Features - Interview
APRIL 1, 1992
BY JOE SAWARD
It is hard being the son of a famous father these days, but the talented members of the new generation do break through - emerge from the shadow cast by their names they were born with. Damon Hill has certainly achieved that in recent weeks with some impressive testing results for the Williams-Renault team. At 29 he has left it late but Damon now stands on the verge of a Formula 1 career.
"I think when I started racing there was this kind of great pressure that somehow I had to live up to something, my father's reputation or whatever," says Damon, 'but I think it's been irrelevant for a number of years now. All this famous sons stuff is a bit of a publicity thing. That's fair enough, because people are impressed by it and you do get coverage, but the end result is that people always say: "What's he like as a driver?" That is what is important.
Damon has not had an easy ride into the highest echelons of the sport. He achieved moderate success in British Formula 3, finishing third in the 1988 championship, but the following year he found himself with nothing.
"I ended up having to reappraise my career a bit," he explains. "The first thing was to realise how lucky I was to be driving anything. I made the decision that whatever I drove I would do it to the best of my ability and see where it led. I had a great time. I drove at Le Mans, I drove touring cars and, in F3000, I drove the Footwork chassis. That was good for me, because nobody expected anything of it. It was the worst car that ran in the championship and our battle was to get it into the race. What that meant to me was that I could wring the absolute living daylights out of it. I could abuse this thing and try to murder it. That meant that when I had a chance to drive in a car which was competitive - with Middlebridge in 1990 - I drove it in the same way. I was quick. I didn't have to push the Lola anywhere near as hard as the Footwork.
"In Formula 3 a lot of people can drive the cars to the limit but how you get any more speed out of them? I do not know. They seem to come up against a brick wall. It's not that Dick Bennetts has been extremely lucky over the last five years to have the guy who is going to win the championship driving for him. Obviously success attracts success but Dick knows how to winkle tenths, even hundredths, of a second out of an F3 car and you don't need more than that to be on pole position.
In F3000 it is not so easy, they are more difficult to drive to the limit. In F1 I think it's even harder.
"Anyway, in 1990 I got three pole positions and I led five races - which was half the races in the championship. It was pretty successful if you look at those statistics. We were always in with a shout but the bloody thing kept on stopping. We lost out because of mysterious electrical problems. We fixed one and then another came along. It got to be so bad that we went to Pembrey to try to recreate the circumstances of a race to cure it. We simulated the whole thing, did a few recognition laps and then sat on the grid for half an hour. We thought maybe there was a heat sink factor or something. We did all this but we couldn't get the misfire. The car ran perfectly! We could never get to the root of the problem."
"That came about because I knew that Mark had got the drive with Brabham and so Williams would be needing a test driver, and I rang Frank (Williams). In fact I spoke to Patrick (Head). It was over the Christmas break, Boxing Day I think, and he was there at his desk. After that Frank said come up and be interviewed. I did and, after Frank had spoken to a few other drivers, I got the job.
"When I started testing I had the idea that somehow I would be told what to do and I would just drive the car round and they would say: "We just want you to do 10 laps on this and then we'll check the data" and that sort of thing. That's
not the way that Patrick likes to work. He wanted me to tell him everything and he could compare the information I was giving him to information he's received from some of the top drivers over a decade. It all meant something. Patrick is just unbelievable. He's almost difficult to talk to when he's working, because he is concentrating so hard. You can't believe the bank of information he has to hand that he can cross-reference with.
"Everytime I drive the Williams I think: "This is fantastic". The team is so good. I go to a test and I have every chance of coming away having been one of the quickest drivers. How many other drivers get that opportunity? Only the luckiest.
"I can really go and put everything into it. I enjoy driving a car to its limit and I've been lucky with Williams because not a lot of it has been just tooling about.
"The sort of experience I am getting is not race weekend experience but, nevertheless, I am becoming familiar with how the team works, the technical aspects of it and also the circuits and the physical requirements of driving an F1 car very quickly.
"Now I feel that I could get in an F1 car and give it some stick, which I wouldn't have been able to do at the beginning of this year. It's very valuable. A race weekend is a race weekend and, obviously, the pressure in F1 is greater than in F3000, which is a holiday in comparison, but if you have the opportunity to drive in F1 and can keep your head screwed, I don't think i would be any different. I am sure I would be able to acquit myself well. I don't have any doubts about that.
"It is still important to keep the competitive side going and doing F3000 at the same time has kept me competitive. This year in F3000 (still with Middlebridge) I had no mechanical problems at all, but the car was slow. Occasionally it was quick in strange circumstances. One time we went to Mugello and suddenly the car was on the pace, but that was maybe a quirk of the circuit, because it's quite smooth there."
Did F1 testing experience make F3000 racing any easier?
"In some ways it isn't easier,' says Damon, 'because the F3000 car feels so light and doesn't seem to have any power and grip. It's just like a piece of paper compared to an F1 car. I probably drive it rally fashion a bit to start with and that's not the way to go. It usually takes me a good 20 or 30 laps to get back into F3000 ways. Strangely, it's never difficult going up to F1."
And what about F1? Is there any hope of a Grand Prix drive in 1992.
"I think I have very little chance really,' he says. 'There are drivers who have experience, are recognized names and have budgets. You cannot really compete against that. I don't really have a hope in hell - but I'm trying. The others side of the coin is that should I not get to F1, I can compete again in F3000 and I have the chance of winning races. That is as valuable in some ways as being in F1, particularly for your confidence. You can have a good time in F1 but you don't get recognition for a job you have done. That can damage your confidence. There are a lot of very good drivers in F1 and they don't get noticed. That's life. A race is all about who wins, that's what people want to know.
"If you are a youngish driver - which I am not - then being in F1 and getting experience is valuable and getting good results is not everything. All the time you are learning, improving your chances of being there in the years to come. I don't have the time to get into F1 and hang around for years - I am not 21.
"Everyone says, "I'm not going to drive a crappy F1, just to be in F1", but the temptation is always there to jump in and drive whatever there is. There are a lot of unhappy people driving F1 cars. They are not getting what they want from it, but are just hoping that one day they are going to get the break and drive a car that's going to be good."
At present Hill is not part of that rat race. He is waiting. He cannot afford to jump at just any chance.
But it doesn't seem to bother him.
"I keep getting better as a driver,' he says, but with modesty. 'It's got to be better for me to come in when the opportunity is right."
When - and even if - that may happen remains to be seen, but one thing is certain. Damon Hill is ready to be a Grand Prix driver...