Damon Hill was always a different type of motorsport star. In the flamboyant world of Formula One he came across as reserved. In a sport dominated by money, he struggled to the top. A successful family name, that should have eased the transition, proved to be a burden. Unlike stars today, he never cashed in with a cheap autobiography at the time. Twenty years later, Hill explains why in his book Watching the Wheels.
Damon Hill was unique and also a first. The history books will forever state he and his legendary father Graham were the first father and son to win F1 Driver World Championships. His father’s career and untimely death shaped Hill’s formative years and adult life in ways that took decades for him to understand.
Before Hill begins his story, the foreword explains his absence during the decades between retiring and re-emerging into public life as a broadcaster. In a brave and important move, he discusses his battle with depression. Raising awareness to the issue and explaining its nature will give hope to many sufferers.
After facing up to his demons, and sharing them with the reader, it’s understandable that Hill doesn’t shy away from how they were created. Before diving into the autobiography, it’d be fine to expect little of Graham Hill’s story. His shadow loomed over Damon’s career and it was something he could never find the speed to race away from.
His account of his younger years explains what it was like to live with a larger than life character. How Graham, like Damon would be himself, was a late addition to the sport. The effects of his fame did affect his mother at times and there’s a sense Damon adored, admired, and worshipped his father while feeling he was inaccessible.
The showcase of F1, in days where it was a different type of showbiz and the community was close rather than filled with suspicious rivals, didn’t appeal to the young Hill. He was a shy, under confident child. The attention that came his way he tried to avoid, feeling it wasn’t deserved, and he didn’t want to be defined by the success of others.
Despite the negatives that came with fame, like being singled out in school, he had a happy childhood. Sadly, when he lists the reasons why, labouring the point, it reads like a top ten of superficial positives. It could be a sign that even before his father passed, Damon was destined to have emotional difficulties.
The painful realisation Damon was getting closer to his father before his passing is even more upsetting. He uses the book as a means to exonerate Graham’s role in the plane crashed that took his life and those of his team on board. It rightly lays falsehoods to rest, explains how rumours had played like Chinese whispers over the years. And refers to a crash investigator that offers probable causes for the incident. It enables the legend of Graham Hill to continue untarnished.
After his father’s death, he buried the pain, choosing not to mourn, believing his father would have done the same. He had to assume the role of man of the house before he was a legal adult. The lavish lifestyle started to fade away. Lawsuits against the family and the loss of income meant the Hills went into survival mode.
Fast forward to adulthood and Damon found himself working in the building trade. The graft enabled him to focus, stopping his mind from dwelling on his father. It’s quite telling that during these stories he refers to “that Scottish man” and “the Irish man” he worked with for four weeks. Even after a month the class divide meant they were labels, not named people. Or at least, people not worthy of remembering now.
His passion was racing bikes, and he became a delivery driver around London, claiming the day-to-day hustle in the traffic honed his driving skills. During this period he met his future wife Georgie. Theirs was a stop-start relationship but it’s clear they had a deep connection early on. Sadly, the reader only gets an insight during the early days. Once F1 begins, the chapters are filled with a notable lack of family life.
His journey to Formula One wasn’t through desire. Damon preferred motorcycle racing but realised the chance of career-ending injury was high, the rewards low. So he took the decision to race single-seater cars.
It wasn’t a smooth transition, he lacked funding but it’s hard to fully empathise with his hardships when he explains how a Beatle rang him to offer the £75,000 required to race the following season. Through a good sponsorship deal he finally secured a safer drive and managed to get on the radar.
By his own admission, he was never the standout performer, and people like Johnny Herbert and Martin Brundle were the established names of his generation. But he had an inner grit that people overlooked all his career.
He wasn’t trying to capitalise on his father’s fame, quite the opposite. He wanted to right a wrong, complete the family mission, and discover his true self.
Of course, he achieved that aim. He added a British Grand Prix victory to the family heirloom, a thing that had eluded his father. And repeated the feat of being crowned champion of the world.
The standoffishness and inaccessibility that made him less lovable than people like Nigel Mansell, permeates the pages. But this shows how he has always been genuine, wearing his heart on his sleeve.
A quiet heart doesn’t mean a smaller one.
The brooding intensity was mistaken for not being passionate enough. He explains his treatment at Williams, how he was never a preferred choice, even after keeping the team close-knit following Ayrton Senna’s untimely passing.
The comparisons to rate Hill have always been lopsided. No one would ever claim he was a Senna, he even called upon the spirit of the great Brazilian to help him in Japan, but he wasn’t below the likes of fan-favourite Mansell. Hill never had a number two like Riccardo Patrese.
He partnered the best of all time, a David Coulthard in his peak, Mansell himself, world champion Jacques Villeneuve, and the brother of his chief nemesis Ralf Schumacher.
Those looking for a better insight to the battle with Michael may be disappointed. We get a glimpse into his mindset but a golden opportunity is missed when he mentions driving to see the German laid up in hospital with broken legs. This was after the 1999 British Grand Prix.
Instead we break to hear about more contract woes, it would have been nice to see that interaction. What was their relationship like as Michael was bed ridden? Especially poignant now the seven-time world champion may never communicate with the wider world again.
Early on in the book Hill talks about how motorsport is dangerous and we should never move away from the part of nature that is drawn to it like moths to a flame. Ultimately, the sense of that danger is what made him want to leave.
People will draw their own conclusions as to how successful Hill’s endeavours were. He was a victim of the British media’s classic “build ‘em up, to knock ‘em down” formula. As a wronged loser, they adored him. As a champion, they tore strips from him.
Perhaps this has had Hill on the defensive ever since. Parts of the book read like a list of excuses rather than reasons. He also has a sense of entitlement that can’t be overlooked. There are undertones throughout that Michael Schumacher was the chosen driver, protected by his team and given preferential treatment.
Later he demands special treatment believing he has earned it and paid his dues. Many drivers before and since have sacrificed just as much and never had the gifts that were delivered to Damon.
Hill should be applauded for speaking out about mental health issues and be thanked for taking a trip to the nostalgic years of his racing days and the enduring memory of his father’s. It’s unlikely this self-written book will win over many new fans but its greatest triumph is detailing the recovery of a man lost in the wilderness.