Features - Interview
AUGUST 1, 1995
The Demons in Damon: Damon Hill
BY JOE SAWARD
"My first reaction to that is that Michael is simply trying to avoid the responsibility that he has taken on at Ferrari to put them back in a winning frame. He is being paid an awful lot of money to do that and I am sure they will be pretty disappointed to hear him say that he does not regard himself as a serious threat next year. I think he is playing it down so that if things go well he will be able to take all the credit - that is fairly standard practice for racing drivers in general. It's possible Michael may regret having done this deal. You would have to say Michael would have been better off staying with Benetton for competitiveness. But he is probably very happy with the terms of his agreement..."
It is no secret that Damon has been undervalued in recent years but his new deal is believed to be worth around US$5 million.
"Negotiating with Frank is like pulling teeth, but it is a very satisfactory result. I had several possibilities for the future but my preference was to stay at Williams. I am happy to have a situation whereby I have signed a contract which reflects what I believe is my true value to the team.
Why did he sign a one-year contract?
"Why? Because who can say what is going to happen? One year is good for me."
For some reason Damon has always been undervalued despite the fact that since Ayrton Senna's death he has battled with Michael Schumacher to be the top man in F1. Damon has won 12 of the last 32 races (Schumacher has won 13) and yet you will always hear people in the F1 paddock who do not rate Hill as a great talent. Can Damon explain why that is?
"Michael is very good all the time. He's one of these guys who just goes quick all the time. I think my performance has been on an upward curve. It has been difficult to quantify how I am doing because I have been steadily improving. That is the way my entire career has gone. Bit by bit I have been notching up the scale of things. That is the way I function. I do things rather differently to others. I haven't come in with a bang and I haven't been hyped up. The problem is that I'm a late developer and I don't perhaps fit the conventional view of a superstar sportsman. In some ways it is irritating and in some ways I really don't care. It is so difficult to quantify where you fit in when you are actually in the centre of it. You are the last to know. You are always probing. You can read the papers, look at yourself on television and try and get into your mind where you fit. It's a picture you were very familiar with when you were watching GPs as a spectator. Then I felt very confident that I knew where someone was good and where someone was weak and how they were performing. When it is yourself it is a strange situation - but you cannot quantify it."
So you have to rely on your own judgement?
"You have to be honest with yourself. That has always been my way forward. If you can say to yourself: "I am really confident that I gave it everything I had and I cannot blame myself for anything that went wrong", you cannot do any more. You need a little bit of luck but mostly it is pushing yourself that is important."
And your wife Georgie helps to keep your feet on the ground?
"Absolutely. Georgie is brilliant because she has known me since before I started motor racing. She knew me when I raced motorbikes. Then I used to go off to the Brands Hatch racing school and say "See you later". I don't know what she thought, probably "What is this guy on?" but she's got a perspective on everything because she sees the changes."
There have been a lot of changes for the Hill family in the last year or so? There has been a lot more money; a move to a house in Ireland; more public recognition than ever before. It must have been rather startling?
"I've just had my third child (Tabatha) and we were loading up the three children into the Renault Espace, with the nanny and I was thinking: "When we had our first child - before I was in F1 - we used to have a little Fiat Uno with Oliver in the back". And it suddenly struck me - Geez! We had this little Uno which cost $750 - no, it was $2100 I think something like that - and we lived in Wandsworth in a terraced house. I was very happy and it was not a problem but things have changed quite a lot."
A few years ago Damon made a now-famous comment that although he was an F1 star he still put his rubbish out, while wearing underpants at night. Does he still do that?
"No, I wear expensive designer clothes now to put my rubbish out!"
And what about living in Ireland?
"I like it a lot. We have a beautiful setting where we are (not far from Dublin) and it's very peaceful and out of the way. I can actually relax when we go there. The locals are nice people. The Irish are very welcoming. They like to talk and always offer you a drink and I am getting to know them better so I feel a bit more comfortable. It was a bit of a wrench leaving England. I had lived there all my life and it was strange to move. The great advantage is that Ireland is not that different. It is very similar to England in many ways. We get the same TV channels and they speak English. The countryside is pretty much the same."
And what about his friends?
"Because I am backwards and forwards to England all the time. I see my friends about as much as I used to. Actually I now make a point of trying to see them whereas in the past when I was in England you always felt they were there and didn't actually get to see them much because there was always too much to do. Now I am actually there to see them instead of just bumping into them. It is different."
What about the international recognition which comes with being a big F1 star. Does that get you down?
"Actually, there are some countries where you can walk about and be totally ignored... and I'm not going to tell which countries those are because I actually cherish them. It's a relief to be able to go somewhere and walk about and not be scrutinize all the time."
Is it any different to the kind of attention that the Hill family had with father Graham in the 1960s?
