Derek Hill interview
by Richard Jenkins
Derek Hill is, arguably, best known in motor racing circles as the son of the 1961 World Champion, Phil. But that does Derek a disservice. He is a Daytona 24 Hours class winner in sportscars, he drove in Formula 3000, has won three titles including the Italian Ferrari Challenge Series in 1995 and has become an excellent historic driver, capped with the 1999 Goodwood Revival Driver of the Weekend award. A lot of focus on Derek goes on his father; I wanted to redress the balance somewhat on Derek himself. The interview with Derek was undertaken in the Driver’s Club at the Goodwood Festival of Speed on the 1st July 2017. Thanks to Derek, a charming man, for his patience, his time and his respect, shown by a steadfast refusal to eat ANY food until the interview was over, despite it being served less than ten yards away and having not eaten since breakfast!
RJ: Did you ever consider a life away from motor sport, growing up in a motorsport environment as you did, and did your father encourage you or discourage you from taking up racing?
DH: Well, it wasn’t really a motorsport environment as such as Dad had retired for about eight years, so the only real exposure to racing that I had was when he was invited to events, say like when he was invited to be a Grand Marshal, or when he was invited to a Grand Prix or a historic event, so that was the early exposure that I had. At Long Beach, he’d get to test a Grand Prix car and so I’d tag along and maybe get a ride around in a pace car around the Long Beach Grand Prix. I didn’t really discover my father as a racing driver until a little later on.
RJ: So, it wasn’t quite a natural progression as such, it was something you got interested in through your own choice?
DH: Yeah, I was naturally very interested in the cars and that turned me on. I guess I had a natural instinct though, because when I raced go-karts, I saw how much fun I could have doing it and doing it well. I got pretty good at doing it, so I thought, “Okay, let’s make the next step”. But I was really out on my own; Dad didn’t really guide me into it at all. But for me it was racing, the triumph and more racing; I never saw a career as a reality until I got higher up the ladder.
RJ: Did he ever discourage you from racing?
DH: No, not at all. He was never rigid about it, he never said “no”, he watched and supported me with go-karting; but he never really took it very seriously, I think he thought “okay, let’s get it out of his system”. I remember when I came back from college one year and announced to him that during winter break that I’m going to leave school and take up racing, it shocked him, of course, but you know, it also came at a time when he was entering retirement, so he came travelling with me, here, there and everywhere and it was probably the most bonding that we ever had together, so they were really a very, very special few years.
RJ: What would you say you learnt most from your father, either racing or non-racing related?
DH: (Exhales) My father was a man of so few words when it came to advice. His father was relentless, constantly telling him time after time about what he should or shouldn’t do, so my father went the opposite way. If anything, I feel he never said enough. But as a father, you lead by example. Sure, I could’ve asked him but his attitude was always “Well, get on with it, just do it” He did, when I first started racing, really encourage me to get on the radio more and push people more to get better performances but I didn’t always feel comfortable with that. He was highly strung and not everyone saw that side of him; he was incredibly highly strung. What his advice was, or may’ve been, didn’t really resonate with what I needed at that point.
RJ: You raced in Italy in both the Ferrari Challenge International Series and Italian Formula 3000. Obviously your father’s links to Ferrari mean you’ve got more association with Italy than most, but what do you enjoy most about Italy?
DH: Aah, I enjoy Italy. I love everything about Italy. I can see exactly why my father would’ve loved Italy. The environments in which I was in were always very warm, very very team-orientated, family orientated and that’s what my father needed; he needed a big family around him as he didn’t have a family around him to support him with what he did. In my case, I enjoyed the environment but I didn’t need it as much as my father, but I always felt very lucky being in Italy, it felt like a lot like home.
RJ: You had a test with Alfa Romeo DTM team at the end of 1995. How different a race car was it compared to what you had raced up to that point? Were there any real possibilities of racing in Alfa in 1996?
DH: I was very new to it all, and I’d just finished the season well in the Ferrari Challenge. I wasn’t really that experienced enough but I got invited to test in a shoot-out for the team. I think it came about because two months before in the Ferrari Challenge, I won everything and they thought “Well, maybe this guy has got something”, Giorgio Pianta (At that time, Pianta, a very experienced man in motor sport was Alfa Romeo’s motorsport director) saw me and they invited me. Now whether I was there because I was winning, or whether they wanted some press out of it, I don’t know, but it was great. I was stuck in the middle between some very, very experienced drivers and the car was set up for four wheel-drive, which was a rarity on the planet at the time for that type of car.
RJ: Although it was only a brief test, do you think this experience helped you as a driver?
