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Dublin: 7°C Sunday 18 April 2021

'There were several people who were my father'

In this extract from his autobiography, Damon Hill recalls growing up in the shadow of his famous dad.

Image: PA Wire/PA Images

THE PASSAGE BELOW is an extract from Watching the Wheels: My Autobiography by Damon Hill, the British former racing driver.

He is one of only two sons (Nico Rosberg being the other) to emulate his father and become a Formula One world champion. In the passage below, he discusses the legend of his father, Graham.

There were several people who were my father. There was the actual person who lived in the house and who went places with us, and there was the legend in the newspapers, on TV and at racetracks.

There was the very serious man who did a very dangerous job, and there was the clown who made everything a big joke. I think I have a good handle on who Graham Hill was now, but when I was growing up, he was a demigod: a slightly intimidating but, at the same time, a lovely, generous, gregarious man who made our lives shine with light.

He was not what one might call a romantic man. He might even be called an insensitive person. When I needed to go back, after I had retired, and sort out where I might have been confused about things, it became clear that the blissful life I had enjoyed had a subtext to it: one of which I was luckily not completely conscious at the time. That was because I was in the Garden of Eden; I was a child still maturing.

Now I am fifty-five and, having brought up my own family of four children, all of them born just before or during my career, I can see the problems that my parents faced and how difficult it must have been for them to cope.

My story is really about two generations of Hills. My parents laid the foundations for my life and, without question, the path my father carved led me to become a Formula One World Champion like him. But who I might have been if he had not died when I was fifteen is another question.

Looking back, it sometimes seems inevitable that I would follow my father’s course; at other times it seems incredible that I’d want to. If I was a product of my parents and their life in the glitzy, glamorous but tragedy-blighted world of Formula One, then they were a product of the austere and war-ripped early twentieth century.

It’s quite possible that my mother’s father, Bertie, fought in the First World War, as his wedding photo shows him in uniform. My mother was born in 1926 and Norman Graham Hill was born the year of the Great Crash, 1929. So they were only very young by the time they were into the chaos and destruction of the Second World War. So the 1950s, which was when they met, must have seemed a blissful release from all that.

It was into the post-war culture of 1960s England, trying to leave the war and stuffy old traditions behind, that my parents brought a family: Brigitte, me and Samantha. But they also brought us into the world of motor racing at its toughest and most intense period. After their experiences in the Blitz, I’ve often wondered if they were creating their own kind of peacetime, one spiced with a little wartime fear and danger, just for continuity.

Overwhelming whatever was happening in the liberal Sixties was the contradictory culture of motor racing, which counterbalanced extreme brutality with an exaggerated lust for life.

Through all this, my parents had their own personal life to cope with. Add a bit of fame and a lot of media interest into the mix and you have some powerful influences on a child’s development. It created a distorted and unrealistic model of the world, one that had to end sometime, somehow.

But this unusual life my parents had created was my normality when growing up. There was reality, and there were the myths and legends of Graham Hill. Naturally, these myths had a huge influence not only on my view of my father but also on how I saw the world as it responded to the mythology.

Motor Racing - Graham Hill - London Airport Racing driver Graham Hill greeting his son, Damon Hill, wife Betty and sister Brigitte, at London Airport on his victorious return from the Indianapolis 500 in 1966. Source: PA Photos

We love a good story, clearly; sometimes at the expense of the truth. To a large extent, the mythology became a cage for my parents’ relationship, one that my mother has never really escaped from since the accident.

Ironically, because my father was so famous, I’m lucky that I have so much information to draw on about my early life and the life of my parents. Both wrote autobiographies and there are copious photographs and press cuttings.

But the truth is never clearly on display. I have had to work hard to separate the meaning from the simple words. The magnificent image of Graham Hill, the Legend, often obscures the complications that his life and career created for his family.

Clearly I inherited a lot from my father, but, just as clearly, I am not him. To know who I am, I had to differentiate myself from him. To do that, I had to know all about him. I had to know more than just the cherished image of a media darling with his good looks and a talent for a great quote.

But just as importantly, I had to accept his genius, his uniqueness and his popularity. It must have been a tough job being a father and keeping the Graham Hill show on the road. But within the world that he created and the zeitgeist of the Sixties and early Seventies, I formed a view of the world and a set of beliefs about it.

The early legend of Graham Hill describes a young man not content to have a safe passage towards retirement. He jacked in his safe job with Smiths Instruments to risk all on motor racing.

He had no idea how it would turn out, but he gambled, and he won. A story my father was very proud to tell was that he and Harry Hyams – who was to become a very successful, not to say notorious, property developer – were identified as the ‘two boys least likely to succeed’ by their headmaster.

Formula One Motor Racing Former World Formula One Champion Graham Hill (r) turns around to make sure his son Damon (l) is securely strapped into his child safety seat. Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

Dad had a strong, independent spirit and faith enough in his own instincts to stick two fingers up to those who would try to define or limit him. Being ‘press-ganged’ through national service into the navy did nothing to change his attitude towards authority, but I have a feeling it did more for him that he ever cared to acknowledge.