"That was a bit of a pain sometimes. On the other hand it was great fun because everywhere you went there was some sort of prank that would happen. My Dad was always taking the mickey out of people in a nice way. There was always some funny event because of who he was. I remember one year we went down Regent Street in London to see the famous Christmas lights and all three children were sitting on the roof of the car as he was driving down Regent Street! The Old Bill (the police) pulled us over and said: "Excuse me." Then they looked into he car and said: "Ah, Mr Hill. Kindly put your children back in the car please. We didn't realise it was you, sir. Have a nice Christmas!" That sort of thing was good fun. They were willing to make an exception for characters like him. Fame allows you to - not to take liberties - but get away with one or two things. It is not just good for getting a table at a good restaurant."
Damon is now sneaking up on father's total of 14 Grand Prix wins. That must be an odd sensation?
"I am not there yet, but it would be something, wouldn't it? World Championships are another story altogether and you also have to remember that when my Dad raced there were less GPs each season and so there was less opportunity of winning. To win 14 GPs in a career was a tremendous achievement. The difference is that I have started at the top, got straight in with a winning team. He had to do a few seasons with a cars that were not very good. He won the bulk of his GPs between 1962-69, which was quite a short concentrated career considering he was in F1 for 15 years or more."
Damon's career development has, however, been a lot like his father Graham's, who was also considered to be a man who worked at his racing rather than being "a natural".
"It IS extraordinary, it really is. He did his first GP when he was 29. He did his first car race at 24 and so did I. It is a strange parallel. I think that there is too much emphasis in F1 put on youth. I think it has been shown that it is very difficult for a young guy to be strong. You look at the guys who are really strong now and they are all over 30. Michael is an exception, but he has come from a fairly intensive life of racing. The Mercedes school was a great thing for him to have done, rather than having done F3000 he went into an environment where he was able to learn what big cars were like and what it is like to drive for a professional outfit. He has been schooled well. He has a good head and he has the talent and so he is coping quite well. But if you think back to Jean Alesi when he came into F1 there was a lot of excitement. he was impressive but winning didn't happen. You have to have a bit of luck to be in the right car - Michael has certainly got his hands on competitive equipment. I feel it is almost better to come in and build like I have and then one day everyone wakes up and realizes that actually this guy is quite good. The problem with that is when do those people make that decision? I have done less GPs than Michael. I am one of the least experienced of the top GP drivers and I am in a fight for time. I have to make an impression. When I came into F1 I had to do something. I had the opportunity with good equipment but I had to make the best of it. And I was fighting against time because I knew I would not be given long before they'd say: "We'll take the good equipment away and give it to someone else". And yet I don't have that much experience. What I have going for me is a bit more maturity I suppose."
Have you surprised yourself with the progression?
"At the very first race I did - before I even got into the car - I said to myself "I have got no idea if I'll be any good at this. I'll just get in and see how I do". That's been my approach ever since. I say: "Right, I've done that. Now let's see what else I can do." There are two distinct parts to my psychological make-up. If someone says to me: "You cannot do that!" I will say: "I bloody well can and I will show you." But, if you were to ask me: "Can you do something?" I will say: "I don't know. Let'see if I can and we'll find out that way". The one thing that really gets me going is if someone says: "You'll never be able to do that". I remember a while ago someone who was quite big in F1 saying: "You'll never get a drive in F1. It's too late. You have missed the boat." I am sparked off by any kind of comment which detracts or which is aimed at pointing out my weaknesses. It spurs me on. They have said: "You cannot drive a car with traction-control", "You can't drive a passive car", "You can't drive in the wet" and so on. But I could and I did."
For 1993 and 1994 Damon was up against big stars such as Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell. The arrival of David Coulthard is the first time he has really been in a "number one" situation. That must have made life easier?
"I haven't satisfied myself. I don't think I have reached my peak at all. Juan-Manuel Fangio didn't even drive F1 cars until he was 37. OK, you can say it was different then but I say "Why was it different then?" It wasn't any different. That is rubbish."
Next year he will be up against Indycar star Jacques Villeneuve. How does Damon think he will cope with F1?
"He got a proven record in Indycars, but it's a little bit tougher in F1. However, I think Jacques is a quick learner. He was impressive in the test and he'll be a man to watch. I am sure that he is determined to make an impact in F1 as soon as possible. We will have to wait and see how he does."
People also say that drivers lose half a second a lap for every child they have. Damon seems to gain half a second with each kid...
"Right! If you look back at the World Champions who had children, I think you'll be surprised: Jackie Stewart won three World Championships with two kids; my Dad won two; Jack Brabham, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell all had kids. It seems to me that the real strongpoint in one's career comes later on... and it is sobering to think that Ayrton was cut off in his prime. Maybe he was reaching a point where he would have been even better than he was before - because he would have lost that desperation of youth. Think about that. I still think there is a lot more to come before you have seen what I can really do if I can pull the pieces together. I'm gradually getting them all together."