Phil Hill - America's first F1 World Champion

Phil Hill - America's first F1 World Champion

Formula 1

Phil Hill - America's first F1 World Champion

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But he was so much more than that. Phil Hill was a deep-thinking, urbane, trustworthy gentleman who survived a perilous time in racing to become a hugely respected commentator on ABC and writer for Road & Track magazine. And this has tended to overshadow the on-track accomplishments of Phil Hill, racing driver. As we approach the fifth anniversary of Hill’s death, Paul Fearnley reappraises the 1961 Formula 1 World Champion, three-time winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans winner and three-time winner of the 12 Hours of Sebring.

He won on his first and last days as a racing driver. On July 24, 1949, he prevailed at the spindly wheel of an ash-framed, steel-bodied, skinny-tired, front-engined, sit up-and-beg 52.5hp (in standard tune) British sports car that was a pre-World War II throwback, with its flowing fenders, chromed radiator and exposed headlights. On 30 July 1967, he prevailed at the chunky wheel of a semi-monocoque, fiberglass-bodied, fat-tired, rear-engined, low-slung 525hp American sports car that was the most futuristic of its generation, with its suspension-mounted and driver-adjustable aerodynamic wing, hip-mounted radiators and clutch-less torque-converter transmission.

From heel-and-toeing a privateer MG TC to left foot-braking the GM-supported Chaparral 2F, Phil Toll Hill Jr. experienced the whole gamut and excelled (and survived) at every level, in every format and with every type of racecar front- and rear-engined, single- and two-seater, open- and closed-wheeler, big banger and little tiddler during the sport’s most seismic and dangerous era.

In 1949, he was a SoCal “crazy” albeit a ruminative one with passions for Italian opera and British engineering who had cut his speed teeth on Main Street drag strips and in illegal time trials held under the cloak of darkness in and around L.A.’s then-undeveloped mountains and gorges. By 1967, he was the thinking man’s racer, a 40-year-old senior pro with precisely the right amount of speed, smarts and sympathy to go the distance.

There was an intermezzo, however, when he cultivated the crazy image while railing against his tag of enduro hero. It was impatience and impulsiveness that set Hill on the road to becoming a Formula 1 World Champion; a hectic sprint that almost burned him out and left him deeply reflective. His day of days, at a circuit where he excelled, was forever blackened by his teammate and title rival’s visceral plunge into the crowd.

Hill’s F1 door had swung open three years earlier at the same track: Monza. It did so mainly because of the death of his Buenos Aires 1000km- and Sebring 12 Hours-winning co-driver and friend he was sharing Peter Collins’ Monte Carlo-based yacht as well as his Ferrari Testa Rossa in 1958. But the opportunity also arose partly because the American had put his shoulder to it by provocatively hiring a Maserati 250F for that season’s French Grand Prix. Enzo, you see, had him marked as a two-seater kind of guy. And that grated with the American, for whom securing the victories (in the unlikely settings of Sweden and Venezuela) that clinched the World Sports Car Championships of 1956 and ’57 for Ferrari, and relentlessly pressing on through the murk of the 1958 Le Mans 24 Hours the first and best of his three wins at La Sarthe were means to an end. Hill had dreamed of being involved in F1 (initially as an ace mechanic) since attending the 1950 British GP at Silverstone.

As he guided Jo Bonnier’s Maserati past Reims’ shimmering cornfields (ABOVE) to a measured seventh place, he passed the scene of Luigi Musso’s cartwheeling crash: another of his Ferrari co-drivers infected by swirling Scuderia circumstance and intrigue had bitten the dust. Enzo, running out of options, then placated Hill with an offer of the Formula 2 version of the single-seat Dino for the German Grand Prix; the same car with which he had “threatened” newlywed Collins from golden boy to naughty boy in France. And as Hill struggled to ninth overall and fifth in class at the Nurburgring, he passed the site of Collins’s cartwheeling crash. Such was motor racing when fear was its only safety net.

