The 1996 World Champion reflects on proving his skeptics wrong, the impact Ayrton Senna’s death had on his career, Michael Schumacher the “magician” and his new book
It’s been 20 years since Damon Hill became Britain’s eighth Formula 1 world champion, clinching the 1996 title with victory in the Japanese GP.
In a moving and insightful in-depth interview with Sky F1’s Natalie Pinkham marking both the anniversary and the release of his acclaimed autobiography, Watching The Wheels, Damon discusses the defining moments that have shaped his life on and off the track.
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Hill explains how, at first, he resisted expectations he would follow in the footsteps of his father, a double world champion, and pursue a career in Formula 1, preferring a future that involved two wheels instead of four:
“I never had the dream of being a racing driver. When I was growing up, people kept on asking me ‘are you going to be a racing driver like your dad?'” Damon explains.
“My reaction was I’m not going to do that if that’s what you expect me to do. I was against just conforming. The thing that lighted my fire was getting on a motorbike.
“If I had a dream it would have been to be racing like Barry Sheene in Grand Prix bike racing.”
But as Damon acknowledges, his life was inextricably linked to Formula 1 to the extent it was almost inevitable he would get drawn into the sport eventually. Even his christening was attended by the likes of Sir Stirling Moss and Bruce McLaren.
But it wasn’t until Hill was in his early thirties that he became an F1 driver and four years later he was the world champion.
“I had met a lot of skepticism in my career and I had to prove people wrong,” the Sky F1 pundit says of his title win.
“So by winning the championship, I felt – there you go, you said it couldn’t be done, now what are you going to do?”
Hill’s father passed away when he was 15, but he touchingly describes how he is sure he was watching him win the championship in 1996 and would have been “tickled pink.”
But his father’s death wasn’t the only tragedy that Hill experienced. He was also the team-mate of Ayrton Senna when the Williams driver died as a result of the injuries sustained at the 1994 San Marino GP.
“It changed my life,” Damon candidly acknowledges. “I don’t think I would have won a world championship. I would have been number two to Ayrton, I might have been battling for second place with Michael (Schumacher).
“I was thrown into the front line after losing Ayrton, promoted to the guy carrying the championship hopes which I never would have expected to have done.”
Hill experienced at close hand some of the most iconic drivers in the sport, not just Senna and Prost, but also Schumacher – and it is clear he still has mixed feelings when it comes to the German:
“Michael was clearly a very talented and determined driver but he was with a crew who were more inclined to do whatever they had to do to win.
“He had this relationship with the regulations which a lot of people questioned.”
By contrast, he acknowledges that Schumacher was also one of the most talented drivers he came up against: “I found him awe-inspiring.
“I raced against him in Suzuka, I was following him right on his gearbox in torrential rain and I was watching his car control and he was like a magician. He seemed to be going off all the time and yet he didn’t.
“So I am in total awe of his ability and competitive spirit but I think his philosophy about sport was slightly different from mine.”