Wing Commander

Phil Hill reckons that the Chaparral 2F was the best car he’s ever raced, with its 7.0-litre engine and radical aerodynamics. Now Hill and the 2F are back for Goodwood. David Tremayne reports

The sharknose Ferrari was every schoolboy’s epitome of the early 1960s Formula One car, and it still has a place in the affections of the man who won the 1961 World Championship with it. Some of Maranello’s Testa Rossas were brutally efficient, too, while the 70-litre Ford GT40 Mk II set Le Mans alight in 1965 in his hands. But ask Phil Hill to name his favourite racing car, and there is no hesitation: “Oh, the Chaparral 2F! That was the best racing car I ever drove. Some car.”

The 2F’s career was lamentably short, a mere eight races in 1967. It would have been longer but for a controversial decision by the CSI, then the sport’s governing body. In the immediate aftermath of the Le Mans race that year, the CSI decided to cut the capacity for prototype sportscars to 3.0 litres for 1968. As front-running challengers, the Chaparral, the Fords, Ferrari’s P4s and the Lola Aston Martins were consigned to the history books at a stroke, amid thinly veiled accusations that the French were merely clearing the decks to make way for the new Matra and Alpine models which just happened to have 3.0-litre engines.

Already a leading contender in the CanAm series, Chaparral owner Jim Hall undertook a season of sportscar racing in Europe in 1966 with the distinctive 2D, but though the basis of that car formed the 2F the external appearance was completely different. The latter ushered in the change from smooth curves to the sharper, slab-sided profiles that became familiar in the last years of the 1960s.

Seven litres of lightweight GM engine provided the thrust, via a three-speed automatic transmission that was to prove the car’s Achilles heel. And the high-Mounted cockpit-adjustable rear wing was but the tip of an iceberg of aerodynamic novelties with which this very clever car bristled. “As time went by there had been a rapid accumulation of knowledge about aerodynamics, and the progress made the cars I drove towards the end of my career a whole lot better than some I’d driven earlier on,” Hill recalled.

He shared the 2F with British F1 driver Mike Spence, and they were well matched. In the car’s first outing, on Hill’s home ground at Daytona, it ran with the wing in fixed specification, but Hill led and was pulling away from the Ferraris until he slid off on marbles. Afterwards he was a little rueful that Spence had omitted to warn him, and mortified by what was a wholly uncharacteristic error.

The chance to make amends was denied him at Sebring when he was struck down by appendicitis, leaving Spence and Hall to fight with the victorious Andretti/McLaren Ford Mk IV before the transmission seals burst.

Then Spence put the car on pole at Monza. This was the first year of chicanes there and Hill detested them, but when a driveshaft broke while Spence was contesting the lead with the Ferraris, he was obliged to defer his racing comeback until Spa, where he was three and a half seconds quicker than Jacky Ickx in the Mirage. However, the transmission again let them down in the wet race and then, as Hill put it, “Ickx just ate us alive”.

On the face of it, the Madonna circuit in Sicily, home to the audacious Targa Florio, was the last place you’d expect to see the 70-litre monster, but Hill got it up to fourth place only for a puncture to put co-driver James ‘Hap’ Sharp out on the ninth lap. Hill had amused himself in practice, entertaining the crowd with a display of the Chaparral wing’s adjustability. Hill doesn’t recall much about that, but remembers the Targa for another reason.

“What gave me the best memories of that race was running the car on the top of those hills there.

So many of the corners were blind, and there were whole bunches of these locals from Palermo who had never seen the thing before, jumping up and down every time we went by. They were just delighted to see this crazy-looking car!” The cruellest disappointments came at the Nurburgring and Le Mans. Hill loved the former, and still bubbles enthusiastically about the fight he had in 1961 with sharknose team-mate and championship rival Taffy von Trips. Spence did the first 100mph sportscar lap to put the white car on the pole, but Hill dropped almost to the tail of the field as he buckled his seatbelts after the Le Mans-type start. The previous year he and Jo Bonnier had won there in the 2D, and this time Hill was the fastest man on the track. He scythed his way back into the lead by the eighth lap only to have yet another transmission failure.

“I absolutely loved driving that car at the ‘Ring, and we had high hopes after the 1966 race. That was probably, of all of them, the biggest disappointment of the whole year.”

At Le Mans, too, he was quickest in qualifying, and the lead Chaparral was the one car capable of taking the fight to the Fords until those transmission seals failed again when in third place. A three-hour rebuild won the hearts of the spectators, but the damage had already been done and there was a cheer of respect when the American challenger was finally wheeled away.

“The car was so good ere, too,” said Hill. “But it wasn’t just the transmission that hurt us. We lost the control for the wing early on and had to run with it in the downforce position. That just knocked the heck out of it on the straight! After that the car was real easy to drive, but it was so slow!”

Then came the inaugural BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch, where they qualified third after driveshaft failure had prevented them challenging for pole. They ran second early on, until a puncture lost them a minute and three-quarters. They then stormed their way back into contention, Hill taking two seconds a lap off the Amon/Stewart Ferrari P4 which was leading. In the closing stages, the Chaparral went into the lead and this time there were to be no transmission seal leaks, no disappointments. Just a highly apposite and enormously popular victory. The most innovative car of the 1967 season had won the last race for the big-engined prototypes. And it would prove to be a swansong for Phil Hill.

“The car actually let us down an awful lot,” he said looking back over the season, the regret still evident in his voice 30 years later. ‘And, you know, it was really stupid that those problems couldn’t be overcome. Race after race we turned up with the quickest car, only for it to fail.

“After my thing with Ferrari, and then with Ford, it was very satisfying to have a car like that to challenge them with. But it was just so disappointing when you think of what it could have been. I mean, we coulda slaughtered ’em with that thing. But maybe we should just remember the positive side.”

It was, after all, the car that allowed Phil Hill, 1961 World Champion, to win that last race in which he ever drove, although he didn’t appreciate that it was his last at the time. Jim Hall had intended at one stage to run a car in the CanAm for Spence that year but after Mike’s death he drove it himself “With no CanAm drive and the CSI thing on the engine capacity, it all just sort of faded away,” Hill said, “and then I figured it was the right time to quit.

“It was absolutely satisfying to win that race at Brands Hatch, especially after all the troubles we’d had that year. And in retrospect, well, there couldn’t be a better way to finish a career, could there?”

Almost 30 years later, Hill and the Chaparral 2F are to be re-united, at Goodwood. After its last, brilliant performance on English tarmac, all those years ago, fingers will again be crossed that those transmission seals behave themselves one more time.