Features - Interview
AUGUST 1, 1997
BY JOE SAWARD
Damon Hill still wants to win races and at the Hungarian Grand Prix he proved that he can do it - even if his second place result was ultimately a disappointment. The World Champion has not given up hope with Arrows. He led the race in dominant fashion and looked certain to win but then - with three laps to go - he suffered hydraulic problem which deprived him of control of the throttle and the gears. He was stuck in third. If it had been fifth he might still have won because he was half a minute ahead of Jacques Villeneuve, but in the end the French-Canadian was able to get ahead on the last lap.
Second place was still a great effort and if Damon had mixed feelings about Hungary it was understandable. It had nearly been one of the great upsets in recent F1 history, a totally unexpected victory from a team which had not looked very competitive this year. Hill has had to cope with the frustration and it cannot always have been easy.
"It was always going to be difficult after Frank Williams told me that I was not going to be with his team. I had worked at Williams for six years and I knew the team very well. I was getting the best out of it. Anything that upsets a situation like that is going to create difficulties and so I was always very cautious and realistic about what was going to be possible.
"The start of the season was definitely worse than we expected. There cars were unreliable, not finishing sometimes and once not even starting. That meant that we started off at a lower level than we thought we would. I felt we would start about the level we are at now and then go forward from there. We are six months behind where we should be really.
"But for most people motor racing is all about trying to catch up with the guys at the front. For a long time now Williams has been the dominant team in F1 and it doesn't matter if you are McLaren, Ferrari or anyone else you are trying to catch Williams. Everyone is in the same boat."
Normally at this time of year the less competitive teams begin to tail off in terms of performance as the engineering departments turn their attention to next season. Do you expect that to happen?
"Really it is an ongoing process because whatever we do next year this will be the basis for it so we have to continue to make progress. There have been some modifications. The reliability has come along. More work is being done on trying to make the engine cool better. That is starting to work and we have some improvement in horsepower too so it is starting to come but we are again catching up from a long way behind.
"It is an ongoing process because whatever we do next year this will be the basis for it anyway so they have to continue to make progress."
There is currently a lot of speculation about your future. Are you going to change teams?
"It takes you at least six months to get into a team and feel that you know how to draw all the things together. So it is not a good idea to keep changing but that doesn't mean I will not change teams."
What about your recent visit to Sauber?
"They offered to show me what they had there and I was impressed with the facility and also with the team structure. It was very good but it was just one of the options I have at the moment."
Do you have a deadline for a decision?
"I would like to be competing in F1 with the best chance of success next year. That is what I am really looking for. There is no deadline but I will say that maybe Arrows can offer me the best long-term prospects. I am not saying that I will not be here at Arrows. I am not discounting that."
"These things take time because there has to be stability before you can build things. It is difficult to compare any other team with another. Williams, for example, tends to use their own people and not to draw on other teams. They do their own thing and it is a homegrown team. Arrows is a team which has been thrown together and it takes time for the team to gel. We have people from Benetton, Walkinshaw people, Arrows people and now that John Barnard is with us we have Ferrari people as well."
How is working with John?
"It is much better now that John is here. He understands the car - and cars generally - and at the last race (Hockenheim) I was really able to make some progress. In Hungary he was away on holiday and I would have preferred him to have been with us."
What is the strongest point of the new Arrows team?
"I think we know the weak points but we are curious to know the strong points. Stability is the main problem. We need time for the team to establish itself. It is only the first year really with the team in Tom's hands. It will happen in time and we have a good leader in Tom. There is a good designer now in John. So the leadership is in place and I think that is really going to help."
How are you driving this year?
"Ask me something else. My golf is good."
No. It's interesting to see whether you think you are doing a good job or whether it has been difficult to find the motivation after winning the World Championship with Williams.
"It is not difficult for you to motivate yourself because every time you get into a racing car and you are in competition you are motivated by the fact that you want to be in a better position than where you are. Up to Hungary I had never been at the front, except in a warm-up. You cannot let up. You are always pushing to try and improve your position. It is something that is very difficult for people on the outside to gauge. I know what kind of a job I am doing. It is the same job I did when I won the World Championship last year, but the intensity is different when you are chasing a title. I made a comment that it was difficult to invent the motivation you get from fighting for the World Championship and that was interpreted as me saying that I was not motivated, but that is entirely incorrect. What I was saying was that you cannot fabricate the intensity of concentration that comes with the importance of a World Championship or a race win. You cannot invent it. It only happens because you are at the front."
