The little grey autograph book was lost many years ago. No great loss. Even as a young child I never quite understood the fascination in collecting a signature. My book contained only two: Peter Purves’, which wasn’t much good because of course John Noakes’ was the one to have; and Tim Piggot-Smith’s. I hadn’t a clue who he was, someone must have pointed me at the actor at some local show or event. Too long ago to remember.
But in that book there was a loose piece of paper and on it was scribbled ‘To Colin from Graham Hill’. My mum had bumped into Hill on a train from Waterloo to Woking. Imagine seeing a Formula 1 driver on a rattler today, though quite what Hill was doing on one I’m not sure. Possibly on his way to the Brabham factory, or maybe to Rob Walker’s if it was a year or so earlier. Had I been there with her I’m not sure how well I’d have coped, but I’m sure Hill would have been well used to dealing with awestruck schoolboys.
I am the only one of our writers who did not see his subject in action. It was chronologically possible, I just lacked a father interested in motor racing who could have taken me to watch. But you didn’t have to go to see Graham Hill in the late 1960s because he came to you.
You wouldn’t say he was a David Beckham of his time, but he was as well known as George Best and that was as good as being a Beatle. I remember Hill talking to us from his hospital bed after the Watkins Glen crash in 1969, joking, heroic and inspirational.
That same year I went to see The Battle of Britain at the Woking Odeon. Graham Hill was like the pilots, right down to the moustache.
Even at seven years old I knew that he was the essential Englishman. Talking of films, my shock at seeing my first female breast on celluloid in Alistair Maclean’s Caravan to Vaccares was quickly followed by the surprise of seeing Graham Hill playing a helicopter pilot in the film. Hill’s speed began to diminish in the early 1970s but I loyally collected Embassy Hill book matches and admired Hill’s sideburns and long hair. And then one foggy November night in 1975 he was gone.
They say that Graham Hill was never a natural driver, that he had to work at it. Really? To win two world championships? The Indianapolis 500? Le Mans? The only driver ever to win all three? Not a natural? Remember that Hill only started motor racing when he was 26 years old. We should note that most of today’s ‘natural’ drivers will have been at the wheel since the age of 8. Yet within three years Hill was lining up on the grid at the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix in a not particularly good Lotus 12. He won his first world championship in 1962 in a BRM, which itself wasn’t a brilliant car.
But hold on, I’ve missed a trick. Five Monaco wins. A circuit that demands precise driving, a ridiculous number of gearchanges with each one of them a chance to blow up a fragile ’60s racing engine. If there is a track that requires natural skill it is surely Monaco. Look at the others who have won many times there: Senna with the most victories of anyone with six.
Schumacher with five. Prost with four. Stewart and Moss with three each. Do I have to point out the obvious common denominator? Correct, they’re all rightly considered naturals.
What, I wonder, does Sir Jackie Stewart think? As Hill’s team-mate at BRM in 1965 and ’66 there are few men alive today better qualified to comment. “I can see your argument, Colin; perhaps ‘not natural’ is not quite the right phrase or even fair, but there is no doubt that Graham had a different style of driving to most others. I’d describe it as methodical.
Whereas Jimmy [Clark], Stirling, to a certain extent myself, would drive around a car’s handling problem, Graham would fiddle with the car until it was right. Graham would take very different lines around a corner to others, and I know because sometimes I was following him.”
Our other great racing knight, Sir Stirling, echoes Stewart’s comments. “I’d go along with Jackie and say that Graham didn’t have a natural ability to drive a car extremely quickly.
But having said that, when I was to choose a partner for a sports car race at say, the Nürburgring, I would always choose Graham because he was so reliable. Quick, but unlikely to do anything stupid. A bit like Tony Brooks in that respect.”
Deep down I wasn’t expecting Stewart or Moss to dramatically back my argument. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because both of them understand perfectly why Hill should have been a hero for a small boy in the late 1960s and beyond. They both echoed the same sentiments that I have heard from many drivers, journalists, photographs and racing mechanics who were around F1 on Graham’s watch; that he was terrific fun, excellent company and a joy to be around. My late friend Michael Cooper, who photographed F1 throughout the ’60s, had an endless fund of Graham Hill anecdotes; of uproarious goings on at the Steering Wheel Club in Mayfair and at [American car dealer] Cliff Davis’ outrageous annual parties.
Sir Stirling Moss is as well known today as he was when he retired from racing exactly 50 years ago. It is as much his force of personality as his talent behind the wheel that has seen him remain a well-loved igure. I’m certain that if Hill was alive today he would be held in the same reverence and would be as much in demand at historic events as Moss.
GRANDS PRIX: 176
POLE POSITIONS: 13
FASTEST LAPS: 10
OTHER ACHIEVEMENTS: 1972 Le Mans 24 Hours (1st), 1966 Indianapolis 500 (1st), 1960 Targa Florio (1st)
From the Archives
When the season started most people were convinced that Jim clark was going to sweep the board and his untimely death threw the grand prix season into a gloom. Hill had to take over the lead of team Lotus and he did the job nobly and worked hard to achieve his crown. when you have won the Spanish GP, the Monaco GP and the Mexican GP you can be considered a worthy grand prix driver, unlike a lot of people who won nothing this season but like to be known as grand prix drivers.
Denis Jenkinson, December 1968
To vote for Graham Hill as your favourite driver, go to www.motorsportmagazine.com/worldchampions
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