By David Cameron, England
Damon Hill came into Formula One with the heavy burden of his father Graham's shadow, but he was able to make a name for himself and become the most popular British driver in the past decade. Yet he left Formula One a little too late, and his times in the sport were hardly easy sailing. One of the most intelligent and articulate drivers, he remains a complex and interesting local hero among the fans at Silverstone. Ahead of the British Grand Prix, David Cameron met Hill for a talk about days gone by
The simple truth of being Damon Hill was no preparation for actually being Damon Hill - in fact you could argue that it actively worked against preparing him for what his name was going to mean, what it was going to stand for, what carrying his name was going to do to the man himself.
Talking to Hill for any period of time gives you a glimpse into the numerous burdens the man has carried, this refined, somewhat shy but polite man who wears still the numerous marks of an upbringing so different to those of almost every one who meets him, the marks that betray the many faces of a man who was thrust into a limelight not of his own making, a limelight that he loved and hated alternately in almost equal measure.
Hill grew up with a largely absent father figure, a flesh and blood human to observe and emulate or rebel against in person, firstly because his famous father Graham was off racing for a large part of his early childhood and later, tragically, because his father was taken from forever in the plane crash which claimed his life, along with those of various members of his nascent Hill Racing team, including promising young driver Tony Brise.
For so much of his life Damon Hill has felt the push and pull of his relationship with his absent father, rebelling against the image when he raced due to a perceived need to succeed or fail on his own terms, pulling back to protect his father's image when, for example, he drove the Embassy Hill car at the recent Goodwood festival, built by his father's team but never raced, when he stated: "I hesitate to make suggestions that would have deprived James Hunt of a World Championship, but I like to think this car could have won it, with Tony Brise at the wheel."
The inference being that he alone can go against the party line when it suits him; the rest of us must sing from the hymnbook of his father's success, no matter what the endeavour.
In retrospect, perhaps Damon Hill would have been better off trying to make his mark on the world in a different forum than his father - being without his father's natural extrovert nature, and keen to establish himself without reference to a template that fans and the press were always going to want to put him into, led to Hill sometimes appearing churlish or abrupt when dealing with both groups, the weight of expectation as his father's son adding to the pressures this naturally introspective man piled on himself.
But race he did, whether to prove something to himself, to his absent father, or through a combination of both forces. And he succeeded in his own fashion, taking 22 wins from 115 starts in Formula One, along with the 1996 World Championship, a stubborn determination making up for a lack of a publicly gregarious nature and helping him quiet the doubts from all quarters, including his own, that he would be able to match the records set by his father.
Of course, winning the Championship brought more attention, more fans, more pressure to bear on Hill. Sitting at a table at the Goodwood Festival, years on from those torrid days and looking tanned and relaxed, he could see why his mere presence could induce pandemonium. "I do understand it, because as you know Nick Mason is involved in motor racing, and I'm a Pink Floyd fan, so I can sort of relate to it - I like to sit next to him and things like that!
"You can understand it in other things, but I think there's definitely a freaky element to idealization of people or cars that can sometimes be disturbing - it mustn't go beyond reasonable bounds. We can all get a lot from investing in a sport that we love, but once it goes beyond a certain point it becomes a bit scary."
DC: You've been on the receiving end of that for years and years - it must be odd to be in that situation and to be the centre of all that attention.
Damon Hill: "I can tell you a good story about that - Tom Jones and Tony Bennett, who told me this story, came out of a hotel and there were screaming girls and people pushing and all of that, and they were screaming at Tom Jones. So Tony Bennett pulled Tom back and put himself in front, and they carried on screaming - he said look, it doesn't matter who you are, there just needs to be someone to scream at! And that's human nature - there is such a thing as mass hysteria.
"It's something that we pass through. The World Champion - it wasn't me that got the attention, it was the position of World Champion that gets the attention, and once you're out of that it goes away and all that's left is just a memory of it. And it's nice, because people remind you of the good times that they had watching you, and then it just sort of peters out and becomes manageable, but at the time it's too much."
DC: I remember watching you on television at Suzuka when you won it, and you looked as though you'd had a huge weight taken off your shoulders ...
DC: ... but when you were up for the British Sportsman of the Year and all those things you looked as though you were trapped again, as though everyone was looking at you again, but for a different reason ...
