If you are not a fan of Formula 1, or you are of a certain, younger age, you might have no idea who Damon Hill is. He is the 1996 Formula 1 World Champion, son of double F1 World Champion Graham Hill and currently Sky Sports F1 presenter. He has just written his autobiography and such books always give some real insight into the winning mindset, which is what I discuss below. To put his achievement in context, in the 66 years of F1 champions, only 32 drivers have ever won it, and Great Britain has produced 10 World Champions. By comparison, Team GB won 67 medals at the Rio Olympics alone including 27 Golds. You simply don't become Formula 1 World Champion without a winning mindset.
Damon Hill seemed in many ways a reluctant F1 Champion, certainly not a typical F1 driver and he does not perhaps get the credit he deserves. But once he had decided what he wanted, his commitment was absolute. First out, all winners want to win, badly. Damon Hill:
There is a buzz that comes with just being involved, but not winning is like seeing the woman you love the most go off with another guy: it really hurts.
the theme recurs throughout:
success meant everything to me, in whatever I did. I was almost manic in my determination to prevail.
And winning takes hard work. Early on when he was racing bikes, and working as a dispatch rider to pay for it having eschewed a 'proper' career for his love of racing, he would work late into the night in his garage to prepare his bike, so much so that his girlfriend (now wife) thought he was having an affair:
I don't think that she had ever met a serious sports person before... She really didn't understand that bikes needed a lot of attention and I was being meticulous. Although she had been to see me race a couple of times, she couldn't understand what would make me want to work so late in a cold, damp garage rather than be with her.
As with all the most successful sports stars, the theme of sacrifice is always present, and Hill notes:
I was twenty three now; many of my friends had left university with degrees. While they were partying every weekend, I had been trying to sleep in a tent or a van and staying off alcohol.
England footballer Gary Neville noted something similar, bed by 9:15 every Thursday and Friday night ahead of a game on Saturday while other men of his age partied.
Another common mindset is the ability to be motivated by failure. Hill sums it up when he says:
Failure can have two effects: one, you scuttle off tail between your legs and do something else; or two, you put your foot down and say, 'No. Not having it.'
But when he found himself out of his depth, having advanced too far too early, he took a step back to build his skill base to achieve his ultimate objective. Showing great self awareness, he notes:
There is no shame in going back to the bottom of the class. Many a career has been killed off early by biting off more than can be chewed.
In military terms, this is a tactical retreat, losing a battle to win a war. The objective hasn't changed, the strategy hasn't changed, but tactics are adjusted in the short term for long term gain.
And when Damon won a club bike race at Brands Hatch at a key point in his career, after a set of circumstances including a row with his girlfriend ahead of the race, he had a eureka moment:
I never ever forget what that first win taught me. It's not technique. It's not bravery. It's not hunger or anger. It's gathering up all the energy into one place in your body and directing it towards your one goal.
Again, the ability to focus and concentrate in that one moment, to exclude everything outside of achieving your goal when it most matters, is a winning mindset.
As Hill's winning ways set in, two further lessons were to become apparent. First is the power of positive reinforcement. Multiple wins positively reinforced his belief that he was a winner, in turn making winning easier. Second, success opened the doors to the more advanced formulas of motor racing to him, but that carried a price, the price being for Formula 3, £150,000. In turn, he sought sponsorship for his drive via a telephone and the Yellow Pages. Unsurprisingly, ...
most of my conversations ended with a 'thanks, but no thanks'.
Hill did not let the word 'no' be the end of it. Tenacity, and admittedly a bit of luck helped. But to paraphrase in Hill's case, the more phone calls I make the luckier I get. The winning mind set does not stop at no.
Another Formula 1 triple World Champion, Niki Lauda. had famously borrowed so much money to finance his drive that the survival of the bank from which he had borrowed was almost at stake given the sheer size of his accumulated debt. And again, the 1992 World Champion Nigel Mansell had earlier in his career re-mortgaged his house and sold everything he owned backing his belief in himself. Rightly or wrongly, Hill drew the conclusion
...only the faint-hearted did not borrow money. By this logic, I would have been bottling out if I didn't expose myself to a huge debt
As the debts mounted, Damon would in due course wonder whether he had done the right thing (and vowed never to do it again) but he was always sustained by his belief in himself and he never considered quitting the goal for a 'normal' job ("for as long as I was alive and kicking, I'd never give up").
I do like a story he tells about his Williams team-mate, Alain Prost. Damon was the junior of the team and keen to learn from an already established world champion. Hill recounts a debriefing with Prost:
In the engineering debrief following a qualfying session, I said to him, 'Alain, in Turn 4, my car is doing this' - indicating the movement of the car with my hands. 'What's your car like through there?'
'Yes,' he said in his quiet, famous nasally French accented voice, 'my car does the same.' That was all I got out of him.
They might have been team-mates, Damon was by far the junior and inferior driver, arguably no real threat to him, but Prost recognised that Hill was still 'the competition' so why help him go faster? Simply put, you don't give away your competitive advantage - to anyone!
Finally, two further and related thoughts on winning from other people that Damon grafted into his own playbook:
My mechanic, Les Jones, used to joke about our tactics before a race. He would say, 'Get in front and improve your position.'
and Ayrton Senna, for many the greatest F1 talent of all time:
On many occasions I have found satisfaction from beating my own achievements. Many times I find myself in a comfortable position and I don't feel happy about it. I feel it is right to slow down, but something inside me, something very strong, pushes me on, makes me try to beat myself. It is...an enormous desire to go further and further, to travel beyond my own limits.
There is no such thing in my view as a single winning mind set, different people do it in different ways, so for example Steve Jobs was very different to Bill Gates, but the common traits between winners are extensive. Damon Hill's autobiography reveals a mindset that has much in common with other leading sports stars and other winners more broadly, with some of the key points drawn out above. Worth a read.