Damon Hill’s four-wheeled journey took him all the way to the 1996 Formula 1 title but back at the beginning, he was reluctant to get off his motorbike.
The British driver took an alternative route to the grid compared to many F1 champions. His is a fascinating F1 story, having been born straight into a racing family. Bruce McLaren and Sir Stirling Moss even attended Hill’s christening.
Damon’s father Graham Hill won the Formula 1 title in 1962 and 1968, going down as one of his generation’s greats before he was killed in a plane crash. Having lost the family breadwinner, the Hills lost most of their financial fortune.
Damon, who was 15 when his father died, worked as a labourer and motorcycle courier. It was two-wheeled machines that sparked his love for motorsport.
“I saw two brothers riding this monkey bike round and, obviously, part of my brain is going: ‘That looks fun’ and I must have had ‘Can I have a go?’ written on my face or something because they let me have a go,” Hill told Fuelling Around.
“I used to go off with my mates at home in Mill Hill and we’d go on adventures on our bicycles. Being on two wheels, I understood.
“I do wonder about that because my dad actually started off on motorbikes, he also did scrambling, and broke his leg quite badly. He had a bad limp because of a crash on a motorbike. My grandma rode a motorbike. My grandad never drove a car in his life. He didn’t have a driving licence and I do think my grandma passed on some experience through genetics.”
The Hampstead-born Englishman was successful on two wheels but would be persuaded into car racing, with his mother fearful about the dangers of motorcycle racing.
“I won a lot of races and actually that happened at roughly the same time that I took up car racing – or my mum met a person who said: ‘He ought to get off that bike and try cars because he’s going to hurt himself'”, Hill added.
“That’s how I got off two wheels and into four wheels. I have to say I didn’t like it at first.
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“I just didn’t like being strapped into a cockpit. It felt very claustrophobic and a car didn’t accelerate like a motorbike did. It had no oomph. Until you get more power, you can’t drive it like a motorbike because a motorbike has got way more power than a contact patch.
“It wasn’t until you get more power in a racing car, or it was wet, that I could actually do something with the damn thing because they’re like a dead weight.”
Eventually Hill grew to like four-wheeled racing. He became Williams test driver in 1991 before suddenly being thrust onto the grid with the struggling Brabham outfit in 1992 – competing in eight races before the team imploded mid-season.
In 1993, Hill claims that he paved the way for the likes of Oscar Piastri to step up from a reserve role into a full-time seat – partnering Alain Prost at Williams after Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese’s departure. He finally seized his Grand Prix chance aged 33, when many drivers ordinarily retire by then.
The Brit would pack 22 Grand Prix victories into his career before retiring in 1999, having beaten Jaques Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher to the ’96 title.