Motor Racing: Odyssey that began on two wheels

Damon wanted to achieve something his father failed to do. Norman Fox recalls golden days at Silverstone
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The Independent Online
THERE WAS never a serious doubt that Damon Hill would end his Formula One career without a valedictory appearance at Silverstone, his second home, the track on which he made his first grand prix appearance and where he has had so many memorable races.

It was a decision of deep personal significance since Silverstone was where his childhood indifference to motor sport was overcome by deciding he wanted to race motorbikes and where he had to prove he could achieve something his famous father failed to do.

Those of us who regard champions on two wheels as the equals of those on four automatically elevate John Surtees, world No 1 on both, to the summit of any motor sport all-time list. Hill himself does not see it quite the same way, but then he has the advantage of having assessed at close hand the skills of Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher while only watching Michael Doohan and Carl Fogarty as an admiring "punter".

Yet he says that without his "boy racer" involvement in motorcycling, his ambitions in car racing would probably never have survived a childhood in which his coolness to the glamour and excitement was the result of over-familiarity with a world in which its greatest drivers were simply "Daddy's friends" whose "jobs" just happened to be racing.

Silverstone also happened to be the place where one Sunday when worrying about his 11 plus result he was casually watching preparations for just another day's car racing. "The highlight for me was not the racing," he said, "but the fact that Dad used to fly us in. He had a twin-prop plane, which was pretty impressive in those days." On this particular trip his attention was diverted by seeing someone ride through the paddock on a tiny 50cc "monkey bike". He talked the rider into letting him try and was smitten. He also talked his father into buying him one. Perhaps there was an element of defiance against the assumption that he would one day race cars, but he was immediately set on a bike racing career.

Later we saw him race his Kawasaki and Yamaha machines quickly and with courage but not quite with the sharp edge which defines a great rider. He never made excuses but we appreciated the financial struggle he was having to raise the money to compete. More often than not he slept in a tent and took the bike to the tracks on a trailer towed behind his mother's car. He loved every moment but recalls that he was often so exhausted by driving to races far from his St Albans home, and by the restless nights in the cold, that he simply failed to have the strength to finish some of them. He often fell off but often won, particularly at Brands Hatch, but in the end his mother talked him back into the comparative safety of cars. Nevertheless, he still talks of bikes as being a special test of ability because the ratio between physical involvement and mechanical power is probably more demanding than in F1.

His reputation for being a nerve end short of the top class followed him when he finally moved through Formula Ford to Formula Three, but Silverstone raised his spirits. Winning a support race at the British Grand Prix of 1988 helped, but a more significant stepping-stone to his first Formula One chance also came on the old airfield when in 1990 he was driving a Lola-Cosworth in the Formula 3000 series. He led for 16 laps before mechanical failure ended his race, though not before impressing everyone who watched, not least the Williams people who later gave him a contract for testing, leading to a seat in the financially threatened Brabham F1 team's car which was consistent only for its unreliability... until Silverstone 1992, Hill's first British Grand Prix.

In qualifying he scraped on to the last row of the grid. The race itself was dominated by Nigel Mansell in the Williams car which Hill had been testing. Hill finished last, but at least he finished. It failed to stop Brabham disappearing from F1. Neither did Mansell's impressive victory put off his eventual departure. After weeks of rumours, Hill's full-blown drivers' contract with Frank Williams was signed. His years of testing and racing, especially at Silverstone, paid off. After mechanical failure, when he was leading, ruined his chances in his first British GP with Williams he achieved his ultimate goal - he seemed even more pleased than when he later became world champion - by winning the 1994 race. "To win at home and to win a race my father never could meant a huge amount to me," he said. "It was a fantastic thing; unique. For any driver to win his home grand prix is a special thing. You get greater recognition if you're a native, so to speak." That it took the disqualification of Schumacher to guarantee him that victory was of no consequence to the home crowd who desperately wanted to see a replacement for Mansell as Britain's motor sport cheer leader.

Since then his British GP performances have tended to be indicative of his undulating career. He says that his worst Silverstone memories are of "T-boning Michael" in 1995 and the following year, when he was on his way to becoming world champion, suffering the disappointment of mechanical failure. Two years ago, having lost his place with Williams, he managed to get a point at Silverstone with Arrows, while last season he spun the Jordan early on, giving the first serious impression that even on the track which had been central to his career, he had to accept his own decline.