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Wednesday 18 October 2017

Hill father and son went to the very top in Formula One

Book review - Alan Aherne

Watching The Wheels
Watching The Wheels

For a long time now I've harboured what can only be regarded as an unusual fascination with Formula One motor racing.

You see, I can't recall the last time I watched the sport live on television, and I'm not particularly interested in the modern day drivers. As for cars, I know nothing about them and I'm just happy when my own one starts every morning and gets me from A to B.

Yet, I've always been drawn to some of the sport's personalities of the past who were brave enough to sit behind the wheel and put their lives at risk in an era when fatalities were all too common.

I've pointed out before that Ayrton Senna is my all-time sporting idol, and his death at the Tamburello corner during the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in 1994 sent shockwaves around the world as he was arguably the greatest driver of all time.

His Williams team-mate for that fateful race was Damon Hill, and that was enough to entice me to read the English driver's autobiography, 'Watching The Wheels', which was released last year to mark the 20th anniversary of his sole world championship success.

I was keen to get his insight into Senna's mood before that race, what his take was on the accident itself, and how the Williams camp managed to cope in the immediate aftermath of one of the most traumatic weekends ever for the sport as Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger had been killed on the same track less than 24 hours before.

However, there's so much more to this book which I must say was a pleasant surprise on the whole. Indeed, I would class it as the best autobiography of a sportsperson I have read in a considerable length of time.

Hill was born into motor racing royalty as his father, Graham, was the only driver ever to win the sport's elusive triple crown: the Formula One championship (twice), the Le Mans 24 Hours, and the Indianapolis 500.

However, he died in tragic circumstances in 1975 at the age of 46, shortly after his retirement, when the six-seat aeroplane he was piloting crashed in foggy conditions near a golf course in north London.

He had set up his own racing team, and all six died in the accident which occurred as they returned from car testing in France.

Damon was just 15 at the time, the only boy of the family with one older and one younger sister. He is remarkably open and frank about the loss of his father at a time when they were starting to bond like never before as the teenager took his first steps towards manhood.

When Graham was starring in Formula One he was one of the most famous sports personalities in England, and there's a strong sense from Damon that it wasn't easy 'sharing' his father so to speak with the rest of the country as he was in such high demand.

And then, so soon after his retirement and with more time to devote to his children, his death was naturally a traumatic blow. Damon says that for years after it seemed as if every move his family could make was dictated by accountants and lawyers.

His first love was for motorbikes, and his ambition was to be the next Barry Sheene who was Britain's idol on two wheels at the time.

He eventually followed in his father's footsteps though, making his debut as a Formula One driver at the age of 32 in 1992.

And though his time at the top level was relatively short - he retired in 1999 - the high point came in 1996 when he won the world drivers' championship at a stage when he was living near Killiney, having moved here for tax purposes.

Hill is extremely candid about the depression that engulfed him when he stepped away from the sport, and he tells his story in a most engaging manner. The book is self-written and he's done a superb job on the whole; I would highly recommend it.

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