Hill claims Lewis Hamilton is the best driver the UK has ever produced
F1 

‘He doesn’t get the credit he deserves, and that’s a problem for our sport’: Damon Hill claims Lewis Hamilton is the best driver the UK has ever produced and outlines how to improve Formula One

  • Damon Hill claims that Lewis Hamilton doesn’t get the credit that he deserves 
  • Hill says that Hamilton is the best racing driver that the UK has ever produced 
  • He says many fans turned off the sport when Michael Schumacher dominated
  • Hill admits he was lucky to be given a chance and a ‘fantastic car’ at Williams
  • Suzuka is significant for Hill as it was where he made his peace with Schumacher 
  • Hill believes that the standard of driving is ‘richer’ than when he was competing 
  • He feels that teams should give racers more responsibility inside the car 

The big wheel at the Suzuka motor racing circuit keeps on turning but in its shadow, things change. 

Damon Hill has silver hair now and he is in Japan as a commentator, not a racer, but still the memories of that day 23 years ago, when he fulfilled his destiny by winning the F1 world championship here, flood back. 

On his way here from the airport in Nagoya, he saw a social media post that reminded him it was Murray Walker’s 96th birthday and included Walker’s emotional commentary on the final moments of the 1996 Japanese Grand Prix when Hill hurtled past the big wheel one final time in his blue and white Williams FW18 to take the chequered flag and win the title. 

Damon Hill claimed that Lewis Hamilton doesn’t receive the praise that he deserves

According to Hill, Hamilton is the best racing driver that the UK has ever produced

‘And Damon Hill exits the chicane and wins the Japanese Grand Prix,’ says Walker, his voice cracking. ‘And I’ve got to stop because I’ve got a lump in my throat. For once, I am almost at a loss for words. I am so happy, as the majority of Britain will be.’ 

As Walker’s voice trails away, the footage cuts to Hill on the podium, staring up at the sky.  

We wander into the hotel restaurant for lunch. Other things have changed. Hill is a vegetarian now. He has been for almost 20 years. ‘Everybody has different reasons,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to be part of the slaughter any more.’ 

He was never a red meat kind of guy anyway. I mention his sensitivity always set him slightly apart from F1’s testosterone-driven culture. ‘Are you saying I’m not macho?’ he says, breaking into a grin.  

The reminiscences go on a little longer. I reported on F1 for four years in the mid-Nineties, years that started with Hill’s arrival at Williams as Alain Prost’s No2 in 1993. The following season, he showed courage and dignity by helping the team and the sport emerge from the trauma of the death of his new team-mate, Ayrton Senna, at Imola. 

Hill (left) helped Formula One emerge from the trauma of the death of Ayrton Senna

Sometimes, it seemed he was fated never to overcome his great rival, Michael Schumacher, who robbed him of the title in 1994 by ramming him into the wall in the final race of the season in Adelaide. But in 1996, after a tight battle with another team-mate, Jacques Villeneuve, he finally emulated his late father, Graham, who had died in a plane crash when Damon was 15, by winning the title. 

There were fewer barriers between drivers and journalists then and the day after he won the title, a group of us got the same bullet train as Hill from Nagoya to Tokyo and went out with him that evening to watch the Japanese Beatles at the Cavern Club in Roppongi. 

Late in the evening, Hill was invited on stage and sang ‘Love Me Do’ with the band. ‘The club’s gone now, I think,’ Hill says, smiling again. ‘It’s a long time ago.’  

Hill, 59, who helps to front Sky Sports’ F1 coverage, is enjoying being back in the sport. 

There were times when he was racing when he seemed haunted by the demands. He was never much good at being false or ruthless or disloyal, qualities that F1, like many sports, often appears to prize above all others. But now he has made a kind of peace with it and with himself.  

‘Winning the world title isn’t the be-all and end-all,’ he says. ‘In fact, it may even be a hindrance to doing other things. You either brandish it or you try to escape it. I tried to escape it, for sure, but the pull is too strong. I never went to races and for years I didn’t even watch them on television. I barely caught a plane anywhere. 

He is enjoying being back in the sport having struggled with the demands when he was a racer

‘And then two things happened: Jackie Stewart called me to tell me I had to be president of the British Racing Drivers’ Club and my younger son, Josh, said he wanted to be a racing driver. That was around 2008. Josh stopped about 2013 but I’m still here. 

‘I’m very aware that I was lucky when I was driving in F1. I was in the right place at the right time at Williams and, when I got the opportunity, I made the best of it. There is a peace that comes with that. You didn’t fumble it. You didn’t miss the opportunity.  

‘In our lives, that bus goes past and you either get on it or you are left standing at the bus stop. I gave it everything I had and I was very lucky to get a fantastic car. The FW18 in 96 was just a peach of a car. I had some beautiful moments driving that car, which is what it’s all about.  

‘When you are a racing driver, it’s not just winning the races, being celebrated or being paid a lot of money, it is actually driving the car and the enjoyment that comes from that. When you’ve got a car that is designed by Adrian Newey and is put together by Williams and has Renault engines, you are in racing driver heaven.’ 

Hill stresses that enjoying taking part in Formula 1 races is more important than winning

Suzuka carries another kind of significance for Hill, too. It was where he and Schumacher made their peace.

