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
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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.