Damon Hill’s soft-spoken gentle lilt is almost unreal for a man who has lived his life around the deafening din of racing cars. Thrice he was asked by the noisy media pack in Mumbai to speak up – urged to go a pitch higher — and three times, the former motor-racing World champion continued in quietest tones. It was the voice of a man unhustled, unruffled by all the hubbub of the Mumbai Marathon (where he is brand ambassador this year), three days away now. It was also the voice of a man who has seen death very closely in life.
Damon Hill’s claim to fame is two-fold: he won the Formula One World Championship in 1996 – making him the only son of a world champion (Graham Hill, 1962, ‘68) to have also won the world championship. And more enthrallingly while racing on the track himself, he was Michael Schumacher’s earliest arch rival.
While he lost his father to a plane crash in 1975, he’d also seen team-mate Ayrton Senna killed in a car-crash in 1994. A further 20 years on, Hill was shocked to hear about Schumacher finding himself in a fateful ski accident late last year that left the seven-time world champion in an induced coma.
The German may have been Hill’s fiercest rival during his racing career. But the 53-year-old reflected the sombre mood within the F1 community. “It’s definitely a cloud hanging over Formula One because Michael has been such a large part of the sport. We’re all shocked, deeply concerned and praying for his family and for him,” Hill said.
The F1 champ, though, put risk-taking into perspective when saying, “But Micheal loved skiing and he loved life and we all, I suppose, come from a similar make-up. There are millions who go skiing and I’m sure that won’t change. This reminds us of our vulnerabilty and how precious life is. Taking precautions is a must and racing drivers are extremely cautious.”
Calling it a definite cloud hanging over Formula One, he added, “I race in F1, you’re going to meet the best of the best. Micheal went on to become the best of them all. You cannot hope anything better than that. Micheal gave everyone in F1 that opportunity to really take on somebody that talented. We owe Micheal an enormous amount of gratitude.”
Yet, when the two went head-to-head against each other in the early-to-mid 90s, scorching circuits around the world, it led to fire crackling chemistry, of the rivalry-kinds. The intensity of this face-off reached its peak in the 1994 season which saw Schumacher pip the British driver by a single point in the final standings after the two drivers failed to finish the season’s final race at the Australian GP.
In controversial circumstances, with Hill following closely, Schumacher, then with Benetton-Ford realised a malfunction in his opponent’s car and collided with him while negotiating a turn, effectively ending the race and taking away Hill’s first chance of winning the championship. Recalling their equation, while adding that he rarely met Schumacher outside of the tracks, Hill says, “He was controversial. He approached his racing in a very quiet way.
He pushed limits but that’s just what sport is and you have to contend with that. My competition, Hakinnen, Coulthard, Alonso, everyone had the chance to race against him. He was intensely competitive and you couldn’t ask for more,” he added.
Hill moved on to TV punditry back in London in retirement, and the F1 legend has also watched son Josh, who tried a bit-stint in racing himself, switch careers to music last year. Himself inclined towards music, and looking like an ageing dapper rock guitarist, Hill joked about being called in as an ambassador for a marathon over the weekend.
“It’s odd at an event like this for me to say that running is not my thing,” he said, smiling. “Us drivers need to focus a lot on physical fitness, and so I had gone to the gym. I tried the treadmill and I got spat off the back! It’s probably the heavy bones and big feet, but I’m just not adaptive to running,” he quipped.
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