Hill at the 1959 French GP, where he finished second

Hill, like his peers, put any morbid thoughts to the back of his mind and forged to the front from the second row when the flag dropped to start the Italian GP: thus he led his first race lap in a Formula 1 car. In fact, he led the first four until his team leader and title aspirant Mike Hawthorn forged ahead. Hill pitted two laps later when his left-rear Englebert tire stripped its tread. He would lead again (for three more laps) and set fastest lap before a second stop for new rubber. In a car fitted with drum brakes rather than Dunlop discs and powered by an older-spec V6, he finished third. He would have been second had he not spotted Hawthorn’s green sleeve jutting anxiously from the cockpit of a Ferrari hampered by clutch slip and creeping to the finish. Hill was as alert and measured as he was keen.

At the title-decider in Morocco five weeks later, he again acted as Ferrari’s hare in a bid to outfox the Vanwalls. Bold, he outbraked himself drums versus discs again in a bid to pass the superlative Stirling Moss, and slid down an escape road. He recovered quickly and so was able to hand the all-important second place and thus the World Championship by a single point to teammate Hawthorn. A grateful Mike called Hill “loyal and brilliant.”

Even so, Hill played second fiddle to another Brit in F1 in 1959. The like-minded Tony Brooks was educated, thoughtful and quick, but more experienced and therefore more assured. Hill finished as runner-up to him at a roasting Reims and was third behind Brooks and fellow Yankee dandy Dan Gurney when Ferrari banked a 1-2-3 in the German GP at Avus. He also finished second at Monza, where he led for 29 laps and set fastest lap only to be outsmarted by Moss, whose light rear-engined Cooper, with its knock-off rear wheels, appeared geared up to pit but ran non-stop to victory.

1960 Italian GP: Final front-engined win.

By 1960, with Brooks concentrating on his gas station near Brooklands the money was better! Hill was Ferrari’s go-to guy for grands prix as well as sports car races. Unfortunately, Ferrari had yet to fully grasp the drivetrain nettle and so he fought a private Alamo in the glorious but doomed front-engined Dino-saur. He finished a superb third at a dry/wet/dry Monaco, battled hard but lost a sure second place because of a loose fuel union at Spa (he finished fourth after dousing the flames!), and gave it the gun versus Jack Brabham’s pace-setting, rear-engined “Lowline” Cooper at Reims until his transmission lunched itself. In Portugal, Hill was chasing the leading Lotus of sensational newcomer John Surtees when a troublesome clutch caused him to miss a gear and not miss a straw bale. These defeats at so-called power tracks marked the end of the beginning even Enzo Ferrari, wearing sunglasses in his moodily lit office, could see that.

Hill’s first win, when it came, was a hollow one the British teams boycotted the Italian GP because of its inclusion of Monza’s buffeting bankings but nobody could say that he didn’t deserve it. Pole, fastest lap, never headed: you could ask for no more. Arguably, 1960 was perhaps Hill’s best season of F1, though not, of course, his most successful or famous.

In Belgium in 1961, Hill leads Wolfgang von Trips.

That was 1961, when Ferrari’s foundry forged a 1.5-liter edge from a V6 that at last pushed rather than pulled its cart. Hill scored five consecutive pole positions, including the first sub-nine-minute lap of the Nurburgring, and two victories: the Belgian and Italian GPs. The gap between the best Moss and the next best has never been greater than it was that year, but there is no reason to suggest that P. Hill was anything but that next best. A spin on melting tar when leading in France he was too keen to lap Moss’s underpowered Lotus was the only major mistake of his campaign. True, teammate Wolfgang von Trips got the better of him in Holland and a saturated Britain, and jumped him in a late rainstorm for a very hairy second place in Germany, but the Cologne-born aristo was undoubtedly keener to take risks than the USC frat boy-turned-master mechanic.

Von Trips, a year younger than Hill, had been in F1 since Monza 1956 (he failed to start after wrecking his Lancia-Ferrari in practice) and became a Scuderia regular after a partial campaign in 1957. He broke his leg in a frightening tumble into the trees at Monza in 1958 in contrast to Hill’s smooth performance and rammed the tail of Brooks at the Sebring title showdown of ’59. Both incidents were products of dubious opening-lap maneuvers. Two seasons later, wound tighter than ever, “Taffy” von Trips came permanently unstuckon the opening lap at Monza.

Hill, as he had at Spa, controlled proceedings that fateful day with a measured authority, despite fretting about fragile valve springs. He did not, however, take much if any pleasure from becoming World Champion. Von Trips’ death hit him hard; he felt some responsibility, though he was blameless. Enzo’s decision not to contest the U.S. GP at Watkins Glen was another kick in the teeth. Plus the harshly self-critical, Miami-born California resident felt that he had failed to extract the maximum from his situation: he had driven better in 1960 for poorer reward.