Hill: "Yeah, and I never really felt comfortable with that. Certain people are great with it - someone like Muhammad Ali is someone who sort of feeds on it and it somehow rebounds on to the people, but I always felt slightly ambivalent about the whole thing - perhaps I wasn't really the best person for it!"
DC: You say that it's the position or the title rather than the person, but someone like yourself or Alan Jones or John Surtees will get more attention, more people coming up to them to talk to them, than a Carlos Reutemann or any other driver who won a lot of races but didn't quite win the Championship.
Hill: "No, but then again that's I think the way it works - I think that's the difference between coming close and winning it. The rarity value is intrinsic in what Formula One is trying to create - every year it's got to come up with a new individual, singular - it's distilling the whole world of driving into one person and declaring that person to be The One, the messiah or whatever, and that's just the way it is.
"But hopefully I'm not too easily deluded to think that it's sort of anything more than it is - it's a very difficult competition, and it's fantastic to win it, but winning it does not declare anything about you other than at that time and place you beat everyone around you, and if you can do it time and time again like Michael Schumacher then ultimately you have to be regarded as pretty special."
After winning the title in 1996, with the knowledge that he was leaving Williams hanging over his head in the latter stages of the year, Hill chose to drive for Arrows. At the time he spoke highly of the possibilities the move held for him, but apart from one race there was no opportunity to show his abilities in the car. It was clear that he would need to change teams to have the chance to race at the front, but more than this Hill needed to prove to himself that he still had the desire to do so.
DC: Do you think that winning the title made you change what you wanted out of the sport at all? Was it a case of 'I've done this now'?
Hill: "It was a bit, and in some respects, well, I didn't have an opportunity, and I did think to myself there's possibly another Championship for me, but it would have needed me to get the McLaren drive in 1998. I didn't get the McLaren drive because I felt that the offer that was made didn't take into account that I'd already won the Championship - I felt it would have been wrong to accept it on that basis, bearing in mind that the number one driver at the time was Mika [Hakkinen], who had just taken his first race win at Jerez, and so if I'd gone into the contract that I was offered at that time, I felt it was pretty clear that it was declaring me not to be the wanted driver, which I felt would have been wrong."
DC: Do you regret not taking it now?
Hill: "No, I don't regret it at all, because what actually happened was I went to Jordan and won their first ever Grand Prix. I think there are certain things that are completely beyond your own control, and you can only do the best and the thing you felt was right at the time - a lot of it is out of your control other than that, and what transpired was I won in a Williams, I nearly won in an Arrows, and I did win in a Jordan, so I can feel that maybe there was actually a common denominator there amongst all those results.
"But once I'd lost that chance of becoming a World Champion [again] I think I was starting to question whether I actually wanted to keep doing it. To win a Championship is one thing - there's a strong validation to doing it if you're going to win a World Championship - but the argument starts to become less convincing once you know you can't win a Championship."
DC: Going to McLaren would have been a tough job, no question, and I wonder if because you came into the sport later than most people, and you already had a Championship, was it a case of 'I'd rather go and do something else'?
Hill: "No, I really wanted the Williams drive - oh, I called it the Williams drive, and I'll tell you why - really I wanted to work with Adrian [Newey] again, and I knew Adrian was backing me at McLaren, and I knew that if I went back to working with Adrian at McLaren I would have a really good chance of winning another World Championship, because we had a bloody good working relationship, so it's a shame really ..."
DC: You would have had to pull the team around you, though, which would have been a bit of a challenge.
Hill: "Well, for me I think Ron's approach to me was so ... diffident, is that the right word? Certainly he didn't give me a warm feeling - I'd been through one experience of not having a warm feeling, and I didn't want another one! And I thought that if you don't want me then we shouldn't do it."
DC: And EJ was standing there ready to give you a big hug!
Hill: "Yeah, and I though 'well you never know what could happen here' - with Eddie there's always a chance of being entertaining, and I thought I always wanted to do the best that I could, and that meant getting the best out of the people around you if I could as well, and I found the attitude and the mentality of the people at Jordan wasn't there yet. I think I had an affect on them, to a degree, for a while."
DC: What was the difference between 1998 and 1999? You did well, you got a win, and then it just went down.
Hill: "Yeah, '99 was just went fizzling down, and I wanted to get out - I would have liked to have stopped at the British Grand Prix but suddenly it got very political, and scarily potentially litigious, and I found myself sort of ... entombed, I was going to say. I'm very lucky that nothing did happen to me really, because I did want to stop."
