Here’s an intriguing autobiography from 2016, by the 1996 F1 world champion Damon Hill.
What may initially seem like a run through his life story becomes something else entirely, becoming an elite sportsman’s guide to mental health, love, loss, and death.
It was voted Book of the Year by several newspapers in the UK (including The Times) and is a very impressive and intelligent account of a life of success and tragedy.
Watching the Wheels by Damon Hill
Along with Professor Sid Watkin’s Life at the Limit (1994), this is the best F1 book we’ve ever read.
What’s immediately obvious is Hill’s intelligence, as he candidly discusses his upbringing in the world of F1 royalty.
His father was Graham Hill (1929-1975), a charismatic and swashbuckling British chap. He won the title twice (1962, 1968) and was dapper and always up for a laugh, plus started his own F1 team after retiring from racing.
So whilst it’s true Damon Hill had a privileged upbringing, this was forcibly removed when his father died in a plane crash in November 1975 at the age of 46. Five other team members died in the accident.
This plunged the Hill family into serious financial turmoil.
And also left his 15 year old son without a father figure in his life. Watching the Wheels goes on to document Hill’s professional and personal life, with intriguing insights on the nature of his sense of loss.
And whilst the book does deal with his legendary F1 career, there’s a major focus on mental health, grief, and Hill’s struggles as an elite sportsman.
In fact, he notes in an early chapter he hadn’t fully come to terms with his father’s death until 1999 when he retired from F1.
At which point, with that aspect of his career over, the grief and loss of the incident suddenly surfaced and he endured a long period of depression.
And that’s what makes this autobiography so special. Whilst F1 and motorsport are key topics, at its core this is an open, honest, and important assessment of the trials and tribulations of life.
Damon Hill is considered an absolute gentleman and is famous for his candour and conduct, which this book reveals in full flow.
And it’s an impressive achievement. Highly recommended for anyone searching for a way to battle on despite adversity.
And that’s an enormous amount that Hill came up against in his F1 career, which we’ll cover now due to its notable difficulties and triumphs.
Damon Hill’s F1 Years
Hill was quite late getting into motorsport, only reaching F1 as he approached his 30th birthday (which is very old, in F1 terms).
He entered F1 in 1992 in uncompetitive machinery, but impressed enough for the sport’s top team to take him on board in 1993.
That was with Williams, who dominated the sport throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Hill was hired as the steady number two driver, expected to back up Alain Prost’s title bid in 1993. Which the Englishman duly did, bagging three impressive wins along the way.
Then in 1994 he was alongside the sport’s superstar Ayrton Senna.
This partnership ended in tragedy when Senna crashed and died at Imola, the third race of the season.
Hill was then left to deal with a devastated Williams team, forming a championship challenge that concluded with a notorious collision with Michael Schumacher in the final race of the season.
He returned in 1995 as team leader and struggled in a stressful and difficult season, up against an almighty genius in the form of Schumacher.
And it’s actually the 1995 season that Hill focusses on considerably in the book, as it was a difficult emotional period for him.
He reveals he was incorrectly looking to the team’s top men, Sir Frank Williams and Sir Patrick Head, wanting them to be father figures. Again, this tying into the loss of his father and how he’d missed the guidance of an older hand steering him through life.
And it’s at that stage the book enters a different area than simply being a recollection of where he finished each race weekend.
By exploring the psychology of what he was up against, trying to win a title, the loss of his father, the death of Senna, and you find a man who was at that point vulnerable and struggling. And it’s actually quite a sad realisation.
Hill did win the world title in 1996, bagged a famous win at Spa in 1998 (his final one), and then retired at the end of 1999.
He’s now a Sky Sports pundit, business owner, musician, and writer. He recently wrote another book with his friend Johnny Herbert and the two share a very enjoyable friendship together that’s also entertaining for viewers.
But it’s the humane nature of Watching the Wheels that’s the big draw. The level of honesty he provides is actually really quite courageous and humbling.
As in amongst the technology and high octane stuff of Formula 1, the human stories are what remain one of its most compelling features.
And Damon Hill demonstrates that in such a big business, ego driven environment, it’s still possible to have a conscience and sound moral standing.