Damon Hill has expressed strong concern over the disempowerment of drivers in Formula One and argued that their lack of involvement has been a fundamental problem with the way the sport has been run and its consequent perceived decline in popularity.
Criticism of Bernie Ecclestone, the governing FIA and the teams themselves has been long and vocal this year amid a fall in both attendances and viewing figures. But Hill, who won the world title with Williams in 1996 and has long argued that the sport should make more of an effort to connect with fans, believes the drivers too must shoulder some of the blame.
“If the drivers are indifferent about their sport, if they’re not passionate about their sport, then I think the public get that message and they don’t care either,” he said. “I think sometimes the drivers see it as a job. Sometimes they will suffer equipment that they don’t really like, under conditions that they don’t really like and just endure it. They can’t be themselves, they can’t behave in the way that they want, they’re not free men any more. It’s been a gradual process that’s taken place over 20 years.”
The drivers have for a long time been closely controlled and marketed by the teams with limited access to the public and, while this makes sense for those inside the sport it is, believed Hill, diminishing its appeal to fans.
Speaking before Sunday’s British Grand Prix, Hill said: “Now drivers are contracted with 60-page contracts as to what they can say, can’t say, can do and can’t do. That can conspire against the sport to make it exciting. People are paying to see drivers in cars that are difficult to drive and exciting to watch and that’s where the admiration comes about.
“That certainly was the case in the 60s and 70s and if they’re simply mute on the subject and apparently compliant and unconcerned about whether or not people admire them or not, then you end up with a rather dull combination.”
Hill, who retired in 1999, followed his father, Graham, who won two world titles in the 1960s, into Formula One and believes the modern pedallers should take more of an example from that period. “The way the sport has gone, it has disempowered drivers,” he said. “In the days of my dad, John Surtees and Jackie Stewart, they very much had a voice and they defined the sport. Primarily because of safety reasons but they also did it because they loved those cars. They would drive ever more powerful cars and exciting cars, they created the level of risk they were prepared to take and they had a voice because their necks were on the lines. It was very difficult to turn round to them and say ‘shut up’.
“The last guy to really have a voice and a power in the sport was Ayrton Senna and since that time key drivers have been rather compliant with the direction that the teams or the organisations that run the sport want to go in.”
The concept of fan engagement with drivers, which F1 has been criticised for failing to address in comparison to racing in the US which takes a pro-active role, with pit walks and driver signing sessions, was also a concern. “The way that the public connect to our sport is through the drivers,” said Hill. “It’s the human face with which people approach the sport. They look for their hero, for their character or the way he performs and they become fans of those people. They are fascinated to see how individuals behave in the arena.”
The announcement by the F1 strategy group this week putting more control of key elements of racing back into drivers’ hands was, however, welcomed by Hill. “It would appear to be recognising the need for people to know that the driver is doing the decision making in the race,” he said.
“My gut feeling is that is important to the fans, they want to know the driver is playing his part and using his skill to beat the others. They have acknowledged that they need to address those particular points, so it’s a step in the right direction.”
The key issue Hill emphasised, however, was one of perception that was reinforced by the way the sport is now run. “I am not anti any of the drivers, I think the drivers are the stars. I just don’t think anybody can see them, under the conditions they are under at the moment,” he said. “When you have F1 teams that are employing thousands of people and investment is so massive, everyone has a gun to their head – you can’t upset the applecart because it’s such a huge industry. But the industry is not the most important thing. The sport is the most important thing. The industry wouldn’t be there if people didn’t want to see the sport.”
This was not something he believed current owners CVC understood. “The big prize is the sport itself because it is a revenue stream. People like CVC are not there because they love the sport, they are there because they love the money it makes,” he said.