They were never friends but for those four years when Hill was at Williams and the great German champion was at Benetton and Ferrari, it seemed as if their fates were interlinked and so Hill was devastated when, at the end of 2013, he heard about the skiing accident from which a gravely injured Schumacher is still fighting to recover.

‘I was very upset when I heard the news,’ says Hill, ‘particularly because he was out with his son, Mick, and that resonated with me. I wanted to have a relationship with my dad when I grew up and it never happened because of a tragedy and now Mick’s experienced that. 

Not only that, he was there when it was happening and his dad is still recuperating from it and clearly going through quite a lot of difficulty.

The news of Michael Schumacher’s skiing accident in 2013 was saddening for Hill

Suzuka carries another kind of significance for Hill, too. It was where he and Schumacher made their peace. They were never friends but for those four years when Hill was at Williams and the great German champion was at Benetton and Ferrari, it seemed as if their fates were interlinked. 

Hill was devastated when, at the end of 2013, he heard about the skiing accident from which Schumacher is still fighting to recover. ‘I was very upset when I heard the news,’ says Hill. ‘Particularly because he was out with his son, Mick, and that resonated with me. 

‘I wanted to have a relationship with my dad when I grew up and it never happened because of a tragedy and now Mick’s experienced that. Not only that, he was there when it was happening and his dad is still recuperating from it and clearly going through quite a lot of difficulty. 

‘I haven’t been to see him. I haven’t asked. It’s too private. I didn’t know Michael that well. Oddly, when I retired I interviewed him here in Suzuka for a magazine and he was a charming guy. The game was over, I was retiring, he was able to drop his guard and he seemed a guy you’d want to know. 

‘As a professional, he was a completely different kettle of fish. That po-faced, chin jutting out character was someone who gave nothing away. 

‘He was very adept at reducing his opponents, even without his driving, so he was formidable in every way. But they all were. Senna wasn’t an easy character to get to know, aloof. This new generation seem much more relaxed and more outgoing.’ 

At the head of that generation, of course, is Lewis Hamilton, who is closing in on his sixth world title and is setting new records all the time. 

Hamilton has established himself beyond doubt as Britain’s greatest driver and Hill thinks there are many more achievements still to come for the man who could even equal or surpass Schumacher’s record of seven world titles. 

Hill claims fans turned their back on Formula One during Schumacher’s dominance

Hamilton complained last year that the Sky Sports analysts — Hill, Nico Rosberg and Martin Brundle — had not given him enough credit after his remarkable victory at the German Grand Prix, which he had started from 14th place on the grid. 

‘I find it amazing listening to the ex-drivers commentating, not a single one of them could find a good word to say,’ said Hamilton. ‘Whatever the reason is, it’s OK, I forgive you. Positivity and love wins always and no matter what words you use to try and undermine me, I started 14th today and finished first.’ 

Hill does not know whether Hamilton’s words were aimed at him. ‘I’m sure he didn’t mean me,’ he says with another grin. But he is unstinting in his praise now. 

‘It should be self-evident that Lewis is the greatest racer we’ve ever produced,’ says Hill. ‘One more to go after this one and he has equalled Schumacher, which was considered to be almost unreachable.  

‘Year-in and year-out, he has delivered against all comers in all situations and he has got this down to a fine art now, the way he goes about it. He has matured in every respect. He is properly formidable as a competitor. He is probably at the height of his powers and he knows it and he is relaxed about it. 

Hamilton ‘has matured in every respect’ and is ‘at the height of his powers’, says Hill

‘Perhaps he doesn’t get the wider credit he deserves but that is a problem with our sport. I don’t think it’s Lewis’s fault. I wonder if it’s the sport itself that has drifted away from the centre of attention. 

‘The fanbase is still there in the UK but the viewership globally, a lot of people moved away from it when Michael was winning everything.’  

Hill believes that the standard of driving now is ‘richer’ than it was when he was competing. He is in awe of the maturity of some of the young racers and their ability to handle the pressure. 

He just wishes the teams and the people who run the sport would give them more responsibility inside the car. He is not the only one who believes it is the key to reviving the sport’s popularity. 

Hill believes that teams should give racers more responsibility inside the car

‘Some people still have a perception that you stick them in the car and they don’t have to do that much,’ Hill says. ‘When you have an engineer saying, “Can you go a bit slower?” to conserve tyres or something and you are sitting on the couch at home, it’s hard to understand. You want to think about someone going flat out.

‘Maybe they need to hand back more responsibility to the driver but they don’t want to do that because they have invested millions of pounds in this and why would they give it to a 20-year-old to screw up? But give it to the 20-year-olds to work out. We want to see whether they can do it. The best guys will work it out. Niki Lauda did. Alain Prost did. Jim Clark did. 

Hill admits that he was lucky to be given an opportunity and a ‘fantastic car’ at Williams

‘The way they treat them at the moment, it’s like not letting your kids grow up. It’s like going to school with them and then doing their homework. Just leave them.’

After lunch, Hill is driven over to Grand Prix Square, where a crowd has gathered in front of a stage, cheering as he is introduced. ‘My time as a driver is starting to seem like another lifetime ago,’ says Hill. ‘You can’t stop time.’

To his right, Suzuka’s big wheel keeps on turning.

 

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