Motor racing: Hill's climb a testament to tenacity

David Tremayne reflects on the qualities that defined Damon
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OBSERVERS OF body language asked themselves the question for the umpteenth time in Canada last weekend, as Damon Hill walked away from the Jordan he had parked in the wall: is he going to quit?

Now that he has answered that question, in an emotional, yet plain-speaking press announcement last Wednesday, Britain's most recent world champion has raised another as he trims his sail for Formula One's sunset. Just how good was he?

It has long been fashionable for critics to knock Hill, for it is axiomatic that an enigma should baffle. One minute he was the former world champion's son who entered the sport on the back of his father's name before trawling around to no significant effect in the lower reaches of British motorsport. Overnight he went from zero to hero, plucked from the Brabham chorus line to star centre stage at Williams-Renault alongside Alain Prost.

Then, emerging from the shadow of Ayrton Senna's death, he was the hard- luck Brit shoved ruthlessly out of championship contention in the final race at Adelaide in 1994, the victim of arch-rival Michael Schumacher.

The next season he was the Great British Hope torn apart for cocking things up with a series of rash manoeuvres, Richard Dunn tilting hopelessly at Muhammad Ali's windmill.

It has been an unusual career, perhaps best summarised by the fact that, at its very apogee, Hill's employers were seeking a replacement. And it is a special irony that this year he has been partnered in the Jordan team by the man who inadvertently sent him into the downward spiral which led to last week's decision, Heinz- Harald Frentzen.

Hill was drubbed mercilessly by Schumacher in 1995. He had limped away from Suzuka that year crushed and humiliated, only to bounce back with a dominant victory in the final race of the season, in Adelaide. He had thought things through, and let his old bloody-minded, rational self call the shots.

"I know I can drive well and I just don't like it if I don't fulfil myself," he has said frequently. And, in a comment that holds familiar echoes today, he would add: "Fundamentally, I just want to enjoy myself. If I don't, I can't possibly perform to my ultimate level." This season he has made no effort to hide his detestation of the current breed of F1 cars.

Where does all this leave Hill in the historical perspective? It is easy to pigeon-hole him as a man who lucked into the right place at the right time. But hard, too, to place him correctly. Certainly, he was no Senna, nor a Schumacher.

But when he had the best car, in 1996, he made best use of it, beat a strong team-mate, and won the crown. No different to Mario Andretti in 1978, Jody Scheckter in 1979, or Nelson Piquet in 1987.

Hill has never raced to appease fans or critics, but his agenda has been different to that of many of his rivals. His family lost everything when his father crashed his Piper Aztec in November 1975. Five other members of his emergent F1 team died with him, and the lawsuits cleaned out his family. Through determination and no small degree of talent, Hill dragged them back, playing the game by his own rules.

No performance bettered his victory over Schumacher at Suzuka in 1994, and the light that shines in his trade-mark brooding eyes tells you how much it mattered. In the rain he stayed ahead of the enemy, even though he received only three new tyres in his pit stop after a rear wheel jammed. "I don't think it was so much winning the race as the fact that I drove on a completely different level. In what I would call a sort of twilight zone. You were just offering yourself up, completely, to your instincts. It was fantastic. Just an awesome feeling. The satisfaction from having won that was tremendous..."

So he was as good as Suzuka 1994, as bad as Suzuka 1995. "I like a challenge, to be able to tackle a problem and overcome it. That's been true all through my career," he said. "I've not really come through in the conventional way. I was 24 before I did my first full season in Formula Ford. The people I'm racing against these days are mostly 24. And they're already in Formula One."

By 1996 he had gone through what he called the "fermentation process" and believed that he, Frank Williams and the technical director Patrick Head were "blended nicely". Eight race victories took him to the top of the world. Perhaps he was not the best driver out there, but he was good enough to get the job done. And he did it with honesty, integrity, sportsmanship and style, wrapped up in a wry sense of humour.

In Hill's hour of triumph, Sir Frank Williams said of him: "He's climbed the mountain, and he deserves to be there." The results may no longer be, but the words still ring true.