To celebrate the launch of his book, Watching The Wheels, Damon Hill has embarked on a nationwide book tour that commenced this week. Badger’s Sarah Merritt was lucky enough to catch up with the 1996 champ and Sky Sports F1 regular at Waterstones Bookshop in Leadenhall Market, London, where she chatted with Damon after he’d finished the signing session – with a queue that had snaked right around the block!
Sarah Merritt: Congratulations on the launch of your book, Watching The Wheels. It’s something that I’m sure will be on every motorsport fans Birthday and Christmas list!
What I wanted to ask you, more than anything else, is simply – why now? Is it because it coincides with the 20th anniversary of you winning your world championship, or just because the time feels right?
Damon Hill: I think when I stopped racing, I wanted to get away from it, and I was very conscious of the fact that I just walked out and didn’t say “goodbye” or “thank you very much”. The ten year anniversary wasn’t really the right time as I came back into motorsport. I was asked to do the BRDC role, and then Josh (Damon’s son – Ed) said he wanted to go racing, so by whatever it is – some kind of gravitational pull – I ended up back in the sport again!
Now I’m working with Sky, and it’s been an interesting experience for me as a pundit or analyst, someone who is looking back at the sport having been through it, and it’s given me an opportunity to have a perspective on it that I didn’t have before.
I missed the ten year championship anniversary, so it’s twenty years that’s the opportunity to say thanks to everyone for giving me such a great ride and supporting me, and I’m sorry I didn’t say goodbye. I say in the introduction of the book that this is an explanation as to why I didn’t stick around – that I had some things I had to sort out – and also I look back at my life and say “this is where I came from”, these are the issues I had to deal with as a racing driver in my career. Once I had got that sorted out, I was in a position to write a book, so it is definitely a question of the time being right now.
SM: I wondered if having recently studied for, and completed, your Open University degree in English Literature had made you think that you’d really like to write some of this down?
DH: When I stopped racing, I had a lot of questions about philosophy, and I was very interested in looking at things in greater depth, and not just in motor racing – I think I knew enough about that!
There were more things I wanted to look at, so I did do that, and I also thought about how you measure this kind of – if there’s a way to quantify this aptitude. I am interested in language and how we express ourselves, so I thought I’d do it for a bit of a hobby, and really got into it. It’s a brilliant way to learn because you can carry on with your life and still do the course.
I did get interrupted by the BRDC job that I was doing, but I was getting good grades. I had tried philosophy, and I wasn’t getting good grades, so I gave that up.
SM: You still had to win, yes?! (Damon laughs…)
DH: It’s true – I did approach it as a bit of a game, looking at what they liked and what didn’t they like. It was quite obvious that they liked certain things and they didn’t like other things, so I went with the flow of it, and much to my amazement, they gave me a first, which was terrific!
SM: I have to ask you, was it difficult or intrusive including so many personal insights in the book, or did it feel somewhat cathartic?
DH: There’s always a boundary between private life and public life, and the point is that I’ve been through an experience and I wanted to share that. Now, there’s stuff that I want to share and there’s stuff that I don’t want to share, so there will always be that line.
We’ve gone further, I think, in certain societies, in getting to understand ourselves better than we did in the past. Certainly in my Dad’s day, when my parents went through difficult times, if they didn’t have a way for someone to understand what they were experiencing, they just didn’t talk about it. Their parents went through the First World War, the Great Depression and then the Second World War. The things they went through were absolutely astonishing. Then the 1960’s were a bit like a party, and a bit of a crazy time for everyone where they were now free of it all, with the breakdown of social barriers and people having a great time, but it left its scars in some ways. There was a lot of fallout.
Formula 1 is a very competitive world where any sign of weakness is exploited, and I was not robust enough in my career emotionally to be able to deal with some of the things that were happening to me. I had to address why that was, and I’m happy to share that. The book is about exploring that experience, and saying that this is not something that should be seen as unique to me.
I have had an unusual experience in the fact that my Dad was a world champion, but I am just a human being like everyone else, and so we go through these trials. The thing is when you are in the public eye, everyone is writing about it anyway, so I couldn’t hide and just say “leave me alone” as that just doesn’t work.
