Passing through

The Thorn in Schumi’s Flesh

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Damon Hill, 1996 F1 World champion, on the delusions of daredevils and his battle with Michael Schumacher
The vast lobby of the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai, with its white Thassos marble floor and musical notes floating out of a bright red piano custom built in Germany, is a setting of luxurious tranquility. But Damon Hill, the British Formula 1 World champion of 1996 who sits by a large window facing the Arabian Sea, knows the fragility of this sense of well-being. He doesn’t say it but his wise eyes under thick dark eyebrows do. It is not known whether Hill, the rare driver to have defeated Michael Schumacher at his peak, is aware that in this very lobby five years ago there was terrorism and carnage. But Hill has seen enough tragedy in his own life.

Damon Hill was born into privilege. He was the son of 1962 and 1968 Formula 1 World champion Graham Hill. Graham and Damon Hill are the only father and son to conquer the top prize in F1. At the height of Graham Hill’s fame and fortune, he, his wife and their three children lived in a 25-room mansion in Hertfordshire. But in 1975, when Damon was 15, Graham Hill (senior) died when the twin-engine plane he was flying crashed on a foggy night. The Hills no longer had the same means. As a young man, Hill had to work as a construction labourer and motorcycle courier to earn a livelihood.

“It was hugely traumatic,” Hill says of his father’s death. “It just makes you a bit more philosophical, reflective about what life is all about. You have to change your expectations and adapt to the way life is rather than what you want it to be. They say it’s character building. I don’t like that expression—it sounds like corporal punishment.”

He laughs when he says the last bit. He has a serious face but also a sudden hearty laugh that reaches his eyes. He turns serious again and says, “It instills a… once you know what you are dealing with, it makes you determined and tolerant of disappointment.”

Of the family’s adjustment to the new economic realities of their life, Hill says, “When you are young, it is not a problem. I did not cry over it. In a way, it was a good lesson for a young person, not being dependent, not expecting advantages. I was just following the model my parents followed.

They lived through World War II, everyone just picked up the pieces and got on with life. But [my father’s death] was much, much harder for my mum. My mum lost everything, a husband, financial security, social status, and she had to worry about the kids.”

Hill, 53, and a father of four himself, had jet black hair in his racing days. He is almost completely grey now. Pronounced nasolabial lines and a goatee are the other defining features of his face. He is in Mumbai to promote the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. He sits in a chair with a slate grey cushion and once or twice adjusts the square red pillow behind his back. While answering questions, he often gazes out of the floor to ceiling glass panels to his left. Right outside is a lawn. Small garden plants dance in the 4 o’ clock breeze. Beyond the lawn and the road is the sea and tip of Malabar Hill with Raj Bhuvan, the official residence of Maharashtra’s governor.

A love for speed and racing was hardwired in Hill. After working small jobs, taking loans and paying his dues in motorcycle racing, Hill finally got his F1 break in 1992, at age 31. There were obstacles ahead. Due to his late entry in the sport, he only had a few years to prove himself. Two, being Graham Hill’s son he bore that weight of expectations. Three, he was racing in arguably F1’s toughest years. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, the icons of the sport, were still roaring on the track. Then there were hungry young drivers like Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen and Rubens Barrichello. But Hill had ability, and soon a good car too (Williams). In 1993, just his second season, he finished a creditable third behind Prost and Senna.

Then came the two days in April and May 1994 that changed F1 and Hill’s career.

On 30 April, during the second qualifying of the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy, Roland Ratzenberger, a rookie Austrian driver, failed to make a right turn and slammed into a wall at almost 315 kmph. The car, one side blown to bits, spun off the walls and came to a halt. As rescuers ran towards the car, Ratzenberger’s head, a red and white helmet still on, dropped to its side. He was dead. In the Williams paddock, Senna, the sport’s cult figure, a daredevil with the face of an enigmatic poet, tried to comprehend the accident, briefly discussing it with a technician, thrusting his left palm forward to indicate the path of the car, and walked back out of sight of the cameras. A day later, another car rammed into a wall. Another slumped helmet. This time, yellow with a green band. Senna’s.

Hill saw all that. He and Senna were both driving for Williams. This was not the first time he had lost a teammate. In 1986, coming up the ranks, he had witnessed the death of a driver named Bertrand Fabi, a would-be teammate. But on both occasions Hill went on record to indicate that he would continue to race and nurse his passion for speed.

In the Oberoi lobby, with the piano in the background and having just consumed a cup of aromatic coffee, and, from the evidence of the buttery crumbs on a plate in front of him, a small cookie or two as well, Hill considers a question about what place fear has in the construct of men with hazardous passions. “Maybe we are all slightly deluded,” he says. “Damien Hirst’s piece of art, the shark in a tank, is [about] the impossibility of death in the mind of someone living.” The work, a real dead shark in a tank filled with formaldehyde, is really called that: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. (The tabloid The Sun had another name for the expensive exhibit—‘£50,000 for Fish Without Chips’). Hill adds, “It is impossible for us to not think of being, so we kind of put it out of our mind.”

