“If you want a manual on how not to carve out a career in motor sport,” Damon Hill suggests halfway through his new autobiography, “my story is a good place to start.” And it’s certainly true that Watching the Wheels, the story of a man struggling to fashion not only a career but an identity, contains a great deal of turmoil and anguish along the path to success and redemption.
“During my career I was always confused about whether I was authentically a racing driver or someone tasked with a mission to complete before I could become my true self,” he writes – a thought that will probably never cross Max Verstappen’s mind.
As the autobiographies of world champions go, this one is a packet of surprises. It turns out that winning the world championship 20 years ago, at the age of 36, after a late start and faltering progress, did not deliver an automatic happy-ever-after ending. In his introduction, Hill sets the scene for an exercise in self-analysis by confessing that, several years after his climactic victory at Suzuka memorably brought a lump to Murray Walker’s throat, he fell into a depression so profound that it took the ministrations of a therapist to extricate him from the slough of despond.
What is not a surprise is that he traces the cause of his depression to the death of his father, the charismatic double champion , when Damon was 15 – “the night the points on the railway track of our lives were instantly switched from one destination to a completely unanticipated one”. Not only was he deprived of an adored (although complicated and often absent) father at a crucial time in his adolescence, he and his mother and two sisters were to discover that, because important documents had not been kept in order, the insurance policies were invalid. The consequences effectively ruined them.
It was in trying to handle his depression by analysing its source that Damon came to a better understanding of his parents. “We don’t like to speak ill of the dead,” he writes, “but I had to know what the truth was about adults if I wanted to be one myself.”
Bette and Graham Hill were in the glamorous, seemingly carefree 1960s.
But things are seldom exactly as they seem. Here is their son’s description of the strain his father endured when he started running his own team: “I can remember seeing him return home one night in a cloth cap and a long brown mac, looking for all the world like his own dad. He poured himself a whisky, which was most unlike him. I went back to watching the TV.
My dad was learning about the hard-knock life of real business, as opposed to the charmed life of a racing driver. It worried my mother sick, especially when he began staying out late at the Clermont Club and Annabel’s.”
The son’s account of how he reacted to the catastrophe that ultimately befell the family by drifting through his final school years and a variety of low-profile jobs as a labourer and a motorbike courier is unsparing and honest. It is part of a fine-grained analysis of a childhood and adolescence that produced a man whose insecurity made him a vulnerable figure in the cynical paddock, once he had come to believe that being a racing driver offered his life some sort of meaning – as well as, more importantly, a means of supporting his own young family. His inner conflict was evident to anyone who knew him when he was struggling to establish himself in the top flight and trying to retain control of his destiny.
Many will pick up the book and turn straight to the chapters in which he deals with the events leading up to , his team-mate, at Imola in 1994 and the fatal crash itself. They will be rewarded with a pretty persuasive analysis of an accident for which there will never be a definitive explanation. Hill believes that nothing broke on the car, but that Senna crashed through a combination of circumstantial factors. Those include the prominent ripples on the track surface, lowered tyre pressures through spending several laps behind the safety car, and Senna’s ferocious determination to stay ahead of Michael Schumacher’s pursuing Benetton, spurred by “the thought in Ayrton’s mind”, as Hill puts it, “that Michael might have been cheating”.
He is good on the inner world of Formula One, with its “continual presumption of untrustworthiness”. He did not always cope well, as he recognises in his description of the circumstances leading to the discovery that Frank Williams had decided to dump him midway through the season in which he was finally getting the better of Schumacher. The tensions underlying that season are explored in fascinating depth.
Nor does he duck the confusion of his last three seasons in F1, when a series of unfortunate decisions took him first to Arrows, where he was forced to defend his title in a car barely capable of making the grid, and then into the arms of Eddie Jordan. Having presented the Irishman’s team with its maiden grand prix win at Spa in 1998, he pulled into the pits at Suzuka halfway through his final race with the team the following season, calling it a day amid a mixture of “sadness that it had ended like this, relief that I was unhurt and alive, and shame that I had let the team down”.
Once he had made the decision, he needed to find a new meaning to his life. “Everything I had gone through was motivated by the desire to restore and repair all the damage that was done to the Hills in 1975,” he writes. He had succeeded, although the legacy of that distant trauma ensured that he continued to live with the fear of having it all snatched away again.
The afterlife of this particular world champion has not always been easy, thanks to the fight against depression and a couple of unsatisfactory business ventures, but the upside includes a decision to resume the educational path he left almost 40 years ago by getting a degree in English literature with the Open University – and getting a first. That may have encouraged him to tell a remarkable story in his own words, and to do so with eloquence, directness and insight.
Watching the Wheels by Damon Hill is published on 8 September by Macmillan (£20)