In his autobiography, Life at the Limit, he gives credit to the navy for teaching him a great deal about life; notably, the officer training where he learnt public speaking – of which he became something of a brilliant exponent in later life. He also learned leadership by being placed in charge of about forty to fifty ‘chaps’, something he must have found useful when he had his own team.

I have no doubt his navy discipline helped when he had the gruesome task of taking charge of the shell-shocked Lotus team after Jimmy Clark was killed at Hockenheim in 1968.

Years later when I was racing, I was sitting in the bar of an hotel when Clark’s mechanic, Dave ‘Beaky’ Sims, sat next to me. He related the story of how my father had told them all what to do: to collect all the bits of the car they could find, to put them in the truck and to drive to the port and not to stop for anyone; just get back to the factory as quickly as possible. He said they would have not known what to do had it not been for Graham’s courage and leadership.

Indeed, my father went on to rebuild the confidence of a stricken and broken team by winning the F1 Championship later that year. Impressive stuff, really. The episode was to have a sad parallel in my own career when we lost Ayrton Senna.

Without doubt, I took strength from this story, but the situations were otherwise very different. I was not in a position to take control of the team like he had, nor did I go on to win the Championship, but otherwise I was hugely inspired by his example. A very positive legacy.

He also credited the navy with some seamier lessons in life, such as how to get plastered by noon every day. Unbelievably, the navy still issued tots of rum for the officers – a tot being a whole eighth of a pint of neat rum – at twelve o’clock.

Another eye-opener was a visit to Tangiers, where he thanks the navy for introducing him to something he called ‘an exhibition’ and ‘extracurricular activities’. We can only imagine what he might have been referring to there.

I think it is sufficient to say that he went into the navy an innocent, but came home less innocent. What he also did, though – a variation on the theme of ships passing in the night – was visit Monaco.

His ship, HMS Swiftsure, docked in Monaco in 1951 and off went Dad to the casino, where he says he won ‘a few bob’, not having any idea that one day he would become known as Mr Monaco after winning the race five times and hobnobbing with the Rainiers.

He admitted that, at the time, he had no idea there was a Grand Prix there at all, and knew nothing about racing. Still slightly innocent, then. He would win a hell of a lot more ‘bobs’ at Monaco in the years to come.

Motor Racing - Graham Hill British racing driver Graham Hill (file pic). Source: PA Archive/PA Images

My father was not impressed that the navy took two whole years out of his life when he felt he could have learnt it all in one; a very typical attitude from a would-be racing driver. He also took a dim view of having to go back for the next three years to do three weeks on, which is why he grew a ridiculous moustache, which he described as ‘RAF fighter pilot’. He knew only clean-shaven or a full set was permitted, but he seemed to have got them flustered and thoroughly revelled in his ‘anti-stupid-rules’ attitude. He enjoyed seeing them go puce with rage at this early version of a long-haired hippy.

But he gave the navy a dilemma. Dad was expressing his freedom in a way they didn’t approve of, but could do nothing about. He was hardly Che Guevara, but he was clearly ready for something different; a life in which he was free to live as he pleased. While he was still ‘property’ of the navy, he met a woman called Bette Shubrook.

Why my father wanted to marry my mother will always remain a mystery. It was a mystery to him; or, at least, he had trouble acknowledging how he truly felt about her. He might have been prompted to propose by a love rival when – at her house one day – he discovered she had all the papers necessary to move to Canada with another man. I think this must have rather hurt his pride. He clearly didn’t like the idea of coming second in any situation.

In his autobiography he talks of proposing to her, even though he thought he wasn’t the marrying type. He says that he heard himself say the words but felt as if wasn’t really him talking. In my mother’s book, The Other Side of the Hill, she has a slightly more detailed recollection. Her reaction was to say: ‘What on earth are you talking about?’ ‘I don’t want you to go – marry me,’ he insisted. To which she replied that he must be out of his mind, because he didn’t have any money. ‘Well, are you going to marry me or not?’ was his final offer.

INVESTITURE Damon Hill Race ace Damon Hill, who followed his father's tracks to become world motor racing champion, with his wife Georgie at Buckingham Palace in 1997. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Because he’d already started racing, the only free weekend on which they could get married was 13 August 1955. Their honeymoon was punctuated by – if not carefully arranged around – various sporting events in which my father took part. He based himself at Bognor Regis for easy access to Goodwood, where he had scrounged a few laps in someone’s car. And then he ‘met a mate’ – quite by chance, of course – who was competing in a regatta on the Isle of Wight and asked my father to join him. Rather than explaining that he was on his honeymoon, Dad accepted – and they won the event. This might perhaps have placated his new wife if he hadn’t greatly upset her by kissing the famous singer Carole Carr (‘this lovely bird’ as he refers to her in his book), who was dishing out the prizes. What a great honeymoon!

I’m not sure that the pattern changed much over the duration of their entire marriage. My father did what he wanted and my mother slotted in behind, always slightly shortchanged. I fear I could be accused of the same thing but, in my defence, I was indoctrinated by the master himself. It took a good woman to show me the error of my ways, or rather, his ways, but not before I had pulled a similar stunt on our honeymoon, albeit under a bit more pressure than my father

Watching the Wheels: My Autobiography by Damon Hill is published by Macmillan. More info here.

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