For a man who used to tear round the tarmac at 200mph, spending most of the 1990s living up to a family name as famous as any racing car’s marque, Damon Hill is a remarkably careful driver. “I am a big fan of the 55mph speed limit,” says the Englishman who put foot to floor to win 22 Grand Prix and a Formula One world championship. “Most people aren’t safe to drive over 55.”
This weekend, as the minted plutocrats of Formula One helicopter into Northamptonshire for the British Grand Prix, Hill will be back at Silverstone commentating on the most exciting F1 season in years, no doubt having driven his ten-year-old, secondhand car carefully up the motorway from his Surrey home. He certainly won’t have broken the speed limit to get there.
“Honestly, the speed limit going up to 80mph makes me shudder…” he tails off in disbelief at the Government’s plan to increase the motorway maximum from 70mph. “Because people drive too fast on the motorway. Mostly they drive too fast, too close to the car in front, and they think they know what they’re doing. And they don’t.
“I used to drive like that and I had a few near misses. My kids have learnt to drive and they’re out on the roads and it’s dangerous. You don’t want to spoil people’s fun. It’s a fantastic day when you get your driving licence, but it is also for some people the worst day of their life. I escaped by the skin of my teeth when I was younger because I was a good driver, but that didn’t make it OK.”
So speaks a man who knows how to put pedal to metal. In person, Hill, now 51, is thoughtful and approachable, amused and bemused in equal measure by much of car culture. There’s no saucersized watch or designer brands on display. In a world of Bernies and Eddies, DCs and flash Harrys, he makes a welcome change. It’s hard to believe that when he turned up on Top Gear in 2009 to record the then fastest-ever lap for a star in a reasonably priced car, he left Jeremy Clarkson speechless at his speed and fuelled an ongoing suspicion that he was the Stig in his spare time.
When did he last drive at 100mph? “Er, well, I drove… what, you mean on a road? Yes. “No, I don’t do it.” What about 70? “70, yes.” Never above? “Hardly ever. It’s too stressful.”
How, you might wonder, can a man who blasted through the forest at Hockenheim at almost 220mph, find 75mph in the middle lane of the M1 too stressful?
“I have only driven at speeds exceeding 200mph a few times. Once at Le Mans, again at places like Hockenheim and Monza. So it just doesn’t compare. I mean, the concentration level you are at in a race situation, you’re in a totally different state of mind. What happens when people drive on the roads is that they don’t concentrate, they just think about something else. So they’re relying on their unconscious to respond to things. That’s why it’s better to drive at a sensible pace.”
These days Hill’s life is led at a sensible pace, in the Surrey countryside with Georgie, his wife of 24 years. They have spent the time since his retirement in 1999 bringing up their four children, Oliver, Joshua, Tabitha and Rosie. In the garage sits a ten-year-old Volkswagen amid a pile of rusting bikes, testament to his first love, motorcycles.
“I used to drive a Golf Diesel, which I had for about five years. I did 120,000 miles in it. At the time it was quite green. I changed it for a secondhand car… Trading something in just so you have the latest thing is our problem. Making something last is the way forward. If I can buy a car that’s going to last me ten years I would be very happy driving something unfashionable knowing I’ve got ten years’ use out of it.
“A Ferrari is a beautiful thing. It sounds and looks lovely, but how are you going to use it without endangering yourself and everyone else?”
It’s no surprise, then, to discover that you wouldn’t open his garage door to find a fleet of magnificent motors, worthy of a man who made millions during his years on the track. “I’m not into things that much. I need to get from A to B reasonably comfortably. I haven’t got a car collection. There’s a common misconception about racing drivers. Although some love cars, I’m not into them. The only thing I was interested in was racing and driving things. I don’t love cars.”
The only son of Graham Hill – himself a two-time world champion – Damon inherited a love of racing and an ability to negotiate traffic at high speed. “There must be something. My dad worked as an apprentice engineer and he saw an advert in the paper to have a go in a racing car at Brands Hatch for two shillings and sixpence. His dad never drove a car in his entire life, although his mother rode a motorbike. But the moment he sat in a car he knew that’s what he wanted to do.
“For me, I have always found these things easy. Fundamentally it’s about enjoying movement through a three-dimensional space, like being on a motorbike and whizzing along. I used to be a dispatch rider. Driving round London, weaving in and out of traffic, I felt completely at home.”
When Graham died at the controls of a light aircraft in 1975, after hitting a tree, 15-year-old Damon was left fatherless but in no doubt of his dad’s status as one of Britain’s greatest racing drivers. Three thousand people attended his funeral. Not that Damon showed any interest in racing cars. Racing motorbikes at weekends was his thing.
