Features - News Feature
SEPTEMBER 1, 1996
Damon Hill's title struggle
BY JOE SAWARD
The start was perfect and quickly built a lead while Jacques Villeneuve struggled to pass Michael Schumacher and Jean Alesi. But then Jacques attacked. The gap closed. After the pair had both stopped twice Jacques shadowed Damon. F1 cars being as they are these days he could not pass because if you run too close to a car in front the tyres suffer badly. The decisive moment would be the final pit stops. Damon was in and out fairly quickly and thought the race was sewn up and then, as he thundered down the straight past the pits, he saw a blue car pop out of the pits.
"I thought it was a Tyrrell I was hoping it would stay out of my way," said Damon later. "Then I saw Rothmans on the rear wing and I realized it was Jacques. I was surprised."
The fight was over. Damon had lost, beaten for the first time in a straight fight with Villeneuve. Hill was - as always - generous in defeat.
"Jacques drove a great race to win from fourth place," he said. "That is no mean feat around Estoril."
Hill is still in the dominant position in the World Championship. Villeneuve has to win without Damon scoring a point in Suzuka if he hopes to snatch the title. There is always the possibility of a mechanical failure or an accident - but that is true for both drivers.
"I have waited a long time to become World Champion," says Damon. "I can wait a few more weeks."
Damon is unlike most of today's racers in that he did not spend his teenage years racing all the time. He did not start competing in cars until he was 24 and he arrived in F1 at a relatively late age. This gave him a much broader education and the ability to put things into perspective.
Being around F1 was not a culture shock because Damon had grown up in the sport. His father was Graham Hill, the F1 World Champion of 1962 and 1968 and the only man to win the F1 World Championship, the Le Mans 24 Hours (which he did in 1972 in a Matra MS670) and the Indy 500 (in a Lola in 1966). Damon's godfather was racer Jo Bonnier and as a child Hill knew all the F1 stars of the day. His father retired early in 1975 - when Damon was 14 - to concentrate on running the Embassy Hill F1 team. Nine months later he and several members of his team were killed when the light aircraft in which they were travelling crashed at Elstree aerodrome.
"What happened with my father must have had an effect on my character development," Damon admitted a few years ago. "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 developed. You learn by experience and overcoming setbacks makes you stronger and more prepared for any eventuality."
Damon is a more complex character than most in F1 but he does not talk easily about such things.
"The British tend to shy away from the spotlight," he says. "We don't like being singled out in any way."
The effect of this is that critics do not really understand him. They see him having to work hard to beat the naturals and conclude that Damon is only winning because he is driving a Williams-Renault. Damon has no illusions about his achievements. he is harsher on himself than any critic.
"I try to separate my performance from myself," he explains. "I sit there and say: "If someone is being absolutely critical of me as a driver, what could they say?". I am also critical of myself to 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 it is a mistake to start believing that."
"When I started racing there was great pressure for me to live up to something, my father's reputation or whatever. It's been irrelevant for a number of years now because at the end of the day people always say: "What's he like as a driver?" That is what is important."
Damon studied English, history and Economics. He took a business course at a London college. He raced motorbikes with some success, played guitar in a punk rock band called "Sex, Hitler and the Hormones", and then became a motorcycle despatch rider, racing bikes at weekends. The bike racing terrified his mother Betty and she paid for him to do go to the famous Winfield racing school at Magny-Cours in France in the hope that he would switch into cars. He did and began racing Formula Ford 1600. His sponsorship came from photocopying company Ricoh, a deal which came about because he got talking one day when he was delivering a parcel. The Hill Family was not wealthy, Graham's money having gone to settle law suits following the plane crash.
In Formula Ford he showed that he had talent but his generation was a talented one: Johnny Herbert, Bertrand Gachot, Mark Blundell and Roland Ratzenberger were his amongst his rivals. In 1986 he surprised a lot of people by winning a televised Rallysprint competition - in different kinds of competition machinery - beating F1 drivers Derek Warwick, Johnny Dumfries and Martin Brundle and rally stars Stig Blomqvist, Russell Brooks and Jimmy McRae.
He achieved moderate success in British Formula 3, finishing third in the 1988 championship, but the following year he ran out of money.
