Damon Hill interview

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Damon Hill speaks about Formula One technology, test driving the Williams-Renault FW14B, how to improve Formula One cars and much more. He’s not a fan of grooved tyres…

This is the full transcript of an interview that was published in Trackside on Auto Trader two weeks ago (see below).

Read on for the full interview.

Damon Hill spoke to use at the opening of “The Great Design Race”, an exhibition of ground breaking Formula One cars at the Design Museum in Shad Thames, London, on 30th June 2006.

Looking at the cars when you come into the museum here it’s a real catalogue of British innovation in motor sport. This really is a sport that Britain excels at and has always excelled at, isn’t it?

Yes, I think the evidence is quite clear that we are very good at thinking up design solutions. There are few countries around the world which are as good – Germany is one and perhaps Japan is another one. Italy has been good as well if you think of Ferrari and Alfa Romeo.

But the truth is in respect of motor sport we seem to have carried on almost seamlessly from the Second World War straight into race car design and development, probably using the same personnel in the case of the aeronautical industry.

Do you think sometimes in Britain that achievement can be unsung? Thinking, for example, of the Renault over their [the 2005 championship-winning R25] which is a British-built car but owned by a French manufacturer, so people don’t think that it’s British.

Well it’s fair to say that that is a collaborative effort. When I won the championship [in 1996] that was with a Renault engine built in Viry-Chatillion outside Paris. Mostly the engineers that worked on that were French so credit where credit’s due there!

But the chassis, in my case the Williams, was built in Oxfordshire and this car was built in Oxfordshire. So again it’s very close to Silverstone and it shows that in and around Silverstone there is an industry which specialises in such a very niche design field. We’ve got the expertise and, somehow, the mindset in this country to be very successful in that field.

Talking about Williams brings me to the first one that you tested, the FW14B active suspension car. What was that like, being a test pilot for a technology like that where you don’t know if it’s going to fail?

Well, I always thought that was interesting! [Laughs] I always used to like that kind of thrill. I also enjoyed the fact that I trusted the engineers and I trusted their honesty.

If there was a doubt they would always say, “Now just be a bit careful because we’re not sure about something.”?? And from time to time weird things would happen and you’d have a shock or a crash or whatever but you’d accepted that that’s part of your job and it was great fun working on innovative projects like that.

I must say I’m probably a bit of a technophile, I see the work they do in designing and building cars and it’s just beautiful, the design and function dictating form. With computers now they can down to such a tiny margin and quite oddly, now, they can even look quite beautiful, more so even than if they were made by hand.

There’s something beautiful about a hand made race car, a 1950s Ferrari for example. But there’s also something beautiful about a car that’s been in a wind tunnel and shaped by study of the vortices and movement of the air.

So you find modern Formula One cars attractive, whereas a lot of people don’t?

I think there is a beauty there, although they’re not designed for aesthetics! But there is something beautiful about something designed for a specific purpose.

I’m just looking at the puma on the collar there [on Giancarlo Fisichella’s overalls] and if you think about nature and how creatures are designed over years to become very efficient at what they do that mirrors what we see in Formula One.

But there is an imposition which is artificial which is the regulations and that sometimes produces things that are not so beautiful because you can tell that they are there to hold the equipment and rein it back.

Things like active suspension and grounds effects are banned now – do you feel that there isn’t room any more for the sort of breathtaking innovation you used to get?

I think that’s definitely true. When you get a team of 300 people working on trying to find the solution you can pretty much say it’s getting to the point where you’re exhausting the opportunities for breakthroughs.

The regulations have grown, they used to be very broad, but now they’re closing down so that innovations such as the fan car, such as someone coming up with skirts – no-one’s going to do that any more.

It’s rally just like trying to wring blood out of a stone. In some ways that should be good, it should bring the competition closer. In other ways I think it’s constraining part of the fun of the sport and the fact that someone could come up with a bright idea and leapfrog everyone else.

Having said all that: You drove the 14B, which of the others cars here in this exhibit, we’ve got the Cooper, the McLaren, the Ferrari and this Renault, which of those would you like to get behind the wheel of most?

Well I have to say that from a driver’s point of view I would prefer not to have traction control. I would prefer to have a wider track car with slicks on and perhaps slightly softer suspension.

The regulations that they brought in to make the cars slow have made them not very nice to drive compared to a wider track car. The sport’s not about producing a car that’s fun to drive, of course, it’s supposed to be difficult.

I remember you saying this during your career, that the grooved tyres really changed the handling characteristics of the car.

Oh yes – for a pure sensation of driving grooved tyres are a disaster. There’s not one person, not one driver I know who doesn’t think so. All you have to do is go for half a lap on a set of slicks and suddenly you think the whole world’s changed.

Grooved tyres have contributed to reducing speeds but they have not contributed to the racing in a positive way.

When the Formula One cars came to Silverstone this year there was a lot of talk that they’d outgrown the circuit, that it was too fast and getting too dangerous. With your BRDC President hat on, what are your thoughts on that: Should the onus be on creating safer circuits or creating safer cars?

Well, there’s always a responsibility for circuits to make themselves as safe as possible – not only from a driver’s point of view but for spectators as well, and the set of regulations that the FIA stipulates which we stick to.

But you can’t keep re-designing circuits. Ultimately technology could make the cars take every corner in Silverstone flat but you wouldn’t be able to contain an accident.

The balance has to be sorted out and I think the one-make tyre is a very good way of controlling speeds. The tyre is the ultimate speed determinant.

Hopefully next year it should be possible to knock cornering speeds back by quite a significant amount and we won’t have to keep redesigning circuits.

Damon Hill, thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us.

Formula One: The Great Design Race is at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London until October 29th. For more information visit http://www.designmuseum.org/f1/

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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2 comments on “Damon Hill interview”

  1. Oh my those photos well taken!!! HEHE!

  2. I liked the grooved tyres. After all they could survive with a hell of a performance for more than 20 laps, thing that almost impossible for those new prime slicks.

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