Watching the Wheels by Damon Hill reviewed

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Formula One does not lack remarkable stories. But Damon Hill’s is unique.

Being the son of a world champion who went on to win the championship himself, and doing so despite the shocking death of his father following his retirement from F1, Hill’s perspective on the sport is rather different from many of his rivals’. And his autobiography, published to coincide with the 20th anniversary of his 1996 triumph, tells a story which will surprise many.

The book has drawn much attention for Hill’s candid revelation in its opening pages about his struggle with depression after retiring from F1. He describes how he feared meeting the same end as his father in a plane accident and the creeping fear which led him to park a healthy car 21 laps into his final grand prix.

He draws other parallels with his father: their late start in racing and the perception they were grafters rather than naturally skilled racers. It’s rare and refreshing to read a book by a F1 driver who addresses popular views about his abilities.

Hill also gets to grips with one of Formula One’s most emotionally-charged questions: what happened to Ayrton Senna which caused him to crash fatally during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

From the unique position of being the only person beside Senna to have driven the same car in the same race, Hill attends to the subject in patient detail and offers a convincing, nuanced view while dismantling the claim a broken steering column could have been responsible.

Hill’s deadpan humour provides much-needed relief from sombre passages such as these which are dotted throughout his story. But “it was not all doom and gloom by a long chalk” he notes early on. Having lived a life almost entirely within the motor racing universe, he has a rich trove of anecdotes to mine.

Many driver biographies are little more than simple recollections of race after race. This is much more well-rounded, sometimes at the expense of detail about particular seasons. I could complain about that, the smattering of typos and the baffling omission of an index. But none of this detracts from Hill’s fascinating story, which is bravely and honestly told.

F1 Fanatic rating

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Working the Wheel: My Autobiography

Author: Damon Hill
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Published: 2016
Pages: 358
Price: £20
ISBN: 9781509831906

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Author information

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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22 comments on “Watching the Wheels by Damon Hill reviewed”

  1. Stuart Becktell
    9th September 2016, 13:03

    Would be nice if it was available in the US!

    1. It is, I’ve just added a link above.

      1. Thanks for making it available in the US, @keithcollantine! :)

        Now if you would please add the link for Audi wagons and some of your delicious snack foods…

  2. Thanks Keith! (apologies if my nagging rushed the review!)
    Definitely picking this one up; this guy was my hero growing up and i used to get so upset at the media trashing him later in his career. As with many things, there is always more to be seen under the covers…

  3. I just started this book today, superb so far and highly recommended.

  4. i will definitely buy this. i have the david tremayne biog and it’s pretty good, slightly hackneyed turn of phrase in many places, but it tells the story well. the stuff about his rise through the junior ranks is fascinating given (a) his background and (b) what he became. so, i’m particularly interested to hear his own point of view.

  5. Easily the most thoughtful and ego-less (not difficult tbh) ex-driver though weirdly he’s sometimes a bit tongue tied on telly. Schumacher never rated him and the prevailing view of the time was he was good out front but lacked race craft. Many do of course. I also read the inside back page of Motorsport for August where he professed to not having a dream car as he didn’t really like cars all that much, preferring 2 wheels. A conclusion you could’ve reached independently when reading he drives a VW estate Passat

    I loathe biographies but this one sounds worth a geez.

    1. Easily the most thoughtful and ego-less (not difficult tbh) ex-driver

      Well, the way he’s always trying to score points on others (correcting mistakes, belittling views etc) during discussions is almost getting unpleasant, but now that Di Resta seems to have picked up the ‘challenge’ by ignoring him he seem to have scaled it back a bit thankfully.

    2. maybe Schumacher didn’t rate him, yet he still on that title decider ran him off the track, so as to make sure he won the WDC.
      For me Schumacher is a cheat!

  6. A very kind driver, but I’ve never understood why he didn’t retire earlier in 1999. It now turns out that he was actually too scared to drive, which makes his decision to go on even weirder.

  7. What does he says for Senna’s trial? That he never told the truth???
    He refused to give answers to the judge, replying many times “I don’t remember”.
    Shame Damon.

    1. Maybe he doesn’t.
      when someone popular dies, people often have difficulty accepting that it was an accident and want someone to blame!

  8. Any idea when it’ll be released in paperback? Probably not until after Christmas?

  9. tgu (@thegrapeunwashed)
    10th September 2016, 9:45

    I’ll get this one, he was one of the most charismatic drivers ever to have graced the sport in my opinion. I do think it’s absurd that he could be classed alongside his father as a ‘grafter’ (which Graham Hill clearly was), Damon’s driving style seemed the opposite: silky smooth, a minimalist approach. It’s not by accident that you find yourself in the fastest car on the grid, Hill well-deserved to be given that seat. I don’t think there should be a question mark over his ability, it’s his mind management (as Jackie Stewart would say) which was his weak point – and which made him compelling to watch.

  10. Hearing Damon on ‘Saturday Live’ on Radio 4 this morning was really interesting. It was the first time in a long time that I have heard a current or former Formula 1 driver say things I didn’t already know, and hadn’t considered. Particularly interesting was how he related his father’s generation’s attitude to risk to their experiences growing up in the Second World War. I hadn’t planned to, as I was never a Damon Hill fan, but hearing his interview, and seeing the positive reviews, I will definitely be giving this one a read at some point.

    Of the current drivers, the only one I have heard similarly interesting insights from, about the mental aspects of Formula 1, is Fernando Alonso. The Spanish documentary about his last race for Ferrari was eye opening in its insights, as was his ‘Why I Race’ piece on the McLaren website. I only hope that when his career ends, he gets to sit down with a ghostwriter of the calibre of Maurice Hamilton to tell his story.

    1. @wificats I wish they’d teased that he was on Saturday Live, I switched off immediately after Today!

  11. Very interesting indeed. To have that kind of issues and still be able to cope as well as he did is quite something. I guess the title refers to him watching the wheels in motion leading to him following his father’s footsteps and becoming a driver almost against his own will? I was rooting for him against Schumacher as he never drove dirty, but frustrated when he developed a bit of a Stockholm-syndrome toward him.. Super happy when he finally got the title though.

  12. Any mention of the 94 Williams have a peaky diffuser or incorrect suspension geometry or what the set-up issues were and how they were improved later in the season ?


    Pete from Canada

    1. Yeah there’s a lot on the trouble they had with the 1994 car, particularly how the underbody downforce may have played a role in the crash.

      1. Any more details about the more general set-up and design issues ? Shipping to Canada us slow.

      2. Just listening to it in Audio.
        The Senna part is the most covincing theory I have heard so far, and I have really looked into the issue. Just for that the book is worth it, and it is great indeed in all accounts.

  13. Sorry if I am missing the obvious but which end of the scale are the recommended choices? I’d assume 5’s are the good reads?

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