WATCHING THE WHEELS BY DAMON HILL

This is not your average sporting autobiography. For a start Hill is somewhat behind the curve by publishing it 20 years after winning the Formula One Driver’s World Championship. These days it seems as if most athletes begin writing (or talking to a ghost writer) sometime between crossing the line with their hands in the air and grabbing a national flag (Hill has a story about doing that). But then Damon Hill’s whole racing career has been somewhat behind the curve, because he only started racing cars when he was 22 (he didn’t enter F1 until he was 31 years old).

Motorbikes were his passion up to that point, ironically both because he wanted to be close to his father (by riding trials bikes with him) and also to distance himself from Hill Senior (by not following him into racing cars).

Much of the first part of the book revolves around Hill’s relationship with his father. The larger than life Graham (who’s autobiography I also remember reading many years ago) clearly affected Damon’s outlook on life and Graham’s untimely death then had an arguably even greater impact. Like the insect caught in amber, his death in a plane crash forever froze many of teenage Damon’s impressions of and feelings for his father that no doubt would have evolved had he lived. There is a good deal of interesting analysis from Damon about this, much of it clearly stemming from the therapy he has undergone in the last couple of decades.

Of course the book also contains a lot of recollections and analysis of Hill’s days in F1. I vividly remember, aged 12, sitting on a sofa wrapped in a duvet in the early hours of the morning, (television barely above mute so as not to wake my parents and sister upstairs) watching as Schumacher swerved back across the track in Adelaide and then stuffed his lame Benetton into the side of Hill’s Williams. As Hill drove down the next straight everything seemed to go in slow motion. At first it seemed that Hill was ok, but then it became clear the FW16 was stricken. He dived into the pits. Perhaps they could fix it? But no.

I remember gabling at my father when he came downstairs to make some tea about 20 minutes later, trying to describe the drama. I also remember being something of a Schumacher fan (unlike the rest of the Catchpole household), so trying to justify Michael’s actions even though my young mind knew he had done a terribly unsportsmanlike thing. In short, I suppose I was always going to enjoy a trip down memory lane reading about Hill’s F1 career, but it is fascinating having Hill’s perspective on it all. No doubt the passing of so many years has also allowed him to reveal much more than he could ever have done had he written it at the time.

After Hill quit F1 he struggled, as so many successful sportspeople do. He doesn’t totally gloss over his years since F1 but there is nothing like the detail. However, although the book focusses mainly on the first 39 years of his life it feels like a product of the subsequent 17. There was clearly a strong element of catharsis for Hill in writing this autobiography – something that’s clear from the last sentence in the book if nothing else – but it makes it all the more interesting. Heartily recommended.

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