Damon Hill has said Mick Schumacher deserves his shot at Formula One success but has warned the son of the seven-times world champion Michael that living up to a family name can be both a blessing and a curse.
The 1996 world champion has empathy with the task Schumacher will be taking on when he joins the F1 grid with Haas in 2021. Hill’s father, Graham, won two world championships before he was killed in a plane crash in 1975 when Hill was 15. When he decided to race himself, his background was impossible to ignore, just as Schumacher’s F1 career will open in the looming shadow of his illustrious father, a burden he must face down.
“There is a sense that some people don’t want you to have a go,” says Hill. “I felt like some people felt: ‘Why is he doing this? He is never going to be as good as his dad.’ It does not necessarily follow that because your dad was a world champion that you will be any good, but that should not prevent you from a having a go. You should be able to have a go if you merit it, and F1 will find a way to see if you merit it.”
Hill persevered, racing for Williams and famously battling Schumacher for the title in 1994 and 1995 before securing it in 1996, becoming the first son of a world champion to win the championship. Jacques Villeneuve would go on to follow his father, Gilles, into F1, and also won a title, while Nico Rosberg won after following in the footsteps of his title-winning father, Keke. Having a distinguished background in the sport is more than just an inspiration, says Hill.
“I wanted to race, I loved racing, I loved competition and I loved the sport. But I also was determined to not let the side down with being a Hill. Some element of it when my dad died was, if you like, resurrecting or honouring the family name. So I very much took lessons from my dad’s life and career and applied them to my racing.
“Jacques was very different. He never even talked about his dad; as far as he was concerned he was going to stand alone as Jacques, not as the son of Gilles. In some ways it is a blessing and in some ways a curse.”
Schumacher, of course, has had to overcome his own trials beyond proving himself on track to get this far. He was just 14 when his father was injured in the skiing accident from which he has yet to recover. Understanding this loss as he went through his own at a similar age, Hill believes it has given Schumacher a greater sense of purpose.
“It really is tragic what happened to Michael,” he says. “Mick has experienced something in his life which has been very tough to bear, and I am sure it is a little bit of extra motivation that he will have.”
Schumacher has been in the spotlight since he began racing, particularly when he took to single seaters in 2014, and that level of scrutiny will intensify now. He not only carries the family name but also perhaps something no other driver has ever had to cope with, the intense interest in his father because of the accident he suffered. It is a weight he has borne well, says Hill.
“I have been very impressed with how diplomatic he has been, and how he has asked people to be respectful of the privacy the Schumacher family has asked for. I think he has coped with that admirably, and that has given him the chance to focus on what he wants to do. But he doesn’t strike me as someone who is interested in getting publicity for himself. He wants to race and he wants to win.”
Schumacher is entering a maelstrom. As a rookie he will face pressure like no other. His every move will be analysed on and off the track, and, as Hill noted, there will doubtless be observers waiting to pounce on his errors. Yet he has already shown remarkable maturity and composure thus far in his career, and Schumacher’s best answer is to maintain this and make his point on the track. There will be no shortage of earnest hope that he can do so.
“In a way it’s very simple – if you perform well, then all those problems melt away,” says Hill. “I will be keen to see how he gets on. Everyone has been massively affected and appreciates the pain that the Schumacher family have gone through. They wish Mick well, they really do.”