DC: Was that all down to a clash between you and EJ?
Hill: "I don't know. I mean no, because I never really spoke to Eddie properly about it - I spoke to him briefly about this, but Eddie had ... Eddie wanted to make alternative arrangements, which meant that I wouldn't have been able to race or to stop my career when I wanted to, and I thought that he was being unreasonable. To me it seemed like he was being unreasonable - to not at least give me a dignified exit, and it didn't happen that way, so it's a shame."
It may not have been dignified, but it was an end. After fretting his way through the 1999 season, Hill slid off track from thirteenth position at Suzuka and lost his nose, came into the pits for the last time and parked his car rather than continuing needlessly, happy to have survived a year in racing for which he had clearly lost his appetite.
But what do you do when you're an ex-racer, when you no longer do the one thing that people associate with your name? "I just stopped and tried to think about what I'm doing, to try and recover from it, because it was only a seven year Formula One career but it was thirteen years before that trying to get there! It's a long time. I was in the lucky position of being able to stop and say 'what do I want to do?' - not many people get that chance."
DC: I've always imagined that for someone like yourself, someone who has focused his entire attention on something for such a long period of time, whether it's driving, cricket, whatever, that when it's gone there must be a huge piece of yourself that goes missing, like a large hole inside you.
Hill: "Did you watch that programme recently about ex-footballers, with that guy ... Alan Hansen is it? He did a programme about this exact problem with footballers, and what do they think about when they retire. No sportsman really thinks about what happens, and I think it's an enormous problem. As a sports person you can really delay growing up - you can defer all those things about yourself that you need to develop that make you become a complete adult - it is an extension of your childhood, no question, because you turn up and someone's got your boots for you and whatever else.
"I tried to do as much for myself as I possibly could, but nevertheless you don't develop proper working relationship skills because you're a one man band - you're a golfer, you're a tennis player, you're a footballer where you're in a team but you're just playing football, and you don't develop broadly. Someone like Niki Lauda is very much the exception, but then ... I don't want to name names, but it is very difficult to make the transition from being single minded to having a view as to where you fit in to the grander scheme of things. It can't always be all about you!"
DC: I've wondered about how you would deal with that, as you've always struck me as a more introspective type than most, particularly in racing. But with that said, once you retired you sort of went through your George Harrison hippy stage ...
Hill: "Yeah, yeah! You mean my mid life crisis kind of thing! I did all the things that I hadn't been able to do, because I was so committed to what I was doing, and I thought fuck it, I don't care - if I'm going to make a fool of myself I don't care, because I wanted to do these things, like go on stage at the Albert Hall and play guitar - how many people can say that!
"The funny thing about that was that the week before that I did a gig at the Queen Victoria in Godalming, which is a pub, and I think that was just beautiful to go from the Queen Vic pub to the Albert Hall - I think there's some sort of connection there. Or was it the other way around? Maybe I went from the Albert Hall to the Queen Vic, which is a fairly rapid fall!"
DC: Which was kind of like 1999 for you.
Hill's recent re-emergence into the motorsport world - his appearance at Goodwood, his refusal to join the nascent Grand Prix Masters series, his recent test drive of the GP2 car at the Circuit Paul Ricard - has all the hallmarks of a man finding his way back to a normal life after a long journey to a distant country. He's cut his hair short, now mostly grey but still recognisable from his racing days, and he's trimmed his moustache in a similar fashion to his father's, albeit with a goatee attached. His father's son, his own man.
But what does he think of motor racing now? After the self-imposed exile from his former life, does he actually get any enjoyment from it? "It would be wrong of me to deny that there is an enormous amount of it that I love - I had some amazing experiences as a driver, both from the point of driving, from being in a machine which was just incredible and right on the limit, and also from racing against some of the great names of racing, and also from the point of view of experiencing the events that happened in that time.
"It's a very thrilling thing, but I think there's a time and a place for it - when I look at Formula One now I slightly lament ... and of course you've got to be careful that you don't just appear to be someone who thinks things were better in their day, because things progress and they change - they're never going to stay completely the same - but I think that the element of the sport which has suffered the most, and has perhaps been a problem with regard to the appeal of the sport, is the diminishing of the role of the driver.
