Damon Hill was just 11 when he first burnt rubber at Silverstone, a boy in an anorak riding his toy motorbike round the tarmac for fun. “The track used to open up after the Grand Prix and people used to go onto it and drive around – in both directions!”
No doubt Hill Jr was cut a little slack as he weaved around the big boys – not every kid can boast a two-time Formula One world champion (Graham Hill) as a father – but clearly the racing bug had bitten. “I never let up pestering my dad to get me a motorbike. That was my thing.”
Twenty-three years later he returned to Silverstone with a vengeance, this time on four wheels. “I won in 1994, the controversial race with Michael Schumacher, who seemed to spend most of his time trying to adjust his illicit devices,” says Hill wryly, recalling a season thick with allegations. “He did this routine at the start where he pulled away in the formation lap – I qualified on pole – and overtook me, which is against the regulations. The suspicion was that his team were using some way of getting round the regulations to do with traction control. The long and short of it is I won the race–but Schumacher [who was disqualified] went on to win the world championship by a point.”
In a sport so governed by small print, it must be a fine line between grey areas and skulduggery? Was he ever tempted to bend the rules? “No, I did it straight. I was brought up not to cheat. My dad said, “You’re only cheating yourself.” I’m not interested in finding out whether I can achieve something by nefarious means. What’s the point? I don’t get it.”
And Schumacher? “Michael is just out of a coma – we can’t do anything other than send him all our love and prayers. He was so hard to beat. But there’s no question he occasionally pushed the boundaries to the point where his fellow drivers were prepared to say, ‘Well, I don’t know about that’.”
Hill went on to beat Schumacher to the world championship in 1996, but you wonder if such a Corinthian attitude would pay dividends today. Lewis Hamilton was barely 11 years old when Hill took the title, a child of a very different era. Does he have the necessary calculation and cunning to win this weekend and close the gap on his closest rival – and team-mate – Nico Rosberg?
“Yes, Lewis can win the race. In fact, he’s probably favourite. Given a tiny bit of luck and home advantage, I think it will be very difficult to stop him. Right now it’s difficult, because his teammate is ahead of him and it’s how he deals with that psychologically that will be a measure of what sort of champion he turns out to be. He’s going to have to mature… I can see it happening. He got told off for sulking after Monaco, but I think he’s taken that on board.”
Which is just as well, because what Britain needs, after a less-than-triumphant summer, is a winner. Nobody craves a home victory more than Hill, who thinks the very future of the British Grand Prix rests on more British success. He held Silverstone’s future in his hands as President of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, negotiating a deal with Bernie Ecclestone to secure the track’s continued presence in the F1 calendar.
“Without Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton winning the world championship, I don’t think we would have kept the British Grand Prix. It’s bums on seats. If it doesn’t make sense financially and they can get more money elsewhere, they’ll go. It’s a shame, but that’s how the world is, isn’t it? We’ve just got to wake up. Britain isn’t the centre of the universe any more.”
And neither are young boys allowed to drive round Grand Prix tracks on toy motorbikes any more. It was fun while it lasted.
Damon Hill is a member of Sky Sports’ F1 commentary team.