Third in the 1962 Dutch GP about as good as it got that year.

The same would be true in 1962. Ferrari imploded and its “Sharknose” lost its bite. The tenacious Hill, however, finished third, second and third in the first three grands prix of the season. So bad did the situation become thereafter, he allowed himself to be persuaded to join Carlo Chiti’s ATS splinter group in 1963, a scrambled decision that effectively ended his frontline F1 career.

Cooper rescued him in 1964, but he was no match for the incumbent Bruce McLaren and, after crashing twice in Austria, was dropped embarrassingly for the Italian GP. It was apt that he would end his F1 career driving the “camera car” for John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film Grand Prix, for this cerebral champion, a passionate and skilled amateur photographer, had been on the outside looking in for a couple of seasons. “Cut!” was called after he failed to qualify one of Gurney’s Eagles at Monza.

That switch to ATS also parched Hill’s deeper sports car well. Briefly. Having twice staved off the rampant Rodriguez brothers to win Le Mans in 1961 and ’62 (the last such victories for front-engined cars) alongside his co-driver of choice, urbane Belgian Olivier Gendebien, Hill’s attempt to get three straight lasted just 29 laps. His Aston Martin Project 215 was fast almost 200mph down the Mulsanne Straight but lacked Ferrari’s stomach for a fight.

Ford, famously jilted at the altar by financially troubled Ferrari, however, was certainly up to the challenge, and Hill was only too happy to help FoMoCo kick Enzo’s ass. He was the obvious choice to lead its GT40’s initial charge in 1964. Since his victory in the inaugural Pebble Beach Road Race of 1950 at the wheel of a self-modified Jaguar XK120, he had been a formidable sports car force: Enzo, though he had underestimated his adaptability, hadn’t been entirely wrong in his summation of Phil’s qualities.

Hill’s Carrera Panamericana performances 1952-’54 in privateer Ferraris brought his skills to a much wider audience, while providing him with the worst injury of his career: a cut hand as he clambered from his wreck of 1953. The following year, he finished second; fastest through the mountain sections, he was overwhelmed on the endless, dusty straights by Umberto Maglioli’s more powerful machine. Hill’s “Italian exotica” battles with Texan friend Carroll Shelby also put America’s burgeoning SCCA series on the sports car map: he was on his way to becoming the best in this particular business when he became its champion of 1955.

Ten years later, after three victories at Sebring some lap charts also had him winning in 1955 and two more in Buenos Aires, plus one at the Nurburgring, all for Ferrari, he set a stunning pole position and fastest lap in Shelby American’s untested, unwieldy and unreliable 7-liter Galaxie-engined GT40 MkII. (He had set fastest lap the year before, too, in the 4.7-liter MkI, its wire wheels “singing,” before registering another disappointing retirement.) The operatic politics of this scorched earth program a disenchanted Ford wrested control of it from John Wyer’s UK-based Ford Advanced Vehicles at the end of 1964 had worn Hill down, however. As such, his 1966 move to driver-centric Chaparral, with its ergonomic vehicles, came as a breath of fresh air and he would enjoy a couple of Indian summers alongside his cowboy hat-totin’ boss Jim Hall.

Sharing the 327cu.in Chevrolet V8-engined 2D fixed-head coupe (RIGHT) with Bonnier, Hill won the Nurburgring 1000km, restoring his reputation as a wet-weather driver he had slithered out of the lead of the same race in 1961. At one point, while still on the move, he’d even bench-pressed the gull-wing door and craned from the cockpit to clean a windshield smeared and then ignored by a malfunctioning wiper. He also scored this iconic marque’s only Can-Am victory, at Laguna Seca, in the bewinged and beautiful 2E.

For much of the following season the Chaparral 2F’s 7-liter proved too powerful for its three-speed transmission. But when this problem was eventually sorted, it kicked Ferrari’s ass Ford’s, Porsche’s and Lola’s, too in the six-hour BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch, UK. Paired with Mike Spence, the understated Brit busy proving himself to be better than most gave him credit for, the stylish Hill more than held his end up: to the very, very end.

A fitting finale for a classy driver and classy guy. 

2006: with Jack Brabham

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