This issue cannot go to print without mention of Bette Hill, who has died aged 91. An extraordinary woman, of whom son Damon said ‘survived F1, the Blitz, me, Graham Hill…’
Bette was a beguiling mix of the glamorous, the redoubtable, the beautiful and the formidable. Her life was every bit as colourful as that of a racing driver, and her courage unquestioned.
Bette Hill met Graham at a Boxing Day rowing regatta in 1950. Both were active, competitive and loved sports – although it was Bette who would go on to row for England. Graham, as we know, was possessed by an altogether faster sport – but would carry the colours of the London Rowing Club on his crash helmet throughout his career, as would son Damon.
Graham and Bette married in 1955 – their honeymoon in Bognor Regis so that Graham could race his Lotus at nearby Goodwood. Compared with the challenges and sacrifices that were to follow, this was nothing. For all its glamour, to be close to motor racing in the ’60s meant being close to death. Graham survived it, not without incident, but he survived it – with Bette by his side at funerals and podiums alike. To consider what it must have been like for her during this decade, especially with three young children in tow, dealing with triumph and tragedy often simultaneously, is unimaginable. The press often showed her in a subservient light, armed with stopwatches, clipboards and generally taking care of Graham, but from the early ’60s Bette was a rock for both men and women across the wider paddock, and indeed was a founder member of what is now the Doghouse WMRAC. Its aim was “To help wives and girlfriends repair their shattered lives, in the event of a tragedy, through financial and moral support: to help anyone connected to motor racing, whose circumstances had altered through accident or illness.” The organisation continues its fundraising to this day.
When Graham switched his focus from driving to team ownership in the early ’70s, Bette was unconvinced. “I didn’t want Graham to build a team,” she told Motor Sport in 1999. “There wasn’t sufficient support or finance. It was the biggest heartbreak and toughest job he ever took on. The saddest thing is he was just getting it together when he had the crash.”
When Graham’s Piper Aztec came down on Arkley Golf Course, near Barnet, north London, in 1975, all six occupants died. Bette attended the funerals of five of the six who perished – all close friends. It was an excruciating time, made worse by aircraft licensing and insurance investigations and subsequent legal actions against the Hill estate. Graham, despite promises to the contrary, had not made provisions in the event of his death. The Hills were soon broke, but Bette would not allow them to break. She dedicated herself to her children, Damon, Brigitte and Samantha. “My mother,” wrote Damon in his autobiography, “having already had a lifetime of grief and anxiety, was now faced with a completely uncertain future with three children to fend for.” He continues: “Don’t worry Mum,” I thought to myself, “I’ll sort this out: somehow, some day.”
Damon Hill became F1 world champion in 1996, but it was not a gilded path to success, far from it. Unsurprisingly, he was deeply affected by the death of his father both emotionally and financially. He drifted through his final school years, and worked in various low-paid jobs including labourer and motorcycle courier to make ends meet. In his book, he describes the severe depression that has haunted periods of his life since.
Damon sensed an anger and frustration in his mother after Graham died (“I think she was actually very upset with my father for having left her to clear up the mess and leaving her to raise his children”), and this mixed with her naturally competitive nature made her an ‘intimidating’ force in the paddocks during Damon’s racing career. Woe betide anyone who would say a bad word about him in Bette’s earshot, or in the press.
Her indomitable spirit would stay with her throughout her life; indeed searching the Motor Sport Archive reveals a letter from her that communicates this acutely:
Sir, why is it I always read the ‘safety man’ in motor racing is always Jackie Stewart; as much as I admire him, he did not start making circuits safe, it was Graham together with Louis Stanley. Graham used to try the circuits before GPs and check things out at his own expense and time. Somehow whenever safety is referred to in articles he gets forgotten, which is very unfair and extremely hurtful for us.
I am, yours, etc.
Bette Hill, Cobham, Surrey
In that earlier 1999 interview with Motor Sport, Bette was asked for one word that best described both her late husband and son in respect to their careers. “Tough,” she replied. It takes one to know one…
Motor racing has lost one of its more interesting characters, and to Damon, Brigitte and Samantha and families, we extend our sincere sympathies.