Hill shakes the hands that feed him

Andrew Baker lunches with the sponsors behind a winning driver
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If You think Damon Hill gets around Silverstone pretty quickly in his Williams-Renault, you should see him on foot. Signing autographs on the move - a vital skill for the modern grand prix driver - he covered the quarter-mile between the Paddock and the Paddock Club in six and a half minutes, pretty nifty work surrounded by an adoring crowd. Why the haste? Having finished the most important part of his job for the day, he was off to play his second most important role: keeping the sponsors happy.

The Paddock Club is a little village of marquees just inside Bridge Corner, jealously guarded by slab-like, utterly humourless bouncers. Those lucky souls with the correct accreditation, entertainers and entertainees all, are in for a treat. This is life for the corporately hospitalised at Silverstone. A nice big tent in a delicate shade of the palest mauve. Televisions relaying the action from the track so you don't have to interrupt your lunch just because Formula One practice is between one and two o'clock.

And what a lunch. Delicate fish hors d'oeuvres, Barbary Duck, fine cheeses, apricot and strawberry dumplings, all washed down with lashings of Pouilly Fume '94. And at 2.35pm, ladies and gentlemen, the leader of the world championship will be served for your delectation. Hill has become very good at this sort of event, no doubt because he has had plenty of practice. Looking relaxed, he talked the guests around a lap of the circuit before being interviewed by whoever was hosting that particular marquee.

Each audience - three visits in 25 minutes - lapped up the patter. Jacques Villeneuve? "An annoying little bugger." Michael Schumacher? "He tries hard." And always he had a plug for the relevant sponsor: he told a tent full of Renault dealers that Benetton had no excuse for being slow because of their Renault engines. That earned a warm laugh, smiles of "our boy".

The guests couldn't get enough, surrounding him for autographs whenever it was time to head for the next tent. "People bite our hands off to come along," said Rob Baldock, a partner with Andersen Consulting. "It's a chance for us to give something back to our clients."

Andersen get their name on a much-televised spot: the front of Hill's helmet. They put their words on his mouth. "Damon has very photogenic eyes," Baldock said, "so we thought we'd get a lot of exposure" - 350 million TV viewers, 16 times a year.

But race meetings are a chance for sponsors to do some more direct marketing, and they take great care how they approach them, rationing the precious Paddock Club passes. Andersen invites client companies' managers on the Friday of a race meeting, directors on the Saturday, and chairmen and chief executives on race day.

Jim Wright is senior acquisitions manager for the Williams team. What he acquires is pounds 30m a year for the team by recruiting and caring for the team's sponsors. "We are entertaining 700 people today," he said, watching Hill perform. "Nine hundred on Sunday." That is something like 36,000 backs slapped in a season.

Wright made a discreet sign to Hill: time to move on. Andersen's guests applauded their driver, as he hurried to the next audience, smiling, winning hearts and minds, and, most importantly, keeping corporate wallets open.