His mother Bette wasn’t entirely enthusiastic. Believing cars to be safer, she persuaded him to switch in his 20s. At the relatively late age of 32 he was offered his first Grand Prix drive.
Starting the 1994 season he found himself in the same Williams team as Ayrton Senna, only for his team-mate to die after crashing into a wall at Imola, San Marino, the day after another rival, Roland Ratzenberger, was killed in qualifying.
“I started at Williams in 1993 because Nigel Mansell left Formula 1 to race IndyCars. When Ayrton died I was hurled into the space they left and found myself up against Michael Schumacher, who turned out to be the most successful driver in the sport.”
Not that Schumacher could prevent Hill from winning the world title in 1996, but three years later he retired. “It became a messy paella of experience,” he says struggling to recall the details. “You are swept along in a career like that and you have to cope. But it’s a bit mad
“I started at 32. Very late. Nowadays you wouldn’t take a driver with no experience at that age. Sebastian Vettel was the youngest [GP winner] at 21. The guys competing today have been professional drivers since they were ten years old. They have done carting relentlessly and have got into single seaters the moment they could.”
Some would say it shows – drivers coached to be bland, teams preferring automatons to characters. “The public might say that, but I’m sure that a lot of the antics that happened between drivers, whilst entertaining, were a backward step. It was interesting with Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna at each other’s throats, or for that matter that Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell couldn’t stand each other, but nowadays they would be under so much pressure [from sponsors] for behaving badly, they wouldn’t. In a way drivers have learnt to behave, and that’s got to be better than a load of spoilt kids throwing tantrums in racing cars.
“What I would say is that the driver was more the star of the show in that era. He contributed much more to the success of the team because they didn’t have all the data they needed, so the way the driver relayed information to them galvanised the team. But if they aren’t the pivotal figures of yesterday, he says, today’s drivers are still key. “Despite the seven different winners out of eight races this season, who are the people at the top? Indisputably the three best drivers, Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Vettel, and the three best teams – McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull.
It’s not Scalextric cars going round on a TV screen,” he says. “The first time you go to Silverstone and a Formula One car goes past, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. When you’re standing next to one in the garage and it fires up, it’s terrifying. And then people get into them and race them!”
If it’s undoubtedly dangerous, these days it’s rarely deadly. “There is a sense that you are rolling dice all the time and in my dad’s era that was really clear. I think James Hunt looked at it that way. He thought, ‘The chances of me surviving another season are reducing with every year I do it. His gambler’s mindset was to walk away from the table. To be honest I had my fill of racing. When I walked away from it I thought, I don’t want to get into one of those things again.’
“Now I have my family. My eldest son [Ollie, now 23] has Down’s syndrome so we started up a charity. I have been doing other things, which have been rewarding in other ways.”
Did his son’s diagnosis make him more aware of the fragility of life? I’m not sure. I would say it was a big factor for me, after what happened to my dad, not wanting to put myself in that position. So the motivation was strong to stop.”
But now he finds himself drawn back to the track and not simply for his commentating stints with Sky. His second son, Joshua, is showing signs of promise behind the wheel of a Formula Renault racing car. How does he feel about that?
“Mixed feelings. It’s a joy to see him out there in front of a race. It’s brilliant. He has a lot of talent and ability. But it’s also dangerous and a hard road to embark on.” A chip off the old block? “He seems to be, yes. I am a firm believer in pursuing what you love doing. I haven’t issued any commands – he’s 21. The only issue is the large amounts of money needed to compete.
What about Josh’s mum? What about my mum? Her husband raced, her son raced and now her grandson races. You have to let your children make their own choices. It’s a family trait. What can we do? We’re like a circus family – the Flying Family Hill. There’s an excitement we need to have. To be honest, at this stage, I recognise where it leads – to more excitement and more risk. And I’m trying not to expose myself to more risk!”
Physical risk, that is. He leaves on foot for his next meeting, attempting to raise “the enormous sums” his son needs to keep his career on track, the third generation of Hill in the cockpit. No doubt Josh can drive fast. But for his dad’s sake, he had better drive safely.
SUNDAY AT SILVERSTONE: DAMON’S 3 TO WATCH
Jenson Button: Jenson’s strength is his ability to deliver pace throughout a race. On the right turf he can definitely do it.
Fernando Alonso: I’d like to see a British driver win the championship but I think Alonso is stronger, though it’s nip and tuck. But Silverstone is a high-speed circuit and the Ferraris rarely do well there.
Lewis Hamilton: Lewis has found some balance now after a difficult past year. Jenson is a world-class driver but in a straight fight over one lap, Lewis is quicker.
Damon Hill provides expert analysis on Sunday’s race for Sky Sports F1 HD. From Fri 6 July, Sky Sports F1 HD has live coverage of practice, qualifying and the race, on TV, online and via Sky Go.