Former F1 world champion Damon Hill on Top Gear, City bankers and his life in Surrey
PUBLISHED: 11:02 27 February 2012 | UPDATED: 12:53 01 May 2018
Since retiring from Formula 1, former world champion Damon Hill has found time to help start a Surrey children's charity and oversee one of the most successful periods for the country's motor sport as president of the British Racing Drivers Club. Here, in an exclusive interview, the racer who lives near Farnham chats to Surrey Life's Matthew Williams about everything from his views on Jeremy Clarkson and City bankers to our county's lack of vegetarian restaurants...
Son of two-time Formula 1 world champion Graham Hill – and no stranger to childhood visits from family friends like Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart – you might assume Damon Hill was always destined to be a motor racing star.
And, while his 22 Formula 1 wins and one world championship title certainly meant that he became one, it really could have all been so different.
“I used to be a dispatch rider,” he laughs, arriving with a big box of papers at the Guildford office of halow, the charity he helped to found, and where we meet today. “I used to really enjoy it actually and would leave my bike outside; park on the double yellow, leave the keys in, and pop in and out of the office. One day, I came down to find no key. A policeman had confiscated it. It’s a funny thing: all that time and the only person to steal my key was a policeman.”
Despite this potential alternative career path and a flit with motorcycle racing, life did indeed lead back to the seemingly pre-destined track, with all the international media attention and riches the heights of the sport can bring.
Even then though, there were signs of the social awareness that set him apart from many in one of the world’s most glamorous sports and has kept him busy through retirement.
“Formula 1 is an insulated world; some have described it as a mobile principality,” says the 51-year-old, who was twice voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year. “It goes round the world and sets up its little enclave and, no matter what is happening outside, inside it’s five-star. It can become something of a bubble. But then you have someone like Ayrton Senna who was acutely aware of the fortunate position he was in and tried to do everything he could for the people of Brazil. It showed you can’t disconnect and pretend the world outside doesn’t exist.”
A solid foundation
Now living in the Farnham area (having been based in Ireland during his racing years) with wife Georgie and their four children – Oliver, 22, Joshua, 21, Tabitha, 16, and Rosie, 14 – it was when their eldest son Oliver was born with Down’s Syndrome that the learning curve really began and led to the founding of halow with four other families in 2006.
The group discovered that despite Surrey’s affluence, there wasn’t much on offer for children with learning difficulties past school age (halow comes from the names of the children who inspired it: Harriet, Amber, Laura, Oliver and William).
“It just didn’t make sense to travel further afield, with our children having grown up in the area, so the ambition was to learn from existing places and grow something in our own county,” says Damon. “I’m now a patron rather than a trustee, but I did go to the annual BGC traders’ charity day last year to play the stockbroker. I think I probably would have made a good trader; I’ve got that overactive adrenal gland that I think you probably need!”
Some might point out that with the rich-poor divide growing ever wider, the workings of the modern day City can sometimes appear to be reminiscent of Formula 1 at its most insular.
“It does make you ask what constructs a properly working society, but it’s very hard to argue that these guys don’t make things happen,” he says. “There’s so much polarisation though at the moment between the state and private sector and I think it’s wrong to make that distinction: we need both. In my view, halow shouldn’t be a ‘charity’; it should be something society does as default.”
In the same year as halow’s foundation, Damon was named president of the British Racing Drivers Club, which promotes motor sport in this country and also owns Silverstone, and during his tenure oversaw one of the most successful periods in British racing history.
“I’d been there since 2006 and felt like I’d done all I could; it felt like it had come to the natural end of the chapter,” he says, explaining his decision to step down from the role last year.
“Life is not always about big projects and I like to have space to pursue the little things. If you’re fully engaged 100 per cent of the time on one thing, which I was, you sometimes miss out on a spectrum of other interests.”
The spotlight has continued to grow on the sport since his retirement in 1999, and I wonder if Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button have to face any more intrusion than he did during his career.
“The world just continues to change,” he says. “In the 50s, when the likes of Mike Hawthorn were racing, the sport was something that happened far away. You read about it in the papers or it came to a town near you and you got in your Austin 7 to go there. Now there’s a worldwide television audience.
