Motor Racing: The son also races: Acts don't come much harder to follow. But Damon Hill, whose father Graham was twice world motor-racing champion in the Sixties, is ready to try. Richard Williams talked to him

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HIS CAD'S moustache and smarmed-back hair readily identified Graham Hill as the last English racing driver of the National Service generation. While his peers were growing their Beatle fringes, Hill still looked like someone who'd know how to get hold of illicit petrol coupons, or undo a reluctant popsie's four-hook bra with a practised flick of his thumb and middle finger.

On the face of it, he was the heir to Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn, those dashing Fifties aces with supercharged libidos. Like them, and like James Hunt after him, Graham Hill was loved by the crowds because he made it look as though it was all a bit of a lark, this business of life and death. And how could a man who painted his crash helmet in the colours of his old rowing club possibly be serious?

If you didn't know the real story, you'd think that Graham Hill had come by his place in Formula One through bumping into some chap in a pub while he was at a loose end: a friend of a friend who knew a man in the motor trade. But you don't become the only man to win two Formula One world championships, the Indianapolis 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours with a weekend-hero's attitude, and his success was achieved through hard graft. He began with no contacts, and had no natural advantages - not even talent, some of his critics were to maintain.

'I know it winds Mum up when people say that,' Damon Hill observes. 'It's a big mistake to assume that Dad was a bit of a . . . buffoon. Anyone who could win all those races at Monaco must have had some sort of instinct.'

THERE WILL be two old familiar helmets in Formula One next year, worn by the sons of famous fathers. In one of the McLarens will be the silver lid with a broad scarlet stripe inherited by Michael Andretti from his father Mario, the world champion of 1978. And in the most coveted seat of the lot, in Nigel Mansell's old Williams, Damon Hill will wear the dark blue hat with white stripes made famous by his father.

Isn't it perilous, this business of trying to emulate your father? Doesn't it set up the sort of inner tensions that keep Anthony Clare in business?

'I just don't see it in those terms,' Damon Hill said firmly at his home in south London last week, watching his own small sons playing with a bunch of toy cars. 'It would be a big mistake for me to try to do that. I'm not the same person as him at all.'

Same helmet, same job, same instincts. Certainly the same persistence, since all the evidence suggests that Damon Hill has not got where he is by virtue of his father's reputation. But not the same person. Well, maybe. Damon Hill doesn't have his father's face, or his manner. But he does say that his mother is always telling him, 'You're just like your father.' And now, at the age of 32, with the announcement that he'll be driving alongside Alain Prost in the Williams team next season, in a seat that every other driver in the world wanted, he has the chance to show the world where he stands in relation to his father's shadow.

Fathers and sons; it's an old story in motor racing, where little boys are easily seduced by the noise and the shimmer. There are great names. The Hills. The Andrettis. The Brabhams. The Stewarts. And, the first of all motor racing dynasties, the Ascaris of Milan.

Alberto Ascari was only five years old in 1924 when his father, Antonio, propped him behind the huge steering wheel of his works Alfa Romeo, installed himself in the mechanic's seat, and allowed the child to 'drive' around the Monza track. A year later, after an accident at Montlhery, the boy attended his father's funeral. But before he was out of short trousers, Alberto was courting his mother's disapproval by playing poker to raise the money he needed to hire a motorcycle with which to repeat the Monza experience. Eliza Ascari sent her son away to boarding school to take his mind off the obsession, but he ran away and ran away and ran away again until there was nothing she could do but let him fulfil his destiny. In 1952 and 1953 he won nine grands prix in a row, and two world championships; in 1955, he died while testing a sports car at Monza. His own son, Tonino, was 12 at the time; at 21, against the wishes of his mother, Mietta, Tonino used his inheritance to begin a short racing career which reached its peak when he won the Italian Formula Three championship in 1964. Then, quietly, he retired.

'I found it hard to exist under the two strong shadows of my grandfather and father,' Tonino told the author Kevin Desmond many years later. 'If I were to succeed, people would say it was not because I was better than the others, but because I was my father's son. If I were to fail, then the dynasty was finished and I should not have attempted to continue it.'

DAMON HILL was 15 when his father crashed his Piper Aztec plane into a golf course near Elstree on a foggy November night in 1975, killing himself and five other members of his Embassy Hill grand prix team. They had been returning from a testing session at the Paul Ricard circuit, near Marseille. Five months earlier, Graham Hill had announced his retirement from driving at the age of 46, soon after failing to qualify for the Monaco Grand Prix, a race he had won five times.

'You pretend it hasn't happened,' Damon said of his reaction to the bereavement. 'There's the shock and the numbness, but at the same time you half expect him to walk in the door, as though he's just been away somewhere. And that, I have to say, is how I still feel, to some degree. He was such a larger-than-life man that it's difficult to imagine he's not around.'

