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?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Social Media Account Writers

£12000 - £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This social media management pr...

Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor (Magazine Publishing) - Wimbledon - £23-26K

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor - Wimbledon...

Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publishing) - Wimbledon - £26-30K

£26000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publish...

Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent