Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Damon Hill's Bravest Day |
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Damon Hill's Bravest Day

In his championship year, I wrote and presented a television special in which Damon Hill said a lot of good things, but he was a guest on my weekly studio talk show when he said his best thing: ‘What’s the hurry?’ His frustrating last season was coming to an end. It would have been easy to blame a slow car: the Arrows had some promise, but it was a farm tractor compared with the Williams he was used to. There was no need for him to admit that his motivation was gone. But it was, so he said so. Self-deprecating candour is typical of him, although nobody should ever underestimate his fierce pride: an abundance of confidence was the main reason why he could afford not to bottle up his honesty.

The scene he was evoking was the mad drag between the starting grid and the first corner on the opening lap of a Grand Prix — any Grand Prix. He had lived with that hurtling potential shambles for the whole of his career, and the day had come when he asked himself this question: the day to quit. The great drivers are never suicidal, but in the matter of the time taken between two given points they must have nothing else in mind except the minimum. Damon had his world championship and was unlikely to get another. He had a wonderful family he loved to be with. He had reached the point where he could weigh his achievements against the risks of going on. He had reached the point where he had started to think. Possessing a good, well-stocked brain to think with, he could reach only one conclusion.

The German writer Ernst Jünger drew a distinction between the generals whose broad view of life helped them to fight well and the generals who fought even better because they were interested in nothing else. There was something to it. The principle can be applied usefully to the top rank of British racing drivers since World War II. Jim Clark, the most conspicuously talented even at the level where supreme talent is a common property, was fully focused on driving. So was Nigel Mansell when he wasn’t playing golf with Greg Norman. Mike Hawthorn was too much of a gentleman, James Hunt too much of a wastrel: they both had too much to them. Stirling Moss would have won at least one world championship if he had not been a patriot: for a crucial part of his career he condemned himself to the wrong cars just so as to fly the flag, and when he signed for Mercedes the small print said that he had to come second to Fangio.

The principle breaks down, however, when it is applied to Jackie Stewart. Clever and complex enough to run a business empire and a whole racing team of his own, even better at the social round in Monaco than Damon’s father, Jackie Stewart was nevertheless the fully equipped, undistractedly dedicated winning animal. Later on he used the position he had gained by his abilities to transform the sport through placing a new emphasis on safety. It is largely due to him that drivers now walk away from the kind of crash that once killed several of them a season. On various occasions which they forgot instantly but which I treasure as fringe-dwellers always do, I have sat down to dine with four drivers who came back from what once would have been certain death: Niki Lauda, Gerhard Berger, John Watson and Mika Hakkinen. Admittedly I also talked with two who died: Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna. But they both had accidents so freakish that nothing could have saved them. On the whole, anything that can be done for safety in an inherently dangerous sport has been done, and all because of Stewart. This achievement has rather taken the shine off what he was like as a driver. It should be remembered that when he was in the car the last thing he was thinking of was whether the helicopter was properly fuelled up to take him to hospital. He was thinking of nothing except getting in front and staying there: an aim to which he brought such an intensity of motivation that he has ever since been unable to quell it even when a passenger in a limousine — he is a notorious back-seat driver. Any slow car would become faster when he drove it, but that was not a point he was keen to prove. He took the best machinery by right: the mark of the driver for whom coming first comes first, for whom the sport is a means to an end.

Damon wasn’t quite like that. If he had been, he would have taken his chance with McLaren after Frank Williams let him go. McLaren offered a relatively low basic salary but a bonus for each win. Though the wins would never have been a sure thing, in the McLaren he might have got them. In the Arrows he couldn’t possibly, but he listened to his financial advisers and went for the guaranteed stipend. It made financial sense — with a family to protect against the press, he could not forgo his estate and its upkeep — but it didn’t make racing sense. For the true, compulsive winner, no other kind of sense comes into question. Even for Michael Schumacher, who makes more money than anybody, the money is a tool: if Ferrari had not come through for him with a winning car, he would have left them flat.

In his racing years, Alain Prost was a thinker — ‘the Professor’ was the right nickname — but he never let ratiocination get in the way of winning. Towards the end of his career, when he dealt himself out of a race in Japan because of the heavy rain, it was a sign that he was done with it. Ayrton Senna didn’t live long enough to reach the reasonable moment. He had winning like a disease, and one of the secrets of his mastery was the realisation by the other drivers that he would drive right through them if they didn’t give him room. He thought it was God’s will that he should ram his rival for the championship (it was Prost), remove both Prost and himself from the track, and so, while losing the race, win the championship on points. Schumacher behaved the same way early on, to the cost of Hill among others. Later Schumacher behaved differently, but he still felt the same way. Leaving Nuvolari and Fangio aside, Schumacher is probably the greatest driver we know about, but one of the reasons is that he has so little difficulty imitating an automaton. Even Senna was more complex. At one point Senna interrupted his colloquy with the Almighty and got off with Elle McPherson. The chances of Schumacher doing such a thing are the chances of his being the driver of the next cab you hail.

