. It was a great moment and at times like that you think it would be nice to try and do the same thing.

"I started racing and I didn't have any goals to win GPs or become World Champion. I wanted to see how far I could go, do as well as I could. I surprised myself and I am still surprising myself. I am driven more by finding out how far I can take myself than by the complete belief that I am better than everyone. Throughout my career I have been surrounded by people who have dreamt about nothing else but being in F1 since they were six years old. That was not the case for me. I started racing a lot later than most people. I was 24,which is how old Michael Schumacher is now. Having said that I think my age worked in my favour. I didn't feel the same pressure which I might have done when I was younger and I didn't make mistakes you make when you are younger.

"Now I have a good reason to believe I am a pretty good racing driver. I have proved it to myself time and time again through my career and that has built up my confidence.

So how does Damon react to team orders? At the start of the year he was willing to accept such limitations, but recently he seems to have become more bullish on the subject.

"It comes down to confidence, doesn't it?" he says. "If you believe you have the opportunity to do something to show how well you can drive, I feel that you should be allowed to do it. Drivers are never really fully part of a team. In many ways they are contracted in to do a job and so they are really self-employed. They have to look out for themselves. If I was to do only what the team told me then that might not be good for my career. Alternatively, if I don't do what the team says that might also be bad. It's like standing on a razor blade. You have to look at the situation and really assess whether you

always want to be told what to do or do what you believe is right. But you cannot do that if you have no foundation built on success. Some people might have a great belief in themselves but they haven't shown that they deserve respect. I believe that if you take anyone who has done a lot in their career they command respect, because they have a lot to show for it."

Having competed with Prost this year, how does Damon fancy taking on Senna as his team mate next year?

"I have always liked a challenge," he says with a smile. "Ayrton has a reputation of being the toughest guy to have as a team mate, so it's going to be interesting. If I am treated fairly I like to do things in a fair manner. That is the way I have been all my career. I haven't tried to do things in an underhand way. In qualifying in Portugal this year I had pole position but I let Alain use my car. I could easily have made a mistake and not come back, but I wanted to know in my own mind if I was quicker than Alain. I played the game straight and it came out in my favour.

"But if I am pushed I will push back, that is the way I am. I am very British. We don't like to be pushed around. When the chips are down we might have to step into grey areas."

That's fighting talk, but most of the tim Damon remains the quiet, pleasant, but rather serious man he always has been.

"I think at times I appear to be miserable when I am not. People come up and say: "Cheer Up, it can't be that bad" and I don't know what do they mean. I might be having quite a good thought at that moment but it seems I look

miserable. I am not.

"What happened with my father (Graham Hill was killed in a plane crash in 1975) must have had an effect on my character development. To be honest I think for part of my late teens my character didn't really develop very much. I was in

a state of cold storage. I came to terms with that and I developed. You learn by experience and overcoming setbacks make you stronger and means you are prepared for any eventuality. Now I am who I am, slightly batty in some ways but in other

ways fairly level-headed."

When asked to explain his 'batty' tendencies, Damon has trouble: "I'm not off the wall," he says finally. 'I'm very boring actually."

It is difficult to talk about oneself.

Damon agrees.

"I am under pressure to come up with an answer. People ask me to describe myself, but it's a very personal thing. You don't feel comfortable."

And what about the trials of F1 stardom?

"It worries me sometimes the way some people get so worked up that they have to push and shove to get an autograph," says Damon. "If they are there I will try and sign as many as I possibly can but when people start pushing you have little kids being crushed and I'd rather not be involved creating that kind of trouble.

"But," he adds quickly, "as Jackie Stewart says, I'll be more worried when people stop asking me for my autograph.

And the public interest is not all bad.

"I remember the day after the Hungarian GP we were walking in Richmond Park, taking the children out. We were having a nice day with no pressure and the last thing I wanted was to have people hassling us. I walked past this bloke, who was

out with his son. He just said "Nice drive yesterday". I said: "Thank you very much". I don't know who he was, but it was really nice and it fitted in perfectly with the surroundings and the moment. He didn't say anymore, but it

made me feel very good."

Damon hasn't moved since his leap to fame, living in the same modest suburban house he had when he was a nobody struggling to make it. What do his neighbors think of living next to an international megastar?

"I don't see myself as an international megastar," he admits. "I still put the rubbish out late at night - sometimes in only my underpants. Mind you, nowadays I have a good look around to make sure there is no-one there. I just think this whole star thing is a gas and I think the neighbors think it's pretty funny as well. We've got some great neighbors," he says.

Georgie Hill, Damon's wife, has been listening in to the interview for a while and throws in a story.

"After the British GP last year when Damon was with Brabham and had qualified for the first time. It took ages to get out of Silverstone and we didn't get home until about two in the morning. We found that the neighbors had decorated

the front of our house. There was a big Union Jack and the letter box was full of good luck cards. It was really nice."

Being a Grand Prix driver may be an unusual job, but when the Hills talk about it, it all seems very normal. They have no delusions about the 'glittering' world of F1. Georgie comes with Damon to all the races and the pair get on with their life. There is no posing around the paddock.

"Georgie saw my very first car race," remembers Damon, "so we have been together a very long time."

"Going to races is like going shopping together," says Georgie. "It's just part of life.

"Well, it's not quite like that," says Damon with a laugh, "but Georgie knows my moods and knows to give me space on a race weekend. I can be quite an ogre sometimes and she forgives me for my outbursts.

"But," he adds quickly with a smile, "she gets her own back during the week!"

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