Why Graham Hill was – and still is – Mr Monaco

Graham Hill loved Monaco, and Monaco loved Graham Hill. Paul Fearnley examines the most famous driver/circuit relationship in motor racing

English racing driver Graham Hill (1929-1975) pictured in the driver's seat of the #6 Owen Racing Organisation BRM P57 BRM P56 1.5 V8 racing car after finishing in first place to win the 1963 Monaco Grand Prix in Monte Carlo on 26th May 1963. (Photo by Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Hill after taking the first of five Monaco victories in 1963

Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Time was running out. On several levels. The most pressing problem, however, was to qualify. This process would have been straightforward — until just a few days ago. Which is when, in response to the huge accident at Montjuich Park during the Spanish GP, the grid had been slashed from 26 to 18. Oh, and qualifying was being held over two days this year, rather than the traditional three.

The season was just four races old, but his team had been through the wringer already. First, there was the usual time-and-motion conundrum of building the new car and contesting the flyaway South American races. After back-of-the-grid performances in Argentina and Brazil, the new car arrived at Kyalami — and showed promise, team-mate Rolf Stommelen finishing just outside the points. The flip side was his own huge crash, on oil, in the old car, during practice, from which he was lucky to walk away.

The rumour mill cranked into action again. For six years, ever since his leg-mangling somersault at Watkins Glen, the press had awaited the announcement of retirement. They thought it might have come after his 1971 International Trophy win. Or perhaps after his ’72 Le Mans success. It didn’t.

British racing driver Graham Hill (1929 - 1975) during practice for the Monaco Grand Prix, 1st June 1973. (Photo by Victor Blackman/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

12 years after his first Monaco victory, Hill failed to qualify – and was “gutted”

Victor Blackman/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He stood down in Spain, though, for journeyman Francois Migault, and endured a fraught introduction to the agonies and helplessness of ‘competing’ from the pitlane. Stommelen led a chaotic race for eight laps, until a rear wing failure over a 150mph crest caused his car to pinball between the barriers. He was badly hurt, and worse, four bystanders were killed. It was a sombre Embassy Racing with Graham Hill that pooled their resources and went to Monaco, where the boss would be their only driver.

And he was struggling. With 10 minutes of Friday morning’s two-hour session to go, Mr Monaco was the wrong side of the cut. Ian Flux was the junior member of the team: “You could see he was really trying. He drove as hard over those last few laps as he had done for some of his wins at Monaco.” Sadly, it wasn’t enough.

For the first time in the then-longest F1 career (176 starts), Graham Hill had failed to qualify for a GP, falling 0.37sec short. “He was gutted,” continues Flux, “and we were as disappointed as he was.

From the archive

“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.

MONTE CARLO, MONACO - MAY 10: Graham Hill waves to the crowd while taking a victory lap after winning the 1964 Monaco Grand Prix at the Circuit de Monaco on May 10, 1964 in Monte Carlo, Monaco. (Photo by Robert Riger/Getty Images)

Crowd spill onto track after ’64 victory

Robert Riger/Getty Images

“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.

Bob Dance was Lotus’ chief mechanic when Graham took their 49s to victories at Monaco in 1968-69: “He didn’t slip into a car as neatly or as easily as some. He tended to be more upright, which perhaps gave the impression that he was being a bit heavyhanded. But it wasn’t as bad as it looked. He had a good mechanical feel for a racing car.”

Hill suffered in comparison with Clark — and later Jackie Stewart, another uncannily smooth, seamless Scot — but who didn’t? The bottom line was that he knew his strengths and those of his car (particularly his BRMs), and in an era that boasted John Surtees, Dan Gurney and Jack Brabham, Graham was the second-most successful driver after Clark. If Jimmy didn’t win, Graham tended to. Which is basically what happened at Monaco.

The polarity of their results there is remarkable. Despite four poles and two fastest laps from six starts, Clark never completed the course and gleaned only three points (classified fourth in 1964). Hill scored just two poles and two fastest laps in his 17 starts, but clocked up 10 finishes (nine top-sixes in a row, 1962-70) and 58 points —20 per cent of his eventual grand total of 289.

In Clark’s defence, it was his Lotus that usually let him down — clutch, gearbox, engine, suspension. But his difficulty in nailing one of his trademark rocket getaways at Monaco, his first-lap clipping of the chicane’s bales while attempting to establish one in 1964, and his and Chapman’s decision to tackle Indy rather than Monaco in 1965, suggest that the spate of defeats here, and the track’s attendant problems, were not something the dominant partnership of the era revelled in. “It’s a special place with special pressures,” says Stewart, BRM team-mate to Hill in 1965-66, Monaco victor in the latter year. “Graham demonstrated that he knew what it took to win there, that he could last the pace — he was a robust man, quite big for a racing driver. And he proved he could drive very accurately. He’d learned that you didn’t win by making mistakes. If you look at his career, he didn’t have many accidents.” Once BRM had given him a reliable, competitive car, Hill determined to make the most of it, to maximise his hard-won experience.

Stewart: “BRMs were never as good as a Lotus in terms of grip, but they were fast, strong and reliable — good Monaco cars.”

Graham Hill pushes his BRM back onto the circuit during the 1965 Monaco Grand Prix. Photo: Grand Prix Photo

’65 off led to incredible comeback drive

Grand Prix Photo

Which is why they won four in a row (1963-66), securing eight podium finishes in the same period. They should have won in ’62, too, but Hill’s most dominant Monaco performance in the presence of Clark led to disappointment eight laps from home, when his V8 croaked, dry of oil. Clark’s gearbox failure with 20 laps to go in ’63, which gave Hill his first Monaco win, was justice done.

