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Formula 1 champ remembers victory

Damon Hill talks to Oliver Rowland on racing for Renault, his father’s Monaco wins and victory at the French Grand Prix.

WE MET former world champion Formula One driver Damon Hill in Monaco while he was visiting the Top Marques show.

It bills itself as the world’s only “live supercar show,” as potential buyers can take a car for a test drive on the Monaco Grand Prix route.

In fact Hill is the son of Graham Hill who won the Grand Prix five times – so many he was known as Mr Monaco.

While Hill never won that race himself, though he came close in 1996 when he looked set for victory before his engine failed. That was the year he became World Champion.

Since retiring from motorsport in 1999 his activities include succeeding Sir Jackie Stewart as president of the British Racing drivers’ Club.

Your father won the Monaco Grand Prix five times - did you ever see him in action here?

Not in the flesh but I saw him on TV in England when he won for the last time in 1969. I was nine-years-old.

Did you feel very proud?
Of course.

And was he a big inspiration in you taking up the sport?
Yes, he was an inspirational character. He started just with a wish to do something different with his life and he gave up a very nice job with Smiths Instruments [vehicle instrument makers] and went off to become a racing driver.

How many times did you drive in the Monaco Grand Prix and what is your best memory?
About eight times. My best memory was getting pole position in 1996, although I unfortunately didn't finish.

And do you have good memories of France?
I used to come down and test at Ricard. It is nice to come to the south of France in the winter. I used to stay at Bandol and look out at the sun and sea and then go up to the mountains for the testing. It was idyllic. Having raced for Renault it was nice to get a flavour of French life.

What were some race highlights?
I won the French Grand Prix, I think it was 1993 and Prost won the British Grand Prix.

You think?
I might have got that wrong. I got pole position in France. Did I win it in 1996? It's all a bit of a blur. [We checked - Hill got pole position in 1993 and came second to Prost, who also won the British Grand Prix. Hill won in France in 1996].

Did you learn a lot from Alain Prost?
I was a complete Alain Prost fan. He did it sublimely beautifully. He drove with such finesse. It was a privilege to be his team mate. But my allegiances were with Nigel [Mansell] so when they were driving together it was hard to know who to support. I liked Prost's understated style.

Do you know France and Monaco well?
I have friends and family in the south of France so I come down from time to time.

Have you checked out the cars at the show?
Yes, I've seen some really impressive machines. There's such a range - some are exclusive limited editions and very collectable but what I find really attractive is the quality of the workmanship. Some are hand-built - like the Bentleys which are still hand-built in Crewe [Cheshire]. It's wonderful that's still happening.

It was also good to see cars where firms are paying attention to ecological issues - trying to avoid the use of too much fossil fuel. It's inevitable we have to do that.

What do you drive on the roads?
I'm looking around to see what I could drive that would be reasonable and economical and fuel efficient. I drive a Golf diesel at the moment. I'm probably not in the market for some of the products here myself. For me practicalities are high on the list.

So you are quite a sensible driver on the roads then?
I'm trying to be, yes. You don't want to spoil people's fun but there are issues we have to face and will face even more as time goes by - to do with road safety and responsibilities.

But as a racing driver does it feel frustrating having to drive slowly and with bad drivers in front of you?
A racing driver is trained to go as fast as he can on the race track but you'll find most do not drive like hooligans on the roads. One good thing about the sport is it provides an arena for that.

You get it out of your system?
Yes. And at this show you'll see cars that can go on the road, but it is expected people will take them to a circuit to drive them to their full potential, and then drive sedately home.

Do you have any opinion about French drivers on the roads?
It's best I stay away from that subject. Attitudes to driving are a complex thing. On the one had it is very much linked to our ideas of liberty and freedom but it's about responsibility too.

I do some work for work safety in the UK and when you are confronted with the consequences of irresponsible driving you realise we have responsibilities towards ourselves and others - even if that sounds a bit boring - and it's going to become more of an issue as time goes on.

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