So he doesn’t feel fear, then. “You feel fear,” he says. “Ayrton [Senna] said fear comes around you when you get into the car. You have to be aware of the risk. You’d be a liability if you weren’t. The challenge is to do it right. Spectators like to see accidents, I know, but for a driver [an accident] is a failure because he’s made a mistake and is not going to get a result [from the race]. Attention has as much to do with winning as not making a mistake. It’s about that and not about worrying whether you are going to get hurt.”

Senna’s death pitchforked Hill into the position of Williams’ team leader. He was adequate to the challenge, and helped in part by a disqualification of Schumacher in the British Grand Prix and his being barred from the subsequent two races. Hill was close to the title, but a crash with Schumacher in the season’s final decisive race in Adelaide denied him the Championship by one point. Some followers of the sport still believe the crash was deliberate on Schumacher’s part. Asked if there was animosity between him and the German, Hill says, “Animosity is a negative emotion. Frustration, yes. Michael was tough to beat. But ultimately, I realised I just had to get on and focus on my job.”

Hill does agree when asked if some of Schumacher’s tactics pushed the boundaries of fair play. “Yes, it was no secret that his approach was pretty uncompromising to winning and sports. He stepped over the line a few times of what most people would like to see in sports. He was certainly a controversial competitor, but there’s no denying his ability, competitive urge, determination to win time after time.” Hill is saddened that this winning machine who infuriated him at times but who also brought out the best in him and with whom he had champagne baths on the podium several times, this very picture of health and vigour, now lies in coma in a hospital in France. “Everyone’s still in shock. It was a horrible thing to happen and has affected everyone in the sport.”

In 1996, Hill finally won the title. Though he had the advantage of an efficient car, it was a remarkable achievement because he clinched it only in the last race of the season, in Suzuka, Japan. Two, he did it despite having been dumped by his team for the next season.

“It’s a relief because you know [that morning] that you are going to find out [the result] that afternoon. You don’t have to wait six months,” he says of the most important day of his career in Suzuka. “You get to a point where you just have to have faith in fate. It could go either way. Villeneuve’s wheel came off (Jacques Villeneuve, his closest rival that season, finished second). It could have happened to my car. So how much of it is a roll of the dice, I don’t know.”

After the win, there was elation and more relief. “Slowly, it becames a reality. At first, it’s not a reality,” Hill says. He was, like his father, a Formula 1 champion. He’d never have to do odd jobs again, for one. Not that they weren’t fun. Hill narrates a story from his courier days.

“I was working as a motorcycle despatch during the week, racing motorbikes on Saturdays and cars on Sundays. I don’t know what my insurance profile was then. Riding my motorbike through the streets of London and being paid for it… I couldn’t think of a better job. This [story] goes back to the pre-internet days. Ad agencies would [physically] deliver artwork, and sometimes it was too big for the bike. One time I remember there was this artwork that was three square foot. I lost it in a tunnel in Knightsbridge. I came out of the tunnel, realised it had gone…” Again, the full laugh. “Had to go back all the way around Piccadilly and back into the tunnel. The artwork was still there. I thought ‘Oh great.’ Then a taxi went right over it.”

Consequences?

“Embarrassment.”

Another time, he lost his consignment twice. “It had to get from Chelsea to Fleet Street in ten minutes. When I got there, I realised I had lost the artwork. Luckily, there was a copy. I picked it up but lost that too. This time, I did not want to go back.”

Hill is asked about contemporary Formula 1, especially its seemingly unfair financial structure where a new driver has to bring in hefty sponsorship, $10 million and upwards, for just a chance to race. For Indians in particular, participation in the sport is beyond reach. Even the lower leagues of the sport do not come cheap. In an interview to a youth portal, Karun Chandhok, one of only two Indians to race in Formula 1 (Narain Karthikeyan being the other), said, “To do Formula 3, you are looking at [a sum of] Rs 3-3.5 crore, to do GP-2 you are looking at £1.7 million, which is about Rs 10 crore.” Couldn’t Formula 1 sponsor talented drivers?

“I won’t disagree,” Hill says. “That really was the responsibility of the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, governing body of world motorsport). They have somehow failed in their duty to police that side of things, in making sure some of their profits are put back in the sport to help build the pyramid. Their duty is to be guardians of the entire project, not just one group. It’s gone out of their hands.”

The conversation cannot end without a mention of Hill’s brush with music. As a teenager, he was a member of a band with a rather understated name—Sex, Hitler and the Hormones.

“It was a stupid schoolboy name for our punk band,” Hill says. “Everyone was trying to outrage everyone. When you are 16, you see the Sex Pistols and punk rock comes up, you get very excited. It was a joke name. But it was a very bad joke. Bad taste was the fashion those days. We did a couple of shows. It didn’t last. Which is not surprising.”

A little short of musical Hall of Fame, was it?

“Consigned to the dustbin of pop.”

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