The Bookworm Critique
by Damon Hill; Published by Little, Brown and Company
by Mark Glendenning,

Click here to buy this book The quickest way to start a brawl in a pub full of Formula One fans would be to get everybody to say how they feel about Michael Schumacher. The second quickest would be to ask them the same question about Damon Hill. While these drivers are almost equal in their ability to polarize their supporters and detractors, the factors that make each of these characters so controversial are very different.

Depending upon who you ask, Schumacher is either a victimised genius or the cold epitome of poor sportsmanship. To an extent, Hill's reputation is a product of his battles with Schumacher in the mid-1990s. A certain contingent of fans will tell you that Hill is really a double World Champion - 1994 and 1996. Others maintain that the credit for his 1996 championship belonged to the might of the Williams FW18.

While it has been a few years since either driver won a championship, the paths that their respective careers have followed since they conquered the world are immensely different. Schumacher has been in with a chance for a third crown in every season since 1995. Hill, meanwhile, chose a more rocky road. Belgium 1998 and Hungary 1997 aside, the Englishman's race results have not given his fans much to cheer about over the past couple of years. His efforts with a word processor, however, are a different story.

Hill has produced a few books since he started racing, and I for one have always enjoyed them. One thing that sets Hill apart from other modern F1 drivers is the fact that his vulnerabilities are a lot more visible. While Michael Schumacher, Jacques Villeneuve, and even some less successful drivers like Eddie Irvine and Jean Alesi have managed to create an almost superhuman aura around themselves, Hill comes across as a regular bloke who went racing (albeit rather successfully).

This, no doubt, is part of his appeal. Hill has never looked completely comfortable playing the 'part man, part machine' role, as is demonstrated by his routinely woeful attempts at psychological warfare.

What this boils down to is the basic fact that Hill expresses himself best when he is just being himself. He seems to be aware of this, and approached 'F1 Through the Eyes of Damon Hill' accordingly. The result is a very relaxed, open account of his life in Formula One that is a tremendously enjoyable read.

It doesn't take more than a couple of pages for the reader to know that they are in for a good time. The first chapter opens with Hill describing the title-defense-that-wasn't in 1997 with Arrows. If you have ever wanted to know why on earth the Englishman did end up with Arrows, or what exactly the offer from McLaren did involve, or how the switch from Arrows to Jordan came about, this is the place to go. Hill recounts the whole story, in great detail and with a degree of honesty that is almost unknown in modern Formula One. Hill's description of pre-season testing in Barcelona in 1998 serves as a good example of this:

"...imagine our feelings when Mika Hakkinen turned up with his McLaren one day and, at about 5 p.m., goes out to do a few laps and is promptly 2.5 seconds quicker than we had managed. He did five laps and then parked it and walked away, but that was when the reality was brought home to us, like a punch in the gut." (p.38)

Of even greater value is the section containing his thoughts on rivalries within F1. While the first part, dealing with his year as teammate to Jacques Villeneuve is good, the second part, containing Hill's view of Michael Schumacher is naturally going to attract the majority of readers' interest. While it might be easy to predict some of Damon's thoughts on his old nemesis, there are certainly a few surprises here. Particularly interesting is Hill's support for the manner in which Irvine copes with the task of being teammate to the German superstar.

Obviously, I have no way of knowing how much time most Formula One drivers spend reflecting upon the nature and intricacies of their sport, but I do know that none of them share their thoughts on the subject to the same extent that Hill does, particularly in this book. This actually encompasses a variety of topics. Damon's thoughts on driver rivalry, for example, is not limited to musings on Jacques and Michael. He goes further, looking at the psychological nature of such a rivalry, how rivalries work, and what purposes they serve.

Really good analytical Formula One writing is pretty thin on the ground, and while Hill doesn't devote as much effort to developing his ideas as, say, Richard Williams (author of 'Racers'), this is still a revealing and intriguing read. That it comes directly from a current Formula One driver (I'm writing this before the British Grand Prix!), makes it all the more valuable.

Also worthy of mention is the book's presentation. The art direction and layout are absolutely superb. The front cover in particular is brilliant. Most of Keith Sutton's photographs are also excellent, and are probably worth the cover price on their own, both for their quality and variety.

I have received a few letters from readers who are interested in the construction and mechanics of Formula One cars, so for the benefit of those people (and they know who they are), I should mention the double-page shot of Hill's race car lying upside-down in a gravel trap - it offers the best close-up of the undertray and rear diffuser of a Williams that you are ever likely to see!

The love/hate relationship that many F1 fans seem to have with Damon Hill means that a lot of people will have already decided whether or not to read this book irrespective of what I say about it. While I am not a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the Englishman, I found 'F1 Through the Eyes of Damon Hill' to be one of the most enjoyable Formula One books that I have read in quite a while.

While Hill's account of his past year or two makes interesting reading, it is his analysis of F1 and the role of the driver within it that is the real backbone of this book. While most of us will never know how the mind of an F1 driver really works, 'F1 Through the Eyes of Damon Hill' can at least provide us with some clues. If Damon does hand up his helmet after Silverstone, this book stands as a nice legacy of a fascinating driver who had an equally fascinating career.

Mark Glendenning© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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