In 1964, Hill, Clark and Gurney’s Brabham slugged it out. Graham and Tony Rudd, BRM’s technical chief, the two men most responsible for pulling the team around, had worked a stroke for this race, fitting ventilated rear discs from the 1960 2.5-litre car to the front of the new P261. Hill bided his time before picking off Gurney at Mirabeau, his favourite overtaking point, around mid-distance. He then staved off Clark to win, finishing with two gallons of fuel, only half-worn brakes and the fastest lap to his name. A calculating, dominant performance.

From the archive

His hat-trick victory showed another side to Hill: the charger. Forced up the chicane’s escape road by a hampered backmarker on lap 25, he dropped to fifth, having lost 30sec pushing his car back onto the track and restarting it. Forty laps later, he was back in the lead. Some of the shine was taken off this by Clark’s absence but, by Rudd’s reckoning, it was still Hill’s finest drive in a BRM.

His driver stated the car had not given him a moment’s anxiety, even though he had “hammered it”.

It wasn’t always so. His next two years were spent nursing cars home. His Tasman-spec P261 gave him plenty to cope with in 1966 (slipping clutch, low oil pressure, cutting-out engine and bad handling) as did his Lotus 33-BRM in ’67 (gearbox, clutch, low oil and low fuel). He was lapped on both occasions, but still finished third and second.

“Graham certainly knew how to bring a car home,” says longtime GP correspondent John Blunsden. “He was almost as good as Jack Brabham in that respect. Perhaps their mechanicking backgrounds helped them in this.

“There was no great expectation each year that Graham would win at Monaco. To be honest, the buzz was always, ‘Will this be Jimmy’s year?’ You knew Graham would qualify well, have a good run and be in with a shout — especially as he seemed to go better on the slow to medium-speed circuits. I think he found it harder to be quick at Monza than he did at Monaco.”

Graham Hill (Lotus-Ford) in the 1968 Monaco Grand Prix. Photo: Grand Prix Photo

Hill rounds Massenet en route to claiming a win which help lift Lotus after Clark’s death

Grand Prix Photo

Early use by BRM of electronic sector timing proved Stewart to be far quicker than Hill through a particular Snetterton corner. Jackie braked early and gently in order to carry more speed into the apex and get back onto the power earlier. Hill, who preferred a much stiffer set-up, braked late and hard, put the power down later, but more aggressively. Asked if he would adapt his style, he pointed out that he was quicker over the full lap. He stuck to what he knew. Which continued to serve him well at Monaco. Hill had moulded BRM around himself; but at Lotus he ran head-on into the Chapman/Clark axis. He was man enough to take it on the chin and step into the breach when Clark was killed at Hockenheim in 1968 and a distraught Chapman absented himself from the team. Chapman reappeared at Monaco and was, understandably, in an odd mood. The atmosphere was strained, but Hill kept his eye on the ball to score his fourth Monaco win, thus ending Lotus’ seven-year Monaco victory drought with the first run of the 49B.

It was a strange race, Stewart non-starting because of a broken wrist, and 11 of the 16 starters retiring by lap 17. Hill provided an oasis of calm, while Richard Attwood provided the only spark of interest. Replacing Mike Spence at BRM, and with just one GP start since 1965, he gave chase in the torquey V12 P126.

From the archive

“I wasn’t sure how to pace myself or the car,” says Attwood. “It had been reduced to an 80-lap race that year, but at the end I realised I had enough energy to do 90 laps, or 100.” Attwood, catching glimpses of the Lotus diving into Mirabeau, increased his pace throughout, setting the fastest lap on the last lap, but Hill controlled the gap. It was only when Attwood drove the 49B at Monaco in 1969, deputising for the injured Rindt, that he realised how good a car it was, and that Graham had probably had the ’68 race in his pocket throughout.

The stronger B, its Hewland ’box better suited to Hill’s preferred blockchanging style (eg fifth to second) compared to the sequential change (five, four, three, two) demanded by the 49’s original ZF unit, gave him a perfect platform from which to restore Lotus pride and win his second title, in 1968. There was, however, only one more GP victory in the tank: a fifth Monaco win, in 1969. That year, he drove craftily, banking on practice problems recurring to put out leader Stewart’s Matra and Chris Amon’s chasing Ferrari. This is exactly what happened.

Lotus-Ford driver Graham Hill celebrates his win in the 1969 Monaco Grand Prix. Photo: Grand Prix Photo

Hill took his fifth and final Monaco win in ’69

Grand Prix Photo

Attwood finished fourth: “Graham was very confident about racing at Monaco, understandably so, and was able to drive very precisely. And perhaps his method of driving [braking hard and late, and skipping gears] helped here.” So Monaco suited his personality, his cats, his driving style and his approach to racing. Time, though, was running out and Chapman shipped him on to Rob Walker for 1970. Defying all prognoses, Graham was lowered into the royal blue Lotus for the first GP of the season. He finished sixth. He was fifth at Monaco, but not before he’d crashed in practice. A shunt on lap two of the ’71 GP put a further dent in the reputation. He would become the sort of well-meaning backmarker he used to slice by, yet he plugged on, his new team thankful for his experience, if not his speed, in 1973-74.

It wasn’t until he’d found the man he believed to be Britain’s next world champion that he felt able to retire. That 1975 Monaco walk was made easier by the warmth of the reception and his signing of Tony Brise on the Friday night. At the next race, after Brise qualified seventh at Zolder, his mind was made up: it was time to make way. It was the right decision. One that looked set to bear fruit in 1976. Only for time to run out on a foggy November evening. Unwittingly, Monaco and its favourite son had bade farewell.