Profile: How the son has risen: Damon Hill: David Tremayne analyses the determined approach and singular success of a driven man

Click to follow
WHEN Graham Hill crashed his plane into a tree on a Hertfordshire golf course on the foggy night of 29 November 1975, killing himself and five of his team members, his son was just 15 years old. He was left a brooding adolescent, coping with the grief of losing his father, taken out of his public school due to insurance complications that cost the family everything, and having to live with the legacy of a double world champion who was perhaps the greatest ambassador motor racing has ever known. The surprising thing about Damon Hill is not that he has become one of the finest Formula One drivers racing today, but that he has remained so straightforward and uncomplicated while doing so.

It was not easy. Like many children exposed regularly to a parent's high-profile occupation, he turned his back on it, and he plunged himself into motorcycle racing. He was very successful at Brands Hatch, but when he first tried racing cars there in 1983, one Formula Three team owner was moved to comment: 'I felt sorry for the kid. He just didn't seem to have a clue what he was doing.' During that period he also knocked two years off his age and did not restore them until he had made it in Formula One.

He has come a long way since then, and has done so with fierce independence, relying on his own ability and initiative and declining to trade on the family name. Not since Alberto Ascari in the Fifties has there been a second-

generation grand prix driver capable of emulating a father's achievements. It is telling that by the time he arrived in grands prix in 1992, struggling at the back of the field with the dying Brabham team, he was Damon Hill, racing driver, not Graham Hill's son. Yet now, five victories later, Hill is a restless man, uncertain of his place in the sport and unfulfilled. And with good reason.

Whereas young lions such as Mika Hakkinen, Rubens Barrichello and Jean Alesi are lauded without having won a race, Hill feels his achievements have not been properly recognised. This may be one of the less attractive family traits, for in his heyday Graham Hill was always overshadowed by the glittering Jim Clark and today Hill's widow, Bette, still refers to her husband as the 'forgotten champion' - despite his massive and enduring popularity.

Damon Hill's penchant for speaking his mind can often be mistaken for a chip on his shoulder, and certainly his outburst at Silverstone three days before the British Grand Prix took many aback. It shouldn't have.

When he criticised the media for failing to give him the credit he felt was due, and promised to discard his 'Mr Nice Guy' image, he was simply letting off steam. He needs to every now and then, for he is a victim of his own urbanity. Where a Mansell or a Senna would have made his point forcibly to the Williams engineers, Hill is softer, more like Prost, though as yet without the Frenchman's clout. But that may be changing. Recent performances have made even Renault, who supply the team with their engines and have in recent years been used to feedback from the three best drivers of the past decade - Senna, Prost and Mansell - sit up and take his comments seriously.

Last year he was just tenths of a second slower than Prost. A normal world would see that as highly promising, but Formula One has little room for sentiment, even in a fairy-tale success such as Hill's. His very move to Williams caused controversy within the business because of his patchy record. But in truth it was no worse than Mansell's when he joined Lotus in 1980 and, like Mansell, Hill has made the most of an extraordinary set of circumstances.

He and Prost drove the best cars in 1993, so critics based their reservations on one theory: that the narrow margin between the two drivers was down to Prost merely drawing on just enough of his talent to edge out his team- mate, rather than Hill really keeping him on his toes.

Suggest this to the Williams team manager, Ian Harrison, who has enormous respect for both drivers, and the response is as swift as it is derisive. 'Balls] Alain was pushing as hard as he could, just like everyone else.'

By any standard, 1994 has been a tougher year for Hill. There was the arrival of Senna at the beginning of the season. Then Michael Schumacher's explosive dominance in a Benetton-Ford that was surprisingly outperforming the Williams, which had begun the year as the Championship favourite. And then Senna's death at Imola. There, still unsure what had caused his team-mate's fatal accident, Hill raced like a hero. He has since had the team leadership thrust upon him, just as his father did at Lotus back in 1968 in the aftermath of Clark's death.

'He's doing a good job, you can't take it away from the bloke,' Harrison says. 'If I were in his boots and everybody was saying how Nigel Mansell had spurred the team on, I'd be hacked off. Especially as Damon was on pole in France and again in Britain. I'm surprised he found that much. I think he's gone up a gear. He always gives 100 per cent, and we have improved the car a bit, but perhaps he's just more confident. If he can sustain this, he can aspire to a new level. On his pole-winning lap at Silverstone he really wrung the car's neck. I don't think anyone could have gone quicker.'

Mention criticism to Hill and his faces darkens momentarily, but his innate intelligence soon surfaces. He is less comfortable in the spotlight than his more outgoing father was, but as his performances on television have revealed, he is articulate. That does not come easily to most racing drivers.

'People come up with any criticism they can, when somebody has achieved something they can't accept. It is typical of the continual whingeing that some people seem to feel is their job. Why not talk positively?'

He has earned his right to strong opinions. Last year only Prost spent more laps than him leading grands prix. 'You know,' he adds, considering Prost's allegedly Machiavellian ways, 'it may be terribly disillusioning to some people who believe that life would be less interesting if it was straightforward, but in my experience most things do happen in a straightforward way.'

In sport the adjective ordinary is usually considered demeaning. If not ordinary, Hill is devoid of emotional baggage. His wife Georgie is a no-nonsense influence, and outside racing their life centres round their two sons, Oliver and Joshua. They do not have time for airs and graces.

Frank Williams, the team owner, loves drivers who always want to be the fastest - the Joneses, Rosbergs, Mansells and Sennas. Hill has the same mentality, but perhaps may not be colourful enough for him. 'Damon likes nothing better than to go quickly,' Williams's technical director, Patrick Head, agrees. 'In the Italian Grand Prix at Monza last year he wanted to go out early in practice even though the track was wet. I thought it telling that he threw the car around, didn't make mistakes, and then came in and said simply: 'That was fun.' It's nice to work with drivers like that.'

Graham Hill, they said, worked harder than anyone. That was how he was sometimes able to overcome the brilliance of Jimmy Clark or Jochen Rindt. Whether Damon Hill can maintain his improved game as he prepares for the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim next weekend, remains to be seen. But his response early in the season to a question about facing Senna as his team partner said everything about his approach. 'Better sooner than later. I have nothing to lose. It will be a tremendous opportunity, and I don't want to get through my Formula One career as one of those who dodges competition. I want to achieve success so that there cannot be any suggestions afterwards that it was achieved because of a weakness in the quality of the opposition.'

After setting quick qualifying laps, Graham Hill would frequently express his satisfaction to himself with the pithy comment: 'Beat that, you buggers.' Damon Hill, normally a placid fellow, has his own version of that attitude when dealing with detractors. 'I just want to get out there and stick two fingers up to all those people who have been critical.' In the British Grand Prix two weeks ago he did precisely that.

Last Friday the Hills moved out of London from their modest Wandsworth terraced house to something rather more imposing in Ascot. It is the only outward sign of the success that an equally modest man has displayed in the past 18 months. His feet remain firmly on the ground. And his size 11 on the gas.