If truth be known, this blog has been in the pipeline for several months. Since last May in fact. But the slightly more pressing matters of the Spanish Grand Prix and Monaco Grand Prix rudely pushed it to one side and then…er…the rest of the season happened and then Christmas and so here we are. Actually with hindsight, I probably should have just binned watching the Korean/Indian/Singapore Grand Prix and written this blog instead but hindsight is a marvellous thing. My (now) 5 year old would argue you can never have too much gangnam style dancing in your life. Though actually it was the racing (or lack thereof) that was the problem!
Remember last May when the successive wins of Maldonado and Webber meant we had 6 different winners in the first 6 races, Schumacher was fastest in qualifying in Monaco and Alonso was leading the championship. Truly a happier time. As I casually perused various motorsport websites (all in the name of blogging), my eyes happened to clock an article on a race meeting at Brands Hatch the very next weekend where The One and Only Damon Hill would be racing. Fortunately the husband hadn’t booked a surprise weekend away for my birthday at Babington House or Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons (I include these references just in case they ever pique his interest…). What a stroke of luck that was hey. However this did mean we were free to drop everything (ie. nothing) and load up the car with sprogs, picnic and a gazillion toys/activities and head off to Brand Hatch for the day.
Now I realise I might be the only person on the planet who pretty much hero-worships Damon Hill AND Michael Schumacher (I’m not even going there on Adelaide as people called Rich gang up on me) but hey there you have it. Yes they were wildly different in style behind a racing wheeI, but off track they are quite similar people. Both fundamentally decent, intensely private, devoted family men who do huge amounts of charitable work. Who said sport was a rational pursuit anyway!
Its no exaggeration to say that Damon Hill gave me some of my all-time favourite moments ever in my countless years of watching F1. But watching Damon was never ever easy. Even when he had the best car, I always had a sense of impending doom that something was about to go wrong (see F1 season, 1995). My nervous system was pretty much shredded to pieces after most races. But that’s what made the moments of glory all the more fantastically brilliant.
So, I’m going to throw one out there: Damon Hill was a very underrated driver. I’m not saying for one moment he should join the pantheon of All-Time Great Drivers (there’s a thought for a blog) but he certainly was not there to make up the numbers. Bad or even mediocre drivers do not win 22 F1 races (more race wins incidentally than Mika Häkkinen or even Stirling Moss) against some pretty stuff opposition (lest we forget his entire career in F1 overlapped with Michael Schumacher). Because he wasn’t normally the fastest kid on the block, people often overlook how well Damon could actually race especially in the rain. He had a languid silky smooth style of driving that in its own way was beautiful to watch and reminds me a lot of Jenson Button, another driver who I believe is very underrated <awaits hurling of brickbats>
To understand what made Damon tick, you have to dig back into his past a bit. He lost his father aged 15 in a helicopter accident and the family’s wealth were wiped out by resulting insurance claims. He worked as a labourer and motorcycle courier while he raced bikes at weekends. The only remotely glamorous thing about Damon’s early racing years was that he shared the legendary ‘Hill’ name (trust Graham Hill to give his son ‘Devereux’ as a middle name!) and growing up in a racing dynasty meant he had met some of motorsport’s greatest drivers as a child.
His journey to the top echelon of motorsport was far from easy. Damon only started racing cars competitively when he was 25 years old. To put that into perspective, Sebastian Vettel has just won his third F1 title aged 25, Alonso had won two titles by the same age and Lewis Hamilton won his title at only 23. Damon clawed his way up through Formula Ford, Formula 3 and Formula 3000, battling a lot of the time just to raise the finance to keep racing.
Damon’s big breakthrough was being hired by the Williams team as test driver in 1991. His dedication, testing performance and almost geekish interest in car development/set up impressed Williams. When it became apparent during 1992 that there would be a Williams drive going spare in 1993, Damon really upped his game. Reassured that Damon would be fully competitive and had the big advantage of thousands of miles of testing an active suspension car, Williams took the plunge and promoted Damon to the full race team, partnering multiple title winner Alain Prost. When asked once why he choose Damon over other contenders, Frank Williams said simply it was because he was a “tough bastard”. It takes one to know one!
All of a sudden, Damon was catapaulted into the Big Time. And I think there was a sense among F1 fans that here was a journeyman who through a combination of circumstances had got a mahoosive break. You would have needed a heart of stone to begrudge Damon his rags to riches moment. In the space of 12 months he went from driving a shed-on-wheels (with apologies to sheds, most of which are vastly more aerodynamic than the Brabham BT60B) to the best car on the grid.
Contrary to expectations, Damon held his own and to many people’s surprise matched the pace of the illustrious Prost on a number of occasions. In his first proper season he had 3 race wins (there should have been more wins but for a hefty dollop of bad luck) and 7 podiums.
In 1994, after the traumatic death of Senna, Damon was propelled suddenly to the role of team leader with barely 1 year’s experience in the top flight. He came agonisingly close to winning the title and was instrumental in helping Williams clinch the constructors title (a phenomenal achievement with 3 different team-mates partnering him that season). His drive in torrential rain at Suzuka under intense pressure (his win meant he started the final race just 1 point behind Schumacher) was absolutely sublime and I think the finest drive of his career.
