“But I only realised the next day what a big deal it was, when we gathered at the top of the hill in our team gear and walked towards Ste Devote behind Graham and [wife] Bette. He was all smiles and the crowd’s reaction was incredible. It was then that it dawned on me what Monaco meant to him, and what he meant to Monaco.”
An earnest and impecunious Graham Hill used to bluff his way into the Steering Wheel Club and nurse half a pint so he could mix with, and listen to, racing’s establishment. Monaco must have been a motif and (no doubt embellished) stories of its glitz and glamour could only have inspired him. He was spannering for Lotus at the time, picking up drives when he could; nobody could ever accuse him of shirking, but good hotels, good food, success and adulation, all sandwiched between the crisp white Alps and the deep blue Med, was a strong, albeit distant, incentive.
Nobody, however, not even Hill, could have predicted how inextricably linked he would become with the Principality. The connections are freakish: first grand prix, last grand prix, five wins, overhauling Fangio’s record points haul (1970), his 150th GP start (’73) — all occurred at Monaco. But the relationship was more than simply statistics. He was the life and soul of motor racing’s biggest party. He revelled in the atmosphere. And the appreciation was mutual. Ayrton Senna, who won six times, never replaced Mr Monaco, even though his flat was a toy’s throw from Portier. Like all things for Hill, though, this symbiosis did not come easily. The apprenticeship was long, difficult, but crucial. For instance, he arrived in Monaco in 1958 for his and Lotus’ GP debut (having buzzed through France in an Austin A35!) only to discover that the transporter had broken down. This delay put practice lappery at a premium, and he and team-mate Cliff Allison did well to squeak onto the 16-car grid — 12 others were not so lucky. This effort, however, had not been without incident: Graham hit a kerb at the Station Hairpin and his Lotus 12 folded underneath him.
“I remember spending all night putting it back together,” recalls Allison. “None of the mechanics wanted to take responsibility for the welding; I’d done a course at BOC in Middlesbrough, and so I did it.” Hardly ideal preparation for your GP debut.
In the race, Hill kept out of trouble, and was perhaps heading for a points finish when a halfshaft snapped after 70 laps and a rear wheel parted company. He hopped out and collapsed with heat exhaustion — a rare display of weakness for this tough competitor.
“Graham was very determined,” says Allison. “I was testing a Lotus down at Brands Hatch once and watched him go round in someone else’s Aston Martin. He spun five times or so — at just about every corner. He really got cars by the scruff of the neck and hurled them about I certainly didn’t think I was watching a driver who’d win Monaco five times.”
And so we reach that ‘natural’ thing. Already. The Jimmy Clark versus Graham Hill thing. The gifted versus the grafter thing. The Scot was certainly blessed, able to go quicker than his rivals while taking little out of the car. He could drive around problems; if there was any adapting to be done, he would find it within himself. In contrast, Graham attempted to extract every last ounce from a car’s mechanicals, and was forever fiddling with its set-up in a bid to find an edge. But his record at the unforgiving, stop-start Monaco, one of the toughest tracks on car and driver, scotches the myth that he was an unfeeling car-breaker, that he was all arms and elbows as a driver.