It is 20 years since Damon Hill won the Formula 1 World Championship and for much of that time he has remained steadfastly out of the limelight. Aside from assuming the presidency of the BRDC in 2006, we saw little of him and wondered what new-found career could be taking up his time, turning him into one of the less-visible World Champions of the modern era.
The answer to that questions is provided by Hill’s autobiography “Watching the Wheels”. He pulls no punches as he lifts the lid on his personal struggle with depression, gives us deep insights into the complexities of a career forged in the shadow of his father Graham, and leaves the reader to wonder at an extraordinary story of determination and fortitude.
If Hill’s battle with depression is tackled up front, a continuous and related thread which runs throughout the book is death. At times he seems almost literally surrounded by it. A photograph of him as a young child shows him being helped into a pedal car by father Graham with godfather Jo Bonnier, Wolfgang Von Tripps, Bruce McLaren, Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks looking on. Bonnier, McLaren and Von Tripps would be killed in racing accidents in the years ahead.
It was Graham Hill who had the task of holding Team Lotus together in the wake of Jim Clark’s death in 1968, and the reader is struck by the parallel in Damon having to become team leader at Williams following the loss of Ayrton Senna in Imola, 1994. That he won the very next race in Spain is a fact often overlooked, but there is no doubting that Hill worked hard to rebalance the team in the months following the catastrophe in San Marino.
His description and explanation of the Senna accident makes for compelling reading. Not only was he an eye-witness, lying in 3rd place behind Michael Schumacher at the time, he provides analysis into the behaviour of the Williams-Renault on the approach to Tamburello corner immediately following a Safety Car period during which tyre temperatures and pressure had fallen.
His father’s death in a plane crash in 1975 forms a pivotal chapter of both the book and Damon Hill’s life. His description, as a 15-year-old, of seeing a news bulletin on television about a private plane crash, realising it was probably his father and then breaking the news to mother Bette is heart-breaking. He had to cope with the fact that he was not only the son of one of Britain’s most iconic sportsmen and celebrities of the 1960s, but would never have the opportunity to have many of the questions answered about his father, a man he admits was a “colossus”.
Hill Sr was a five times Monaco Grand Prix winner, a double Formula 1 World Champion and the only man ever to win the triple – the Formula One World Championship, Le Mans 24 Hours and Indy 500. He was a darling of the media in the 1960s, best friends with the good and great, with raffish looks, an “RAF Fighter Pilot” moustache and a penchant for witty one-liners. The reader is left in little doubt that Bette Hill had much to contend with during the course of their marriage.
That he won the very next race in Spain is a fact often overlooked, but there is no doubting that Hill worked hard to rebalance the team in the months following the catastrophe in San Marino.
For Damon Hill this meant being cast into a very long shadow, forever being introduced as “son of” Graham, and then latterly as part of the “tragic” Hill family. Graham’s accident left the family in a parlous financial state, thanks to the fact that the insurance was rendered null and void by the aircraft not being correctly registered and his pilot’s license being out of date.
Against this background it was no wonder that Damon Hill found life difficult, felt himself cast adrift at a crucial point in his teenage years; uncertain of his future, unclear about the recent past, and clearly fed up with being constantly told who he was by other people. He found solace in music, falling under the spell of the anti-establishment Sex Pistols, and starting his own teenage band, aptly named The Hormones.
A trip that seemed to herald change was a summer spent working for Dan Gurney’s All American Racers in California, spending time with former World Champion Phil Hill, enjoying some free spirited fun in Newport Beach, and making the most of life away from scrutiny and depression of home. A visit to a motorcycle race with Peter Gethin in 1977 also helped to get the young Hill hooked on bike racing, and he would ultimately take up club racing, funding his life through jobs on building sites and as a dispatch rider.
Car racing came along thanks to the Winfield Elf School in France deciding that Hill Jr might help them attract some much-needed British customers. A disastrous motor racing debut at Brands Hatch in a Formula Ford 2000 race underlined the fact that “Graham Hill’s son” was always going to be the centre of attention for both the right and wrong reasons.
Damon describes his step back into bikes, winning the Champion of Brands series and a number of national championship racers, and then his progression back into Formula Ford, Formula 3 and onwards to Formula 3000. None of the steps were straightforward. There were many occasions on which Hill felt his career was possibly at an end, but among the many attributes he inherited from his parents was a fierce tenacity. It served him well.
Being prepared to drive anything, anywhere in order to prove himself, he drove appallingly uncompetitive cars such as the Footwork F3000 and last ever Brabham F1 car before finally getting himself into a testing contract with Williams. With Alain Prost retiring, Nigel Mansell moving to the USA and Ayrton Senna losing his life, Damon Hill became Williams’ lead driver, battling against Michael Schumacher’s Benetton in 1994 and 1995 before finally clinching the World Championship in 1996.
The sport which had created so much complexity in his early life would go on to provide him with the opportunity to unleash all of his potential and achieve greatness as one half of the only father-son Formula 1 World Champions.
Dropped by Williams at the end of his Championship-winning season, the reader is left to wonder at the treatment Damon Hill received from a team which he admits could be a strange place to work. The positive footnote to this sad tale is that he would make the most of his subsequent drives at Arrows and Jordan, finishing 2nd in the Hungarian Grand Prix for the former in 1997, and winning the Belgian Grand Prix in 1998 for the latter. His final year in Formula 1, 1999, was a low point, as he explains his motivation had waned and he desperately wanted to stop. As his lawyer Michael Breen and team boss Eddie Jordan fought over money and contract terms, you are left with the feeling that, even in his efforts to retire, Damon Hill took the hard road.
This book forces a reappraisal of Damon Hill, for in its brutal honestly it makes the reader reflect on how an ordinary life can become extraordinary through factors outside of its control. He could so easily have been squashed in the aftermath of his father’s death, the expectations and pressures of being the son of a British motor racing icon. Instead fate, and Hill’s bloody mindedness, decreed that the sport which had created so much complexity in his early life would go on to provide him with the opportunity to unleash all of his potential and achieve greatness as one half of the only father-son Formula 1 World Champions.
Hill is self-deprecating and honest about so many aspects of his life, including his own innate talent as a racing driver. He points out that both he and his father Graham were forced into the role of being plucky British underdog, for while his father had the likes of Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart to contend with, Damon Hill found himself up against Senna and Schumacher.
Concerning talent, he writes: “Surely the man or woman who gives everything they have to beat those for whom things are a little easier deserves more credit, rather than disdain, for not having as much natural ability”. In its own way that sums up the life story contained within this book.