"And I don't mean just from a technical point of view, but from a political point of view, and from a charisma point of view. I think I came in at an end of an era, I think I was at that changeover era - before me there were the guys who were the same age as the team owners, who were not the same age as Bernie, because he was a bit older, but certainly were a similar age to Max who ran the sport and had some sort of admiration for each other.
"We've often heard about Frank and Alan Jones and the admiration they had for each other, but also Rosberg, Piquet, Nigel Mansell, and Lauda and Prost with Ron - they all had an ability to ... they all had political clout. After Senna died, and he had the most clout and he used it, it took a real turn, and Michael does not engage himself in any way in that dimension at all - he's quite willing to go along with whatever will protect him and his career. Very few drivers actually have the political clout to say anything - I mean, you've got Villeneuve, and maybe even David Coulthard now is being more outspoken - Irvine was good."
DC: Although he used to trash you a lot.
Hill: "Yeah, I know, but that's ... people will turn on the television. It is a fight - it's like a boxing match, and no one's going to turn up to watch two guys hugging each other! That was the entertainment - Piquet hated Mansell, Mansell hated Piquet, Prost hated Senna ..."
DC: And you - did you and Michael hate each other?
Hill: "Yeah! Well, when I say that I mean when you get into competition, to motivate yourself you have to really want to beat the other guy, and there has to be motivation, even though there's a respect there. People knew they were going to get a real fight, and you don't know now, because you don't know if they have to say the right thing otherwise they break contracts.
"You can't criticise the engine manufacturer now - I mean Ayrton was always going on about the engines, and the next thing you know the engine has about 200 more horsepower! I said something about the Mugen engines once - I said they're unreliable, they haven't got any horsepower, and they keep blowing up - and Eddie tried to have me in breach of contract!
"I said Eddie, this is for your benefit that I'm saying this, because they will pull their finger out, because they don't like having the finger pointed at them, and afterwards the engines got better and we won a race. I had to risk being in breach of contract with my employer! So that's changed, and I think that's something which is a crucial element, and the drivers, I don't think you can point at them and say it's their fault - it's not - it's the way that the sport is ... carefully governed."
Those last two words are delayed, weighed in his mind before being spoken, indicating a slight distaste at the form racing takes now. And, perhaps, he was slightly reticent to despair at the state of the sport now, being that he is reemerging into the motorsport world through his management of aspiring Formula Three driver Steven Kane.
The relationship is a curious one, and not entirely unlike that between Graham Hill and Tony Brise - Hill has spent a lot of time working with the Ulster born driver behind the scenes, coaching him and giving Kane the advantage of his many years of experience in the racing world, much as Hill senior did for Brise all those years ago after retiring from racing.
Hill himself clearly sees their relationship as something more than just a business relationship: "Yes, there is a management element, although that's not really why I'm doing it - I can recognise someone who is really hungry to win, that he's really hungry to get a chance, and so was I. It's bloody hard when you haven't got a way to get money invested in you, and so I'm trying to do what I can there."
DC: You've seen this guy and you think he's good, but do you also see it perhaps as a way of giving something back to the sport in general?
Hill: "Yes. I think it's too much to try and do something too broad, but this is something specific, where I've got my expertise that I can pass it on to someone. He's got his own way of doing things - I don't tell him what to do - but what I can do is recognise situations that are coming up for him and we can talk about them, and that seems to help.
"We'll see how it goes - I can't turn someone into a World Champion, only he can, and he has to have that thing himself and either he does or he doesn't, but at least with the problems that seem enormous to him now I can say 'there's an easy solution to that.'"
It was because of Kane that Hill recently tested the GP2 car, the first time he has driven an open wheel race car since Suzuka 1999, and he was full of praise for the series afterwards. It's hard to predict what Hill will do next - he seems to have come to some sort of peace with himself, with what being Damon Hill means, but that meaning is still inextricably entwined with the motorsport world.
He won't race again - he's made that clear often enough - but it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see him go into team management, an activity that rewards the kind of reflective thinking that Hill is known for, the kind that has led to a successful career for Frank Williams. It wouldn't be in Formula One - there is too much money, too much politics, too many egos involved - but perhaps, just perhaps, he'll think about being in the smaller paddock next door.
And, of course, his father ran a team too. Damon Hill is his own man, but his life has not been entirely without precedent, and it wouldn't be the first time he's followed in his father's footsteps to find out something about being himself.