Damon Hill on how he helped break test driver’s ‘dead-end job’ mould

Henry Valantine
Damon Hill in the paddock. in Sao Paulo.

1996 World Champion Damon Hill walks through the paddock.

Damon Hill feels he was the first driver to “convert” the pure test driver role into a reserve one in Formula 1, after his roundabout entry into the sport.

He earned a test drive with Williams in 1991 before being given an unexpected Formula 1 debut with Brabham the following year, with the team struggling financially and Hill taking part in eight race weekends before the team subsequently folded, all while testing with the dominant Williams outfit.

With Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese both leaving the team at the end of 1992, Hill found himself in the team alongside Alain Prost for the following season, and he feels the fact he was around in the paddock at the time and showed early potential with Brabham helped his cause.

Along with this, the eventual 1996 World Champion believes this marked a shift from teams having specified test drivers and moulding the role into a reserve capacity, which enabled drivers to fill in where needed.

He admitted there is an element of being a “vulture” to that kind of role, but feels his step up to Williams paved the way for what would become the reserve driver role that is seen throughout the Formula 1 grid today, particularly as in-season testing has gradually been fazed out of the sport.

“In one mighty leap I went from no job, mortgage, handicapped child and married to being a test driver for Williams,” Hill explained of his F1 beginnings on the Fuelling Around podcast.

“Then all it took was for Nigel Mansell to suddenly decide he didn’t want to race for Williams and suddenly I’m in the bloody seat with Alain Prost.

“You’re a bit of a vulture, you’re sitting there on a branch hoping that someone slips on a banana skin. Obviously, you don’t wish that, but if someone gets Covid and they can’t drive, you’re in. That’s it, in you go.

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“At that time it was seen as a dead-end job. Basically, if you were a test driver you were a failed racing driver. I really was the first guy to convert, I think, and I’m sure historians will pick me up on this.

“It became, after that, a sought-after job to be a test driver or reserve. You weren’t the reserve [at that time], you literally just were the test driver.”

Regarding his own move specifically, Hill believes the fact he had tested the team’s current car helped him on his way, given he already knew the team and how the car worked, despite the now-unusual characteristic of being a Formula 1 rookie in his 30s.

“The thing that was slightly odd in my case was that I worked on the active car so I was one of the very, very few people who had the experience of these strange beasts,” added Hill.

“I think that’s why I got the gig because I was familiar, I knew the engineers and I knew how it worked and other people kind of had to get used to it.”