DH: It was a different type of experience, because it was a totally different ballgame, so beyond anything I’d ever previously driven, but it didn’t really help much in my career because it was a very foggy misty morning, I was running on rain tyres in a very transitional period as the track was drying out and so I came into the pits with the tyres smoking; well not smoking, but vaporising; there was no tread on the tyres. Ralf Schumacher was there; trying to negotiate extra laps, more than anyone else, but they wouldn’t give him any more, so he just stormed off; very Schumacher-esque. There was a lot of drama going on out there because it was integral to either a person’s career or gaining sponsors. For sure though, it was a great experience for me and it gave me a little boost in confidence.
RJ: What do you consider your personal highlight, your finest achievement, as a racing driver?
DH: (After a long pause) I guess that when I felt I was in my best groove with everything, it was when I raced for BMW, the factory BMW team in the GTS3 class in the American Le Mans series in 1997. It wasn’t the, you know, highest stature of racing in the motorsport rankings but I won my class at the Daytona 24 Hours race, as well as a few other races. I was the new kid on the scene, but I was always one of the fastest and I felt really good then and I look back now and I enjoyed the challenge of it. The most enjoyment I’ve had, in terms of driving, has been in open-wheel cars, but it was a good time with BMW.
RJ: Looking back at Formula 3000 now, what would’ve you have done differently, if anything, with the benefit of hindsight?
DH: I would never have done it! I think in terms of pure talent, growth; growth of a driver, gaining skills, it didn’t sharpen the skill set. The cars are very physically demanding and you had to push yourself to the limit. But the layout of the weekend, for me, was so…; you hardly had any time on the circuit; you had barely enough time to learn a circuit, let alone sort out your car and before you knew it, you were now in qualifying. I learnt so little. What I could’ve done differently? I have no idea. I trained the hardest that I could ever train physically; I mentally prepared myself more than I possibly ever could have done and yet the chips still didn’t fall into place. I had a lot of bad luck but I had a feeling in the back of my mind though that it was never going to be a case of the waters were going to part and I would go on to win all the time. It just didn’t happen.
RJ: Was there anything you would’ve liked to have raced, but for whatever reason, it never happened? Indycar or the Indianapolis 500 for example?
DH: Well I did get my Indycar licence, because when I came home (Derek chose to return to the US for numerous reasons, but one of them was his father’s failing health), I really wanted to do Indycar and especially the Indy 500. But, you see, I had a big thing moving in my life because with my family; my Mom and Dad were not in the place to have a son racing around raising money and being a racing driver. Because you’ve got to appreciate that it’s a team effort, a family effort, and it became a strain on everybody. It would’ve been very selfish for me to want to continue. It became very obvious that my Dad was becoming more affected by his illness and I could just feel coming further apart from racing. Maybe in my youth, in the same position, it would’ve been easy for me to say “I’m outta here” and go to Europe but now I was older, I saw that it was not fair. My family have got too much respect for each other for me to have abused that. I can honestly say, that I’m glad that I got out of racing, because you know, it helped me understand the kind of person I am. Motor racing is part of my life and I loved it; I still enjoy it, I enjoy being here but racing… it puts people on the spot and if I hadn’t gotten out of racing I don’t think I would’ve discovered who I am. It’s a sport that doesn’t really allow you to evolve as a person.
RJ: You’ve since become a regular historic racer and attendee; what’s been your favourite car to drive thus far and what car would you like to drive?
DH: Boy! You know, although I don’t quite think of it in terms of what I’d like to drive, I really would like to try an 1970’s Formula 1 car, because I’ve driven now a lot of cars from my father’s racing era, the 1950’s and 1960’s, and I really do appreciate those type of cars but I would like to give a 1970’s car a go, with wider tyres and all. But having said that, today I got to drive my father’s Championship winning Sharknose Ferrari, which was special. I don’t think I’ve ever driven it before, or certainly not in a situation like this.
RJ: I believe you also have done some race driver instructing?
DH: Yeah, I don’t do it anymore. I never really enjoyed it very much. I felt good that I was helping someone with something, but asides from that, you know, you never quite know what or who you’re dealing with. Telling someone to go faster who isn’t necessarily comfortable with doing so isn’t always great and you have in your mind the safety aspect as a result.
RJ: Finally, what do you enjoy the most about events like this? What is particularly special, for you, about the Goodwood Festival of Speed?
DH: Oh! Everything that Lord March has done with this and the Goodwood Revival is the ultimate expression of creativity in the World of racing and historic cars. It’s actually beyond words because it’s constantly pushing the boundaries of how much can you achieve from a weekend and I think he designs it so well that everyone involved gets the most out of the event; the spectators, the competitors, everyone just gets maximum enjoyment.
Both Photos copyright of Richard Jenkins, 1st July 2017.
Last updated by Richard Jenkins on 14 Aug 2017.
All text is copyright Richard Jenkins 2017.