“It’s fair enough that guys like Lewis Hamilton sometimes get a bit annoyed, but they get pretty adept at handling the spotlight – it’s a survival thing.”
And what about the antics of a certain other motoring personality who is often based down the road in Dunsfold filming Top Gear?
“Ah, Jeremy Clarkson knows exactly what he’s doing,” laughs Damon. “Don’t forget, he’s first and foremost a journalist himself. There are definitely certain places you can put your foot and Jeremy likes to put his on the landmines because he enjoys the explosions.
“These days, you can either be mealy-mouthed and never say anything or you can play the game a little – or, in Jeremy’s case, a lot. But the public want characters; maybe the 60s was the prime time. Some of the things Muhammad Ali might have said were outrageous but there was always a twinkle in his eye.”
One concern at the heart of the sport today, Damon feels, is that the speed of technology developments might make it feel less accessible to youngsters.
“You look at somewhere like, say, Brooklands,” he continues, “and, in the old days, all they would have had was a shed and a welding torch.”
His late father Graham, who sadly died in a plane crash when Damon was 15, literally did just that in the 1950s: drawing up the plans, building the car and then heading off to Monaco or wherever to race – from conception to completion with a bit of ingenuity and elbow grease.
“Technology is so sophisticated these days that anything you produce with your hands is going to be pretty crude by comparison,” says Damon. “Individuals are usually a smaller part of the whole – you look at somewhere like McLaren in Woking and it’s amazing. But it must be hard for youngsters starting out today.”
One young man who remains inspired by dreams of podium finishes is Damon’s son Josh, 21, who has been competing in Formula Renault – the series that launched Lewis Hamilton – and hopes to become the first third-generation Formula 1 world champion.
“He’s done brilliantly but it’s a long haul and not for the faint-hearted,” says Damon. “He’s definitely doing it because he loves competing rather than just following what dad and I did. He loves cars and is a total Top Gear head.
“I’m not like that at all; I was always a bike guy – it was all Steve McQueen. He was my hero along with Evel Knievel. I used to jump over my friends in the back garden!”
There’s another showman that people remain convinced he has an occasional involvement with as well…
“No!” he laughs. “People just put two and two together because I lived near Dunsfold. Why would I want to be the Stig?! Seriously?! You spend years trying to get everyone to know your name, and then you put on a disguise?”
And how about Nigel Mansell beating his lap time on the programme?
“Well, actually, that wasn’t difficult to take because, apart from my dad, Nigel was the guy that inspired me to cars. I watched him win his first Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, so I totally defer to him.”
Rock ‘n’ roll
And while we are clearing up rumours... there is one side note of Damon’s career that has always intrigued. It is said that he played guitar on an album with 80s rock titans Def Leppard (he used to play at charity functions with other Formula 1 stars – oh, and a certain George Harrison). Can it possibly be true?!
“They were neighbours when I was living in Ireland and they’d tease me about playing on the record,” he grins. “I popped along and I’m on there somewhere, buried under another thousand guitars! They credited me on the album as a bit of a joke. I have to admit, they’re nice guys but I’m not even actually a Def Leppard fan.”
Well, that’s that then: a motor racer who prefers bikes but is not quite a rock star and definitely has no secret identities to pass his time while making a difference living the rural idyll.
My Favourite Surrey...
Pubs: I have to admit, and hopefully readers can correct me, I think there’s a dearth of good pubs round here. The Three Horseshoes in Thursley is nice actually, but you do kind of walk through the door and bang into the bar!
Restaurants: I like Cambio at the Castle in Guildford. I’m a vegetarian and there really could be more in Surrey; it’s quite hard to find good places to get a pot of lentils round here. I’ve been veggie for a few years now because I started to come round to the thought that if I can’t kill something, which I couldn’t, then I shouldn’t really get anyone else to do it.
View: I used to mountain bike a lot around Blackdown and it’s absolutely the best way to see Surrey. A brilliant way to keep fit and discover new places. I didn’t really do the whole charging round the hills thing; it was more leisurely.
Place to visit: I’ve been to Brooklands Museum in Weybridge a few times, which is absolutely amazing. The aviation and motorsport industries were so closely linked and Brooklands is the perfect place to see that.