Motor Racing: Hill travelled hard road to nation's heart

British former world champion shows impeccable timing in decision to retire from Formula One
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The Independent Online
DAMON HILL'S decision to announce his retirement comes not a day too soon. In an age when the lure of one more sponsorship cheque too often persuades sporting champions to stick around long after their best days are over, Hill has come to the right conclusion at the right time. He will finish his career at the end of the present season, taking into retirement the memory of a time when virtually the entire nation was urging him to victory.

In 1996, triumphing over Michael Schumacher at the third time of asking, he became Britain's eighth Formula One world champion, the successor to Mike Hawthorn, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, John Surtees, Jackie Stewart, James Hunt and Nigel Mansell. The presence in that list of his own father, who died when Damon was 15, exerted a special pressure and called on unusual psychological reserves. The son's protracted but ultimately successful struggle to emerge from the father's shadow provided a compelling and often moving spectacle, arousing a public sympathy that also brought him two successive victories in the BBC's sports personality of the year award.

The timing of his retirement may also have been influenced, in a more negative sense, by the example of his late father, who won his two world championships in 1962 and 1969 and then hung around, drifting further and further towards the back of the field until someone persuaded him to call it a day part-way through the 1975 season. For Damon, the three seasons since his own world championship victory in 1996 have failed to offer even the remote possibility of a repeat and to prolong his career beyond his 40th year would be to run the risk of damaging his reputation.

As things stand he deserves to be remembered not just for his title, which he won at the wheel of the best car in the field, a Williams-Renault, but for subsequently becoming the first and so far the only man to win a grand prix in a Jordan - and also the only man ever to come close to doing so in an Arrows, the team he joined after he had been informed by Frank Williams, half-way through his championship year, that his contract would not be renewed. A last-lap electrical failure on the cumbersome Arrows-Yamaha in Hungary in 1997 robbed him of what would certainly have been the most remarkable of all his race wins.

The second half of Hill's grand prix career was entirely shaped by Williams's decision to replace him, the most callous dismissal in the history of a sport hardly noted for displays of tenderness. A shattering blow delivered at a time when he was in the midst of fighting off the challenge of Michael Schumacher, it nevertheless brought out all his inherent resilience as he battled his way to the title in the last race of the season.

And, somehow, it was typical of Hill, to whom victories never came easily - despite what some inevitably saw as the advantage of being born with, as it were, a silver steering wheel on his pram. It was his disinclination to follow life's easier paths that made him such a fascinatingly awkward and sometimes exasperating figure.

Thanks to the intensity of the media's gaze, this country no longer manufactures stainless sporting heroes, but at least it sometimes comes up with interestingly flawed ones. Hill, although never the world's most naturally talented racing driver, presented a complex, sometimes contradictory character, his frequent unease in the spotlight evident in his body language and his speech, which could be abrupt or charming. Some of this was surely the unconscious expression of his response to his father's character, in which a legendary public charm was the obverse of a more difficult and demanding private temperament.

As for Hill's much-debated talent - well, no man wins three times at Spa-Francorchamps and twice at Monza in a Formula One car without being among the more talented drivers of his time. He was certainly fast, and generally reliable, and two years as the Williams team's test driver had given him a solid grounding in development techniques. If his peers did not rate him particularly highly, despite his 22 race wins, that was partly because they prefer to genuflect to the sheer genius of men such as Senna and Schumacher. Hill, they felt, was not a super-being, but just one of them.

More specifically there were always doubts about his overtaking technique. In one-on-one encounters he could be either rash or indecisive, and sometimes downright clumsy. And his motivation was occasionally questioned - perhaps because there were things on his mind other than motor racing, such as his wife and three children. A late developer, evidently devoted to his young family and interested in music and films, Hill was always aware of a life outside the Formula One paddock. His employers tended to discover that a well-timed kick in the pants sometimes woke him up, despite his own complaints that he responded better to an approach based on empathy.

And now he is going at the end of the season. He has 10 races left. In the old days, it was simpler. If they weren't killed or seriously maimed, they stopped as soon as the idea crossed their minds. Juan Manuel Fangio, five times world champion, got out of the cockpit at Rouen in 1958 and quietly called it a day. James Hunt realised during the 1978 Monaco Grand Prix that he was getting scared and packed it in, just like that. Such was the conventional wisdom - once the notion of peril had entered the equation, you got out and never went back. Nowadays, thanks to increased safety precautions, the potentially lethal nature of the sport is less of a factor. And, of course, there are contracts worth millions to fulfil. So fortune has its hostage.

Ten races, then, to add to the 111 that Damon Hill has already notched up. Further victories are not impossible, but unlikely. And whatever his performance on the day, this year's British Grand Prix on 11 July is set to provide him with an emotional lap of honour. At Silverstone, in front of his home crowd, his farewell will be something to see.

DISPATCH RIDER TO F1 CHAMPION

1960: Damon Hill, born 17 September, London.

1982-85: Works as motorcycle dispatch rider to fund racing career.

1984: Crowned "Champion of Brands" on a Yamaha 350cc motorcycle. Also scored first car win in Formula Ford 1600 at Brands Hatch.

1985: Finishes third in Esso Formula Ford 1600 Championship and fifth in Townsend Thoresen Formula Ford 1600 Championship.

1986: Finishes ninth in Formula Three Championship.

1987: Fifth in Formula Three Championship, scoring two wins.

1988: Third in Formula Three Championship, with two wins. Races twice in International Formula 3000 Championship.

1989: Racing restricted by lack of finance.

1990: Competed in International Formula 3000 Championship.

1991: Best result of third in International Formula 3000 Championship. Fourth at Le Mans. Takes over from Mark Blundell as official test driver for Williams grand prix team.

1992: Retained as test driver. Made grand prix debut for Brabham at British Grand Prix, finishing 16th.

1993: Joins Williams. First win in Hungary, then adds victories in Belgium and Italy. Finishes third in championship in first full season.

1994: Partners Ayrton Senna at Williams and took over as unofficial No 1 after Senna died in San Marino Grand Prix. Beaten to the championship by Michael Schumacher by one point.

1995: Again finishes second to Schumacher in championship. Retained by Williams, with Jacques Villeneuve replacing David Coulthard as his 1996 partner.

1996: Williams do not renew Hill's contract for 1997. Hill wins world championship and joins Arrows. Awarded OBE and named BBC sports personality of the year.

1997: Hill manages seven points in season for Arrows before joining Jordan in a two-year deal.

1998: Disappointing start to season, but wins Belgian Grand Prix.

1999: Fails to finish in four of the season's first six grands prix and decides to retire at end of season days after crashing in Canada.

Grand Prix statistics: Starts: 111. Wins: 22. Pole positions: 20. Total points: 359.

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