SM: Turning to the cars that you have driven during your career, if I asked you for your preference, would it be the FW18?
DH: Yes, it would have to be the FW18 – it was the one car that was built specifically to suit and fit me, and I had my best results in it. It was wonderful – the first time you drove it, you just had to ‘think’ it round the track, and it just went.
SM: I saw you drive it up the hill at Goodwood in 2014, but we don’t often see you driving on Sky, whereas we might see pieces with Johnny Herbert or Martin Brundle driving.
DH: I did drive the Lotus, but the trouble is, when I drive something, I want to drive it fast! I try to resist the temptation. When you are on a racetrack, there’s only one way to drive, and these cars were designed to be driven flat out, not just cruised around in.
SM: That was very true to see at Goodwood this year. Martin Brundle was driving the Brawn championship winning car, and they were trying to be so careful to look after it, but said it was difficult to drive it slowly like that.
DH: You can’t drive them slowly. They are designed to operate on the very outer limits of the envelope, and so you have to push them massively hard. You can’t just toodle around in them – and anyway, it’s so unsatisfying to do that!
I’d rather drive a car that has a much lower level of performance and drive that to its limit. I had a go in a Riley, I think it was, around Silverstone once in a demonstration. It just slid all over the place and was lots of fun as you could get to the limit quite quickly. But when it comes to these F1 cars, to be honest, I don’t want the anxiety anymore of hurting myself or damaging someone’s car!
SM: Is there a stand-out race that you consider most fondly when you look back?
DH: Fondly is probably not the world that I would use to describe it, but certainly my best performance was Japan 1994, where I drove out of my skin to win.
I go into some detail about that in the book, and that was quite an extraordinary experience and the culmination of the whole year of what happened with Ayrton, and being in such an intense battle to win.
The desire to win was exceptionally high, and I think it was the one time that I went out right onto the end of the branch and came back in one piece, which was good.
SM: Nowadays you’re still a regular visitor to the F1 paddock as part of your role with Sky Sports F1, a great bunch of people that we love to chat to at races. You see the coming and goings, and the politics of F1 perhaps from a different perspective now.
As you mention in the book, you’ve learnt a lot from your experiences, so when you see incidents involving the younger drivers, do you ever feel like you want to give them advice?
DH: I do, but I’ve got to resist that because they are young men and they know how to do it. If any of them asked me, I’d love to offer my advice, but there’s certain drivers who seem to quite capable of looking after themselves and others who don’t – if you know what I mean. There’s some drivers who look like they consistently make the same errors!
I talk in the book about how I got some advice from a PR expert, Mary Spillane, and she worked for politicians and so forth. She gave me some pointers, just a few tips, a few ways to understand what I was involved in, because a lot of the problem is that you just don’t understand the stakes involved. You don’t understand why you can’t just have a normal conversation with someone.
Her advice was brilliant. Modern Formula 1 drivers do get quite a lot of input, but if you’re wanting to stand on your own two feet, and not need someone around you to tell you what to do, then you’ve got to really appreciate other people’s jobs and what is involved, and why they are asking these questions relentlessly.
It’s a difficult job for them, and they do brilliantly. Jenson saying he want some time to go and find himself, I completely understand; he’s done that for 17 years!
SM: And that was something I was going to ask you about – he is at the age now (36) where you were just winning the championship….
DH: Yes, and he’s done nothing else, his whole life. I had other things that I was doing a little bit before, but I wasn’t in the limelight as he has been.
SM: One last question – Twitter. We now have you on social media, and you’re loving it? Because we love having you there! (Damon is @HillF1 – Ed)
DH: Yes, I’m having fun on Twitter, there’s been some good moments. Sometimes my thumb is twitching and I think “should I send that one”? I’ve deleted a couple!
SM: Well, I’d always say be honest, because that is what people like about you! And thank you so much for your time today.
It was a real privilege to be able to chat to Damon and gain some insights into the journey he has been on throughout his life, and how he has reached an understanding of it. His book allows us to share some of that, whilst also talking us through the key points in his career through his eyes.
Badger GP wishes him every success as he continues on his tour, and if you haven’t been out to buy Watching The Wheels yet, what are you waiting for? As dear Murray would say, “Go, Go, Go!”