"I ended up having to reappraise my career. The first thing was to realise how lucky I was to be driving anything," he explains. "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 a thing called the Footwork F3000. It was the worst car that ran that year and the battle was always to qualify it. That meant that I had nothing to lose. I could drive the living daylights out of it. When I had a chance to drive in a more competitive car - with Middlebridge in 1990 - I drove it in the same way. I was quick. I got three pole positions and I led five races but the bloody thing kept breaking down."
Damon's speed did not go unnoticed and one day - after Damon rang up Williams and asked for a job - he found himself being interviewed for the post of F1 test driver. He got the job but after a year testing was still struggling to find a way to race in F1.
"I think I have very little chance really,' he said at the time. "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."
His efforts, however, led to a drive in mid 1992 with the Brabham F1 team - which had been taken over by the Middlebridge organisation, which had run Damon in F3000. The team had started the year running Giovanna Amati, hoping to attract sponsorship with a woman driver. When this failed they figured that Hill's name might help raise finance. For eight races Hill struggled to qualify the Brabham while continuing to test the Williams. He qualified for two races for Brabham before the team collapsed.
Damon went to Monza that year trying to sort something out for 1993. He didn't have any sponsorship money to promise and his prospects did not look good. That weekend, as Damon wandered around the paddock like a lost soul, the newly-crowned World Champion Nigel Mansell blew a gasket and announced to the world that he was quitting F1. It was typical Mansell melodrama. Damon, the Williams test driver, might have dreamed that Frank Williams would give him the chance to partner Alain Prost in 1993, but it must only have been a dream. Frank Williams and Patrick Head did not have a record of gambling on drivers. Traditionally they picked up talents proven with other teams.
But in the months which followed Head decided that picking Hill was a good move and ground down Frank Williams's resistance. Frank gave way and Damon joined the team. By mid-season he was beating Prost. At the British GP he blew up while leading - 18 laps from the finish. He went and had a glass of beer. Two weeks later in Germany he had a puncture a couple of laps from the finish. Surrounded by television crews, eager to talk to him, Damon was tense as he strode through the paddock with cameramen stumbling around him.
"Are you satisfied with the performance?" asked an Italian TV journalist. Damon's eyes flashed angrily.
"No, I am not satisfied!" he snapped. "I want to win. I don't want to stop."
After a nice cold beer at the Williams motorhome, his tranquility returned.
"What can you do?" he said. "Nothing. The only thing to do is to have a cold beer and just keep on trying. There is nothing to say that you get 50% good and 50% bad in life. You have to accept what you get. If I was determined to win a race before today, I am now three times more determined.
"But," he added, the typical laid-back Damon Hill, his feet firmly on the ground. "At the end of the day I'm OK. I didn't get hurt. I'm going home to see my kids."
He won the next three races in Hungary, Belgium and Italy. He ended the year third in the World Championship. It had been one of the most successful GP debut seasons ever. He was re-signed by Williams to be team mate to Ayrton Senna.
"It has been extraordinary," he admitted, "but it is history. Motor racing is not about saying "I've done that". You have to keep proving yourself."
Senna's death propelled him into the role of Williams team leader but he finished runner-up to Michael Schumacher after the German ran him off the road in Adelaide. Last year he was beaten to the title by the rampant Schumacher.
The British love an underdog and today Hill is a big star in his home country. He is not afraid to show his weaknesses and admit that he has done a bad job. Unlike his confident young rivals Hill has to compete against himself as well as his rivals - which makes winning just that little bit more difficult.
The name 'Damon' comes from the Greek meaning 'conqueror' and Damon has gradually conquered F1. He is not a natural driver like Schumacher, Alesi or Hakkinen. He has none of their confidence and arrogance. He has climbed the F1 mountain but to do it he has also had to conquer his own character.
"I have a split personality," he admits. "One half of me thinks I am better than everyone else and the other half doubts it. If other people doubt me I try to prove them wrong but sometimes I have doubts and need to prove myself to myself."
These are thoughts which you would never hear from a driver like Schumacher, but Hill is very different to his rivals.
"When I started racing I didn't have any goals to win GPs or become World Champion," he explains. "I wanted to see how far I could go, do as well as I could. I surprised 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. 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."