Former world champion Damon Hill is urging Formula One to accept its role as an entertainment, and hand the stage back to the drivers.
Former world champion Damon Hill is urging Formula One to accept its role as an entertainment, and hand the stage back to the drivers. The 1996 world champion, now 42, believes that commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone and outgoing FIA president Max Mosley should back off the politics and revise the technical regulations to create more equal cars that let the drivers star again.
"Bernie's job is to make the sport make money, which he has done," Hill says. "He has packaged it, made it the most professional sport in the world. He's done a brilliant job. But it's not his job to make the sport. That's Max's job, the FIA's. And the sport is the key ingredient. It's provided by young people in incredibly expensive cars, trying to win. Everybody will always watch that. F1 just needs a bit of attention paying to that entertainment aspect, and less to how important it is perceived to be by China, or Bahrain.
"Do you think we see a genuine show? Is Michael [Schumacher] properly challenged all the time? Do some people see it as being healthy, having this unbeatable icon who wins all the time?" Hill was speaking on the eve of today's British Grand Prix at Silverstone, where Kimi Raikkonen, in a McLaren, will start on pole after yesterday's official qualifying.
"F1 is a fortress, and that's a mistake. It could achieve more appreciation and value if it realised its obligation to the millions who allow it to exist. It's in the grips of the old guard. There's an obsession with youth these days, but Eddie Jordan at 53 is probably the youngest team owner."
It makes Hill squirm to see Renault team principal Flavio Briatore embracing his winning drivers. "Flavio, leave the man alone. You didn't win the race, OK? The team bosses should have grown out of the need for that amount of attention. Stand back, do your job, you'll get the credit. Arsène Wenger doesn't need to be in the camera every five minutes."
Hill believes the powerbrokers perceive F1's appeal as its apparent value to countries. "So it's the political value. But if the west European countries lose interest then I think it will follow that the emerging markets also lose interest. Speaking as an independent outsider, F1 is missing a great opportunity to provide exciting racing, and comes up short in terms of an entertaining package. I'm not sure that Bernie and Max are completely aware of that.
"There's nothing conclusively terminal. It's just the balance has swung too far in favour of commerce rather than sport. More faith has to be put in the urgency of the drivers to want to win in a fair fight. They are the stars. That's not to say that the teams aren't an important part of the show, they are. The drivers want to drive those cars. They are beautiful, put together by the most intensely brilliant designers. That's a crucial part of the show, too. But when the drivers are not free to speak their mind, the public spot it. They want to see the test of the person. That's what sport is, it's an arena."
Good guy versus bad guy. Hill was the knight on the white charger, Schumacher the villain. "Michael is the exception to everything, isn't he?" Hill says. "He is incredibly professional. If you had to go for a heart operation you'd want somebody who was the Schumacher of the heart surgery world to do the job, because you can rely on him."
Since he retired from fighting Schumacher at the end of 1999, Hill has been busy. One business project, P1, is a big success, enabling busy people with little time to exploit investment in their own exotic cars to time-share a variety of them instead. "It was necessary to get away from F1, to reset myself, because F1 distorts one's perspective. When you stop there are new skills to learn. It's the idea of P1 that interested me, and selling that idea."
Hill has also been acting as mentor to racer Steven Kane, a 24-year-old from Newtown-ards in Northern Ireland. "I leave him to do as much for himself as possible because you learn more that way. He's a lovely guy and there's no doubt about his desire to win, and that's what I really like about him. If he had an F1 drive he'd be good to watch. He desperately wants to win, and I know what that was like. I was there once, too."
Hill seems relaxed in his new life, and says he has things in better perspective. "I've been able to get on with life, and my family. That has been a massively important antidote. When you get an obsessive urge to achieve, that is a distortion in itself. But there comes a point, particularly in sport, when that time comes to an end. And that's when you have to deal with that thing that was missing in the first place.
"I had a great career in F1, seven years and a lot of happy memories. F1 is very educational. It has a political angle, but in truth it is only entertainment. There are a lot of people who believe it is more. It's a pleasant distraction, like a beautiful woman is a pleasant distraction."
He laughs as he considers the dominance of his old enemy. "Fortunately Michael wasn't like that in 1996! The fact he is still winning makes me feel a lot better. It's not so bad to be beaten by the best driver who's ever lived. Nobody really knew that then. I was first into the arena, the first Christian thrown to the lions. I used to beat myself up because I thought, 'God I must be useless'. I don't feel so bad about it now because he's beaten everyone up!"
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