To my mind, and not just because I am Australian by birth, Jack Brabham was the most interesting of all the drivers because he won championships in a car he had designed — a car that revolutionised the sport. (If you see a list of world-beating Australian expatriates that leaves Brabham’s name out, throw it away: its compiler has no imagination.) But that made Brabham interesting as a driver. As a man, he lived in a motor-racing world. The interest of a man like Damon Hill, when he was still driving, was that he lived in a world bigger than his profession. It can be a handicap. Argentina’s Carlos Reutemann, a Williams driver well capable of pushing the car to its dizzy limit, was such a philosopher that he could walk away, look at the sunset, and decide not to race again. Frank Williams found to his horror that he had hired Diogenes. Damon was never quite like that, but life eventually got into his mind even when he had the hammer down, and when life does that it brings the thought of death with it. You can’t get one of those cars out of second gear unless you feel immortal.

Not that a great driver is reckless. There have been some quite good ones who were, but they moved into the past tense at an early stage. Usually they got fired before they could get killed, or else just never made it into Formula One in the first place. An F1 car costs millions if you count in its share of the development outlay, and the owners never like to see one of them scuffed up without good reason. As a passenger in the front seat of a car you can afford to buy, I have been driven on the road or on an empty track by several of the F1 drivers. Three of them were world champions: Nelson Picquet, Alan Jones and Damon Hill. Derek Warwick’s career was cut short when Lotus reneged on his contract because Senna wanted no rival in the team. (In his last year alive, I missed the chance to be driven by Senna in a Honda NSX: he turned up a day late at Goodwood, and I thought there might be another time.) Warwick drove me on the highway from his hotel to Monza. The following year I watched him at Le Mans driving the Jaguar racing sports car at 240mph on the Mulsanne straight at dead of night, but his driving then didn’t look any faster than how it felt to me that day on the highway. It was like being the narrator in Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata: all the cars we went past seemed stationary. Moss was an education in ordinary English motorway traffic: his little Peugeot threaded between the lorries like a magic bullet through an undulating canyon. On the Adelaide Grand Prix circuit which had been closed down for our appearance, Alan Jones drove me in a Lamborghini Diablo he had never touched before and hated on sight: top gear was the only one he could find except reverse, and I got several chances to study the Armco as we slithered towards it at a hundred plus. Picquet sometimes looked like a madman on the track but on the road he drove as if he wanted to live, so that he could sleep with more women.

What united all the great drivers, when they were driving on an ordinary road with normal human beings, was that they made you feel safe even as the landscape outside the window turned into a smear. They were so in synch with the car that they could let it perform at its optimum while keeping all their attention on the road ahead. I even felt safe with Jones in the Diablo: he had to wrestle the beast, but he knew exactly what was going on. As the great Australian poet Kenneth Slessor wrote about the effect of Captain Cook’s navigational magic on his crew, Men who ride broomsticks with a mesmerist/Mock the typhoon. The same went double for Damon Hill, who gave me the fastest ride of all. After the Hungarian Grand Prix in his championship year, we were hurrying to the airport to catch a private jet to Bulgaria. There was a police motorcycle escort to clear our side of the road so that Damon could keep his foot down. Though I pretended, on the soundtrack of the documentary, that I thought of nothing but imminent death, the truth was more complicated. He was too good at his job to take even the tiniest risk off the track. On the track, he upped the ante, as they all do until the day comes when they want to get up from the game and go home.

It might even have happened to Senna one day. All the talk about how his early death preserved him in his glory is just bad poetry. It isn’t the responsibility of the racing drivers to have our deaths for us. They have their work cut out leading part of our lives for us: the part, deep in our dreams, where the brave not only deserve the beautiful, but become the beautiful. There was a morning in Adelaide when I was crouching beside our camera crew as they got a low panning shot of Senna’s McLaren coming out of the garage. There was traffic in the pit lane so he had to stop for a few seconds right in front of me. While the car yelled with the clutch out, he dipped his yellow helmet to my camera. I could have reached out to tap his visor. He gave me a little wave with the tip of his glove. Then there was the heavy crunch of the clutch coming in on the full eight hundred horsepower, and he was gone in a clap of thunder. It must have been like that at Troy, when Achilles came out of his tent. But Achilles could only fight or sulk. A less classical and therefore more civilised breed of hero, Damon Hill had a full life coming to him, and eventually he chose to lead it. It was his bravest day. Of him I remember a hundred moments. In some of them he was racing, but in most he was being human: playing with his children, putting up with the sponsors, or — perhaps the most characteristic — pointing out, in the most polite possible way, that his team had bungled a pit-stop, cost him the race and quite possibly the championship. There was his flaw on full display: he was reasonable and well-mannered when he should have been shouting and screaming. But he always let the car do that.

(Sunday Times, March 18, 2007)


The above two pieces had their origins in the Formula One era that ended with Michael Schumacher’s retirement. Since then, the big money, which had grown increasingly important, has taken over almost completely. Fernando Alonso, Kimmi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton have all been worthy champions, but in each case the car they drove was hard to catch if it started from the front of the grid, and the amount of money needed to get the car into that position was beyond the dreams of a previous generation raised on the thrill of men in close contest. What we watch now is a race between conglomerates. Talent and character still come into it, but only at the margins. The arts, too, can injure themselves through progress, but as long as they leave room for the lonely freelance to come up from nowhere and win the crowd’s favour, they are safe from the blight of a free market tempered by no logic except its own. The parallel between the arts and the sports — one which I have always loved to draw, because the sports, too, belong in the created world — has thus never been exact.