It hadn't been at all bad, having a world champion for a father. 'It was fun, all the time. I don't really have clear chronological memories, but I remember things like the old BRM transporter turning up at our house in Mill Hill, and going to race tracks like Brands Hatch, when it was just a field with a few Nissen huts.' And the father certainly didn't discourage his son's interest. 'Put it this way,' Damon remembered, 'when I said I wanted a motorbike, it wasn't long before I had one. It was for passing my 11-plus, actually. He was quite strict with us, but if you asked nicely you could usually get what you wanted. Oh yes, I was a spoilt child. I had everything I wanted, really.' Except, at the age of 15, a dad.

BETTE HILL, Damon's mother, was not a bit like Eliza and Mietta Ascari, so anxious to protect their sons from the perils of the track. She had been an integral part of her husband's career, encouraging him during the lean years and, stopwatch in hand, keeping the lap-chart during the world championship seasons. And when her son showed an interest in racing, she wasn't inclined to discourage him.

'At first she pushed me to go to college and learn some sort of discipline, like the law or accountancy,' he remembered. 'I tried business studies, but I jacked it in after about a term because I was thoroughly bored. In retrospect, I'd like to have gone to college and studied English, but at the time I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, except that I wanted to get stuck into something exciting. I think my mother accepted that there was no way I was going to be forced into a square hole.'

During Graham Hill's career, and for some years afterwards, Bette Hill's pet project had been an informal club for the wives and girlfriends of grand prix drivers. Damon's wife, Georgie, shares her mother-in-law's enthusiasm for racing. She met her husband at a Bonfire Night party in 1981, and they were married eight years later. Now, with three-year-old Oliver and one- year-old Joshua, they live in a small house on a pleasant street in Wandsworth, in the style of a young couple who did well out of the Thatcher years.

The Eighties, in fact, were a struggle. Motorbikes provided Damon's first direct experience of competition (and a living, since he was also working as a dispatch rider), and it was with a view to getting her son into something safer that Bette paid for him to take a course at a racing-car school in France. But Damon lacked anyone to give him advice and practical help. 'The only one who really helped him,' Georgie Hill said, 'was John Webb, who ran Brands Hatch. He gave Damon his first chance in Formula Ford. That was the only help he had. It's hard to find someone to replace your father.' But he fought his way up, eventually winning a seat in Formula 3000 - the last step before Formula One - in 1989. His three seasons there were hindered by less-than-sparkling equipment, which was also the case when he took a seat in the fading Brabham grand prix team last season.

By then, though, he was already into his second season as the Williams team's test driver, racking up 5,000 miles of work on the high-tech gizmos - the active suspension, semi-automatic gearbox and traction-control - that carried Mansell to the world championship. And now his diligence has landed him the position that every driver in the world has been after.

So superior is the Williams-Renault to its competitors, so sure are its drivers of success, that the great Ayrton Senna himself offered to do the job for nothing, only to find Prost barring his path. Practically every other driver in Formula One has been mentioned in connection with the vacancy, even those with cast-iron contracts. But Hill's contribution to developing the car, along with the fact that he recently outran Prost in a test session at Estoril in Portugal, persuaded Frank Williams to opt for continuity and potential rather than a driver with an established reputation.

ALAIN PROST described his new colleague to L'Equipe last week as 'un garcon tres 'cool' '. But at his own press conference, Hill characterised himself as 'charmless' and 'lacking the gift of the gab'. While effectively diverting comparisons with his socially adept father, this also made him sound misleadingly like Nigel Mansell.

In fact he looks to be more his mother's son, neat-featured and closer to the jockey's build of the modern racing driver than to his father's 6ft frame. He does have charm, but it is not the slickness of the PR man. There isn't much sign of the 'terrible temper' that he claims to have inherited from Graham and passed on to little Joshua. He speaks carefully, with an awareness of the demands of his new status. At 32, this is his big chance, and there is a long list of people who mustn't be upset, starting with Prost, whose record when it comes to fraternal relationships is not necessarily encouraging.

In Formula One, as James Hunt is always saying, your first opponent is your team-mate, the only man who has the same equipment as you, and Hill's ambition is to prove himself 'reasonably competitive' with Prost. 'If Alain is two seconds a lap quicker than me for the entire season, then I'll know I'm not up to it,' he said. 'But I don't expect that to happen.' Of course, I told him, if he turns out to be faster than Prost, the pundits will say that it's because the 37-year-old Frenchman, returning from a year's sabbatical, is over the hill. 'Yes, you can't win. But I don't care, because if I beat him I'll probably be the world champion.'

Which brought us back to his father. 'Obviously, I never got to know him completely. I just knew the family side, really. But I know that he really loved motor racing. It was his reason for being. And when the strain of running his own team and trying to drive at the same time became too much, he was very sad about it. There was a real sense of loss. But everyone else was relieved when he retired. I was pleased - I thought, at least he's safe. The irony is, of course, that he wasn't'

(Photograph omitted)

Comments