He hadn’t won a Formula One race for two years and some felt he should retire. But as David Malsher explains, Graham Hill had the…
The GKN/Daily Express International Trophy could have been ‘just another’ non-championship Formula One race. For one thing, more than half of the 40-car entry list were F5000s (and Ferrari were notable absentees). For another, many of motorsport’s more lightweight followers elected to spend their Saturday watching the FA Cup Final on television.
More fool them.
Qualifying hinted at a close race between diverse machinery. Chris Amon’s wailing V12 Matra MS120B was on pole ahead of Jackie Stewart’s Cosworth V8-powered Tyrrell 003 and the Lotus 56 turbine of Emerson Fittipaldi. Seventh on this 4-3-4 grid was crowd favourite Graham Hill in the lobster-claw’ Brabham BT34.
“I had known Graham before he and I joined Brabham in 1971,” says Brian Lewis, Hill’s chief mechanic that season. “We had worked together at Alan Mann’s, and in 1970 he had run his own Formula Two car when I was running a car for Coombs, and we got along fine. He was a bloody good guy to work for, good to his mechanics, which meant a lot, because it was a difficult time, with not much money around.”
Ron Tauranac, BT34’s designer and, for this year only, running the team himself, concurs with Lewis: “We had no sponsorship lined up for 1971, and when Graham became available, it was felt that he could get sponsorship — though it never materialised.
“He and I got along fine. He had his own private plane, and that was one of the only years that Norma my wife came to a lot of the races, because we both were able to fly with Graham. He was one of the more popular, outgoing and bigger spenders of the drivers who, as a breed, don’t tend to put their hand in their pocket very often.”
So there was harmony in the Brabham ranks at this early stage of the season. But were they winners?
At Silverstone in May, Hill lay sixth in the first 26-lap heat, but when Fittipaldi pitted with front suspension failure on lap two, Graham had a clear run on John Surtees, driving his own TS9, whom he passed three laps later to move into fourth behind Stewart and the Matras of Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Amon. Just as Graham was considering launching an attack on third, he got lucky. Or more precisely, Chris Amon got his usual punch in the face from the fist of Fate, diving into the pits because of fuel surge.
By the time Graham had passed Beltoise, however, Stewart was long gone — and pulling away, setting lap records at will. And so Hill switched to defence mode: his mirrors were full of the giant Yardley ‘Y’ of Pedro Rodriguez’s BRM. The ‘Old Man’ did a masterful job of ignoring the distraction offered by a super-swift Mexican trying to drive over him. He simply wasn’t the sort — never had been — to be hassled into a mistake, and though some of Graham’s outright speed was no longer there at the age of 42, his racecraft remained intact.
Rodriguez was less convinced, a variety of hand gesticulations expressing his frustration. But he surely had both hands on the wheel when he slotted through a gap at Woodcote on lap 20. Typically, Graham didn’t give up, and only finished 1.2sec down on the BRM. Hill knew this could be crucial in the final analysis.
No-one, though, could hold a candle to Stewart, who won by almost 12sec. But it all went wrong for him within seconds of the start of Heat Two. From a grid dictated by the finishing order of the first heat, he and Rodriguez hurtled towards Copse, each determined to be last on the brakes. But the Tyrrell’s throttle jammed open and, with brakes locked, Jackie thwacked the bank on the outside, fortunately without injury.
“If Jackie hadn’t had his shunt, we would have been blown into the weeds,” admits Lewis. “Our BT34 was radical in design, but not so radical in terms of performance. But Silverstone wasn’t so demanding of the car. Plus, of course, we had the opportunity to test there more often than at other tracks.”
And so the scene was set for a superb battle as Rodriguez set about establishing a lead over Surtees, Hill, the fast-starting Brian Redman in an F5000 McLaren, and the Matras. Graham was eager not to let Rodriguez escape. He passed Surtees on lap five and immediately homed in on the leader. Now Hill was the hunter, Pedro the prey.
Lewis: “We knew what the situation was the whole way through, what Graham had to do to win [beat Rodriguez by more than 1.2sec]. Bette was with us in the pits doing the timing, which she was really very good at.”
Beltoise’s fifth-placed Matra blew itself to smithereens, and this just may have had a significant effect on the race. It couldn’t be confirmed, but it was perhaps debris from the French engine that penetrated one of Rodriguez’s Firestones. What we do know is that a slow puncture left the BRM man with no option but to succumb to Hill’s pressure on lap 11 and pit for a new tyre.
Thus Hill was left with a two-second lead over Surtees and Amon, neither of whom had any answer to his pace. Graham kept his cool, and put the hammer down to win the heat and take the overall victory.
“He and Bette were absolutely over the moon,” says Lewis. ‘And so were the crowd when we all went on a trailer round the circuit on a parade lap. Mike Hailwood was there, too, because he had won the F5000 class, and he had all these bottles of champagne. Well, this trailer was pulled by a tractor, I think, or a very slow lorry, and because it had been a typical race weekend of not eating much, by the time we got back to the pits, we were all some way past our best.
“The team were all invited back to the house by Graham and Bette, but I think hardly any of us made it, because we had to hang around Silverstone for the rest of the day, sobering up.”
Sadly, the result that day wasn’t the sign of things to come for car or driver. Qualifying fourth for the French GP and finishing fifth in Austria would be as good as it got in the world championship. Graham would never again mount an F1 podium.
At Silverstone, though, Graham had proved something to his colleagues, his doubters, perhaps to himself. He may not have been the force he once was, but he was a force nonetheless.