Tuesday 6 December 2016

Paul Kimmage: Damon Hill takes control of the story to bring his bogeyman to book

"I have spent more than a lifetime trying to express the tragic moment." - Marcel Marceau

Published 11/09/2016 | 17:00

Damon Hill (left) and wife Georgie kiss to celebrate his success during the Japanese grand prix at Suzuka, Japan. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport
Damon Hill (left) and wife Georgie kiss to celebrate his success during the Japanese grand prix at Suzuka, Japan. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

Damon Hill was sitting in the front seat of a chauffeur-driven Jaguar, studying the two-page memo with his schedule for the day. It was a Tuesday morning in July 1996, five days before the British Grand Prix, and he was being driven to Brands Hatch by John, a sponsor's representative, for a day of promotional activity.

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"It's pretty busy, as you can see," John explained, "but it's well organised and we should be wrapped by four."

"Fine."

"We kick off with Reuters and then the first of the TV interviews. We'll have Jacques [Villeneuve] in one garage and you in the other. We've got Auto, Sprint, M6 and FR3 and they're all under orders to be ready for their slot."

"OK."

"After lunch, there's the promotional shoot for Rothmans; they want yourself and Jacques to do about 25 laps each - five laps alone, then five laps together- waving a Union Jack, punching the air and simulating a pit-stop and that sort of thing."

"OK."

"We've also set up some photos."

"Right."

"We were looking at something a bit different to catch the papers - something typically British in the week of the British Grand Prix."

"And what have you come up with?" Hill inquired, mildly alarmed.

"Well, we thought a London bus with 'Silverstone' on the front might work rather well," John explained. "We're going to put you at the wheel wearing a busman's cap, you know, 'Damon's coming home', that sort of thing."

"It sounds more like 'On the Buses' to me," Hill observed. "No I'm not doing it."

"But Damon . . . "

"No bus."

"But we've been planning this for . . . "

"I'm a racing driver, not a bus driver," Hill insisted. "I'm not going to set myself up for the rags [tabloid newspapers]."

"What if we had you sitting in the back buying a ticket?"

"No."

"OK, we'll shelve the bus for the moment . . . now, for the other shot. I'm not sure if you saw what they did last month at the European Championships with the balloons."

"No, go on," Hill sighed.

"Well, basically we're going to drape the car with the flag and have you standing in front. Then, on the signal, we want you to raise both arms as 1,000 helium-filled balloons are released and the crowd cheers."

The car fell silent. John steeled himself for another firm rebuke. Hill shook his head and turned to the writer sitting in the back.

"Do you see the sort of bollocks I have to put up with?" he said.

It was my first time to meet him.

He won eight races that year for the Williams Renault team, including the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, where he became the only son of a Formula One world champion to win the title. His father, Graham, with his erect bearing, clipped speech, cad's moustache and smarmed-back hair, had been Britain's most storied racer before his untimely death in a plane crash in 1975.

Damon kept the world at arm's length.

He was eight years retired in May 2007 when I sat down with him again, near his home in Godalming, Surrey. He was honest and warm and great company but still trying to figure the puzzle that was his life.

"The rules completely change when you're famous," he explained. "There are moments when it's absolutely hysterical. My dad played it to the max. He loved what it could do. He loved being able to carry people on this fantastic sort of carnival ride. He loved being alive, my dad. He thought it was great that everybody recognised him and he was good at dealing with it."

"You weren't," I suggested. "You didn't embrace it?"

"No, I didn't. I like my space, to be honest. I like to get away from it and don't like being fussed over. I find it slightly awkward when people put you on a pedestal and he was a tough act to follow in that department - and my God, he got around! Everywhere you go, someone will show you an autograph of his or a picture on a wall. He just thought, 'There is no point in being here if you're not having fun'."

"I'm curious that you have never written an autobiography," I said.

"I wouldn't know what to write," he replied.

"But you've had such a fascinating life."

"It's not over yet."

"No, but there are sportsmen half your age who have already written two."

"Maybe I should do what Bob Dylan has done and make it into instalments," he said.

And then he paused for a moment and considered it.

"I don't know," he said. "I think that I'd want to write it myself and I just haven't found the time yet. And there are two sides to this: there's the sporting story and what I did in my career; and there's my life, which is a different story altogether. I haven't worked out how I would separate them yet."

"Why would you want to separate them?" I asked.

"We all have places we don't want to go," he said. "There's a boundary where you say, 'That's as far as you go', and I'm not sure who would want to read it. If I could write a book that explained my life to me, that would be useful, I would read it, but I don't quite have the perspective on it yet."

"What age are you now?" I asked.

"Forty-six," he replied.

"And you don't have perspective?"

"Well, I think I'm starting to get perspective. Now I can look at 'Damon' objectively and explain my actions and my character and put it into some context, so maybe it's not too far off, but I think leaving a margin is important."

There was a lot he did not say: that he had spent most of his life trying to answer the question. Was he Graham Hill, Part II? Or Damon Hill, Part 1? That he'd had a bellyful of F1, was jaded and disillusioned by it, and never watched it on TV. That he had spent years after retiring battling a deep depression before finding a therapist to unravel the knots. That it had been distressing and painful. That he had come out the other side and was almost there.

Last Wednesday, while browsing the shelves at Hodges Figgis I happened upon Watching the Wheels, his just-published autobiography. I flicked back the cover and read the introduction:

"To get to the point of being able to write a book about my career and life, I have had to clear up a lot of 'residue' from my upbringing. This required a certain amount of courage, because the bogeyman looms large in the mind of the child - the child still inside us - and so it took time.

"But enough time has passed now to get on with things I've been putting off, and I feel ready to take control of the story. I no longer feel driven by some unconscious force to live a certain way or to fulfill some mission or quest to complete the final leg of the journey home, the part fate decreed my father could not make."

I smiled and walked to the counter: 'Sold!'

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