1995 was a total aberration from start to finish and the wheels basically fell off (pardon the pun). Damon has acknowledged with characteristic honesty that 1995 was probably the reason that Williams didn’t re-sign him for 1997 and instead hired Heinz-Harald Frentzen to replace Damon. NOT THAT I’M STILL BITTER. Seriously, Heinz-Harald Frentzen…what were Williams thinking?! Well presumably that he was the ‘new’ Michael Schumacher. Epic fail. But then I could write a whole blog on Williams’ ill-advised driver appointments since 1996. Don’t even get me started on Montoya.
The moment when Damon Hill crossed the line to win the Japanese Grand Prix in 1996, and seal the World Championship is one of my all-time favourite life moments ever. It was truly magnificent right down to Murray Walker’s choked up “I’ve got to stop now…I’ve got a lump in my throat” commentary. Definitely worth getting up at 4am for. And me being me, I actually really really loved that Michael Schumacher finished 2nd and was on the podium with Damon!
There were a couple of other stand-out races after Damon left Williams in 1996. Firstly, his almost-win in the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix. In an Arrows (a car that managed to combine a complete lack of speed with constant breakdowns), Damon qualified 3rd and would have won the race but for the cruel misfortune of a hydraulics failure which meant Villeneuve passed him on the final lap. There may have been swear words at the time.
The other stand-out race is of course the Belgian Grand Prix. By this time, Hill was driving for Jordan and he secured their first ever F1 win at Spa in atrocious conditions. There may have been team orders, there may have been only six cars that finished but it was still a stunning drive. And I’d better mention this before the husband kills me, this race was in fact the subject of his first chat up line to me. Lucky I liked F1 hey.
And so to May 2012. After many years, I finally watched Damon race again, in the Volkswagen Scirocco R-Cup. Five other motorsport legends (ok mini-legends) – Mark Blundell, Martin Donnelly, Julian Bailey, Perry McCarthy and David Brabham lined up on the grid. Poor old Damon was forced to retire from the race after 7 laps with a technical defect following contact with another car. Incidentally, Damon was racing to raise money for the Halow Project, which looks to support young people with learning difficulties to enable them to live as full and integrated a life as possible.
An unexpected bonus of the race was discovering that Ralf Schumacher and David Coulthard were taking part in the DTM race that weekend. We were there on the day of DTM qualifying and they finished in 18th and 20th spots respectively. Life must suck being poor old Ralf mustn’t it? He scrapes 18th in qualifying in a DTM race while his older brother set the fastest time in qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix a week later. Awkward. I’m not going to lie to you…I might have sniggered just a little bit at the mention of Ralf’s poor qualifying over the tannoy. Old habits die hard.
While we were on a grand quest to buy the 1 year old some noise-blocking headphones (the 4 year old had some and, ergo, the 1 year old had to have her own pair), we heard that Damon and the mini-legends would be meeting fans and signing autographs before the race. Well it would have been rude not to wander over and say hello. I gave the 4 year old a crash course in the queue on Damon Hill and he was enormously impressed that Damon had fought a very exciting title battle with Michael Schumacher. HANG ON…what if the 4 year old brought this up and even worse announced that Michael Schumacher was his favourite driver. So I spent the rest of the time in the queue frantically coaching the 4 year old not to mention Michael Schumacher under any circumstances much to the amusement of other fans.
Such was the demand to meet a former British F1 world champion (not forgetting the mini-legends!) that the queue snaked right past the whole VW hospitality area and I could spot the marketing suits looking at their watches in an agitated fashion. OMG they were so obviously going to cut off the queue at any moment. Sometimes it helps to have a small child. I started talking quite loudly to the 4 year old about how amazing it would be for him to meet his idol and I kid you not, they cut off the queue right after me. Even the suits didn’t want to see a small boy cry. Wise move, my friends.
So the 4 year old got to meet Damon Hill or rather Damon Hill got to meet the 4 year old. It was a awesomely brilliant moment although I did suffer a small degree of embarrassment when the 4 year old (of ALL the things to say) told Damon he had drawn a picture of him that morning. No word of a lie – we still have the picture and its fair to say Damon wouldn’t recognise himself in it. And I discovered something new about Damon Hill, not only was he a pretty darn good driver but he is FANTASTIC with kids. He told the 4 year old that he was a real artist and the 4 year old was utterly elated. In fact I couldn’t stop the 4 year old jabbering on and on to Damon until the suits had to come over and ruin everyone’s fun. To be fair Damon actually had to go off and race. Bet he didn’t have this much fun shooting the breeze with Sir Frank and Patrick Head pre-race in the Williams garage! The mini-legends were also all top guys. All in all, something of a life high!
They always say, never meet your idols. You will always be disappointed. And by and large, I think that’s often true. But not in the case of Damon Hill. A total gentleman and legend, as much off the track as he was on it.