Do you think you could have won races this year if you had joined Jordan rather than Arrows?
"We will never know, will we? The Jordan is a good car and they have a good engine. In fact I think they have the best engine in F1 at the moment."
What about Williams?
"I think it is a question of style. This is more competitive year than last year. There have been more race winners. But you have to say that at most races Williams has been in with a shout to win and they have either had a problem or... they have had a problem. I am surprised and I am not surprised, but I think it underlines what I have been saying all along. Even if you are perceived to have the best equipment you still have to get the best out of it. It's just not that easy. Conditions change. A car may be very good at one circuit and then you take it to another circuit and it needs to be adapted. The ability I have, I think, is to work with the engineers to adapt the car to the circuit. If you look at my qualifying performances last year I was on the front row at every race. This year, excluding races where we have had problems, we have qualified pretty much as high up the grid as we could have done. And when there has been an opportunity when it has been wet we have been very competitive. That was as much as we would have expected to do.
"I think my ability comes from experience and because I understand the car. I think that Michael (Schumacher) has really been handed race wins on a plate this year and I don't think Jacques (Villeneuve) would argue with that. In Canada he admitted it was his mistake. I have done that sort of thing myself in the past. I have made a mistake when put under pressure but I think that last year I was able to remain consistent throughout the season."
There must have been less pressure when you were not at the front?
"There is pressure brought to bear on everyone in F1, whether you are at the back or at the front of the grid. The degree of attention is greater when you are at the front, which is how it should be. When you finish eighth there is no-one there to see you and ask questions after a race. You feel that you would rather be at the front and have people interested in what you have done because you are putting in the same effort in you are getting relatively little out of it. There is no satisfaction in just being there. I'd rather be at the front and be dealing with all the other problems, pressures and dilemmas that go with it. It is so much more exciting up front - and more fun.
"I have gone past the stage of getting a thrill out of just driving in F1. The competition is the thing I like. I want to get a better result than I ever thought was possible. We could have had a much better result in Hockenheim for example but I was rather badly held up."
That is one of the problems with F1 at the moment, isn't it? Do you think the 1998 rule changes will help that?
"I have always argued for bigger tyres, more mechanical grip and less aerodynamic downforce, but it seems that this is a dead end street as far as the FIA is concerned. They do not regard it as an option and so you have to look at what they will accept and they have taken one of the few routes they have open to them to produce the result they want. I do think that something has to be done about reducing cornering speeds. You cannot keep on changing the tracks. To be honest the cars go bloody fast and if you slowed them by five seconds a lap no-one would know it. Something had to be done to enable cars to race better. The narrow will be trickier to drive and so people will tend to make more mistakes and that will make for more opportunities for people to pass. Hopefully because we will have to use harder tyres it will also be possible to drive off the racing line without losing so much time.
"Aesthetically, however, I am not in favour of the changes. F1 cars ought to look like something meaningful. I wasn't in favour of the narrow rear tyres. I'd like to see big rear tyres, but we are going in this direction and one has to try to be positive about it. Qualifying will be totally different because the tyres will be harder and that will mean you will not get a one-lap benefit from a new set of tyres. You will probably see two runs of four laps which will be a very different type of discipline. If it rains in a race no-one is going to be coming into the pits for wets so the tyres will change the complexion of racing quite a bit."
Are surprised by the growth in F1 in recent years?
"What surprises me is how widely I am recognized. F1 is much bigger than we actually realise. I was in Ireland and there were a group of kids on a school trip from Moscow and they all went crazy when they spotted me. My face is recognized in places I have never been to and I am unlikely to ever go to. The only place I go where I am anonymous is in America and even there is usually someone from outside the US who will recognize me. I would not want to be anonymous. I want what I have done to be known. When I go to places people say that they watch my races and enjoy my driving and that is a fantastic thing.
"The fans are still there. The Damon Hill cap was only really available this year and it has been completely sold out. I get a lot of satisfaction in that because it is something which the fans have seized on as a way of identifying with me. It is nice not only because you get some money for it but also because it is a way for your fans to say they are out there supporting you and that motivates you.
"People will root for you even more if you have a chance of winning which goes back to what I was saying about the motivation you get when you are at the front."
In Hungary Damon's performance had his fans rejoicing once again and even if he did not win the race, Damon proved that both he and the Arrows team are out there to win - which has not perhaps been obvious in recent months...<\#026>