In the heat of the moment

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When Phil Hill’s Cooper crashed and burnt to a crisp in the 1964 Austrian Grand Prix, Peter Miller was on the spot with his camera, helping hand and words of warning

The 1964 Austrian Grand Prix, seventh of 10 rounds counting for the championship, was held on the makeshift airfield circuit of Zeltweg. This was, in fact, a fully operational NATO base, and part of its contract with the Austrian Automobile Club was that it had to be back on a war footing by midnight on the evening after the race. One shudders to think what might have happened had the Russians attacked Vienna that weekend!

Frankly, the race organisers should have quietly folded their tents and crept away, for the venue was far below world championship standards. They were lucky that the ‘bomb’ which did go off was a fairly small one made in Surbiton.

I was used to covering the ‘stranger’ races of this period; as a freelancer, I tended to find more work by, for instance, reporting on the Solitude F2 race while the rest of the press corps was at Zandvoort for the Dutch GP. However, that weekend at Zeltweg, although an important race, was weirder than most.

On the Thursday before it, I flew from Heathrow to Vienna, hired a car and drove through the countryside to the Zeltweg circuit. There were no signs or posters: it was like riding into Tombstone.

When I asked where race control was, a workman indicated a forlorn double-decker bus in the distance. At least when I got there I found a man who had a list with my name on it. He made a couple of telephone calls and directed me down the road to a hotel, which fortunately had a decent restaurant.

The next day, amazingly, the airfield did look rather different, resembling Silverstone in the 1950s. But there was still very little to recommend it. The concrete surface was very rough, far too rough for single-seaters with flimsy suspensions. Indeed, of the 20 starters, only nine made it to the finish, and none of them were regular front-runners: Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Dan Gurney and John Surtees all retired. Instead, the race provided Ferrari’s Lorenzo Bandini with his only world championship victory, and he was joined on the podium by BRM’s number two, Richie Ginther, and arch privateer Bob Anderson.

Most were happy to get away from the place. But nobody was happier than Phil Hill — and me.

Phil had been having a terrible time of it. He’d crashed his works Cooper in practice and was forced to start from the back of the grid in a cobbled-up, year-old car.

It was on lap 60 that I saw a wheel roll across the track. Only then did I realise that Phil was three-wheeling directly towards me.

I was standing right at the exit of the left-handed corner after the airfield control tower, behind some straw bales. The Cooper struck these just a few metres away from me. I had instinctively fallen onto my back, but sprang back to my feet, my Canon automatic 35mm still around my neck.

I ran forward to Phil’s aid — and this is where he and I disagree slightly: Phil has since said that he was out of the cockpit by the time I got to him; I would say he was still in the cockpit, with his right arm stretched out and a cut over his right eye. But in this reconstruction of a very frightening event, which happened 38 years ago and could well have killed us both, we are allowed to differ. The shock had been a big one for both of us. And there was much worse to come.

No-one came to help us. A few of the braver officials were beginning to gather and saunter over with a couple of extinguishers, and maybe two or three motorcycle police were kick-starting their machines, but you will notice that there is no sign of a fire engine or professional firefighters in my photos. Instead, Phil had to use a large red extinguisher that I had grabbed from behind a straw bale in the pitlane and handed to him. I wasn’t certain if Phil raced with earplugs or cotton-wool balls stuffed in his ears, but he seemed unaware of the extremely ominous sound the Cooper was beginning to make. The lapping sound of the flames, which were taking hold all around the cockpit, was replaced by a pressure cooker-type noise. It was very disturbing.

Yet Phil continued to fight the blaze. He emptied a second extinguisher I had given him, then got rid of his helmet and began to look under the Cooper’s seat for a smaller Pyrene-type extinguisher. He kept shouting, “I’ve got to find it! I’ve got to find it!”

It was at this stage that I began to think he might have been dazed by the crash. I was shouting, ‘Phil, get back, she’s going up!” But he didn’t seem to hear me. Three times I tugged hard on his right shoulder and tried to drag him back, but each time he pulled free. Then, at the fourth attempt, he seemed to realise the danger we were in. I felt his body relax and I pulled him clear.

As we scrambled out of the way and up the pitlane, there was a huge explosion and the Cooper sent up a great column of flame and dense black smoke. Phil Hill would have been the former world champion if we had both not acted so quickly.

I remember being very glad to get a flight back to London the next day. I had escaped lightly, although I couldn’t shave for a few days because my face was sore and scorched.

Apparently, there was a front-page story in the Graz Zeitung the next day, and I did see that one of the British motoring weeklies had mentioned me by name, but I cannot recall any other such reports of the incident.

But that wasn’t the point. I did not act as I did with the thought of getting a George Cross or a Purple Heart, it was just a matter of Phil dropping in where I happened to be.

When I spoke to him on the Mille Miglia Retrospective, some 25 years after the incident, I asked him if he remembered the fire. He said that he did, then winked and added, “I was out of the car when you got there, but thanks for the help.” At which point we shook hands on it and walked away.

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