Damon Hill: Formula for success

Since quitting the Grand Prix racing circuit, former champion Damon Hill has had to take a crash course in marketing after founding a luxury car business. Ian Burrell reports

The former world motor racing champion Damon Hill rather bizarrely likens his fledgling luxury car business to "Bjorn Borg's underpants".Hill is referring to the often disastrous attempts of retired sports stars to create a second career on the back of their personal brand, such as the former Swedish tennis star's flawed idea of reinventing himself as an underwear mogul. "I had this fear of the sportsman's first flop," says Hill, who says that observers were "absolutely, definitely" waiting for him to fall on his face.

He has had to weigh the benefits of exploiting his own name, ensuring it is not to the detriment of promoting the key selling points of his business, P1 International, which lends a pool of 40 prestige cars to its high-rolling clientele.

"If you labour [your name] too much it overshadows the concept itself," he says. "There was a role to play in terms of me being a spokesperson for the business, but I wanted P1 to have its own personality and brand."

Although much of the media interest is still in Damon Hill the racing driver, the man himself realises "I cannot go on doing this for ever" and that the business has to start speaking for itself. So when P1 places advertisements in high-end motoring publications it now chooses to highlight the cars that it has on offer, rather than selling the business with vintage shots of the company's co-founder standing on the victory podium and spraying the champagne.

"If I were selling driving experiences [with me] that would be a great seller, but that's not what the company is," he says. "It should not be 'do this because some ex-racing driver does it'."

Hill, who managed to emulate the achievements of his father, the Grand Prix legend Graham Hill, likens his own relationship with P1 to one of parent and child. "Ultimately it has to stand on its own two feet," he says.

Damon Hill grew up in a world immersed in advertising, and his father Graham was the first driver to carry the commercial sponsor's name on the side of his vehicle. The glamorous Formula One circuit around which Damon has spent much of his life is an environment in which advertisers and marketers compete furiously for the attentions of the sport's upscale patrons. He was conscious of marketing opportunities even when working as a young dispatch rider with ambitions of making a living from motor sport. "When I was a dispatch rider I was always looking for companies that could potentially sponsor me and one of the things that attracted me was their brand image. It had to be clean and sharp," he says.

Cellnet was a Hill sponsor in his racing days and he once - at the behest of the marketing manager - took a cellphone call from the company board while driving in a blizzard in Norfolk in order to demonstrate the value of the association between famous driver and phone company.

But not all the many marketing ruses he has been asked to participate in have met with his approval. "Part of your job as a racing driver is to be involved in all sorts of crazy ideas. I have felt very angry when I have had to do something I didn't think was right and I was the vehicle. I found myself really hating stuff that I felt wasn't morally right. There were so many occasions when I felt this is treating people disrespectfully."

Hill admires the way that entrepreneurs such as Stelios Haji-Ioannou and Richard Branson have positioned themselves as champions of the people.

"I would be appalled if any one of the members felt they had been duped or shortchanged in some way," he says of P1 customers, who are each week emailed with details of cars available, from Aston Martins and Ferraris to the rare Ford GT.

He has had to learn quickly the lessons of marketing in order to sustain a business that was starting to flounder, only two years after he co-founded it with partner Michael Breen in 2000. P1 was restructured, becoming less elitist though still requiring a high standard of driving from members (who must pass an advanced test and have a decade's experience behind the wheel). It was then that Hill - who had hoped the company would grow by word of mouth - began to see the value of good press and PR in developing and maintaining awareness of his brand.

"The idea itself only goes so far. It has a life span. People know about it and then they forget," he says. "There are peaks and troughs in awareness of P1 and that is where the hard work comes in, in dropping bits into the newspapers at the right points in time."

Hill was "inundated" with offers when he retired. He went with P1 International because he thought it was a unique idea. The name was chosen because it is the pitboard signal held up for the race leader. "We thought that was a good name," says Hill, who has subsequently added "P" terms such as "prestige" and "performance" to underline the P1 brand in company literature and on its website p1international.com.

Hill, tall and thin, greying and with a short goatee beard, is speaking after delivering a presentation to hundreds of marketers and PR people at the Marketing Society annual conference in London. The 1996 F1 world champion had told his audience of his willingness to "jump the tracks" in raising awareness of his business, refusing to stick to set-in-stone plans, relying on his instincts just as he did as a champion driver.

Although he is building up the P1 brand, he also recognises that his company is riding on the back of the already established brands such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche and Bentley, with which the business is associated through the cars in its pool, which is based in Leatherhead, Surrey.

Membership of P1 will be stopped at 250 (Hill says he is nearly at that figure), although a second club is set to open near Manchester next year. The company's USP is that members of the "club" can keep playing the field of luxury cars and do not have to commit themselves to buying a single vehicle. "Although you can buy these cars if you have an awful lot of money you are still generally [obliged to make] a choice," says Hill. "For us, the key thing is to make the choice available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."

Hill, brilliant driver though he is, still can't see the point of owning a string of luxury cars that mostly remain garaged and depreciating in value. It is "gluttonous" behaviour, he remarks, saying that it would not impress friends "unless you have the wrong friends".

P1 International gives car lovers the chance to experience a range of upscale cars without having to worry about purchase price, parking arrangements or insurance. That is provided they can pay the £2,500 membership fee and the £13,750 annual subscription for up to 6,000 miles of luxury driving.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Media Sales Executive - OTE £37,000

£16000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The ideal candidate will want t...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer

£30 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL) i...

Guru Careers: Account Executive

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive is needed to join one...

Reach Volunteering: Volunteer Trustee with Management, Communications and Fundraising

Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses are reimbursable: Reach Volunteering...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada