My Greatest Race: Phil Hill

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Australian GP, Longford March 1st, 1965

He didn’t win, and there were no Championship points at stake in the Tasman Series, but despite a weekend touched by tragedy, Phil Hill recalls his last ever single-seater race with satisfaction.

It might come as a surprise to some people, but the race I enjoyed most in my career was not a World Championship event; in fact I didn’t even win it. What’s more, I didn’t know it at the time, but the Australian Grand Prix in 1965 also turned out to be my last single-seater race.

Bruce McLaren had approached me and asked if I wanted to go down to New Zealand and Australia to drive his second Cooper in the Tasman series that season. We had driven at Le Mans together, and got on well, nevertheless I was aware that my role was to replace Timmy Mayer, who’d been killed at Longford the previous year, so that added a grim note to it.

I must say after the year I had been through in F1, I was really not in the best frame of mind. In fact I had been through a terrible experience for the previous two years, with ATS in 1963, and then with Cooper in ’64. Bruce was still in an onwards and upwards frame of mind, and I really wasn’t! Apart from Bruce and myself, all the big names of the era went down under to race that year Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Jack Brabham and we had a wonderful time down there. It seemed like we were there forever – it must have been a good two and a half months. We just had a great time, surfing every day between the races!

But as was so typical of that time, the racing was marred by tragedy. Lex Davison, a big local star, was killed in the penultimate race at Sandown. We went to his funeral, and I’d never seen so many people – there must have been 20,000 people there, crowding the streets. It was unbelievable, but he was a real hero in Melbourne.

The final race was the Australian GP at Longford in Tasmania. I’d never been there before. It was a real road course, with long straight concrete roads. It was just a great track, and it reminded me of the original Elkhart Lake in 1951-52. Longford had bridges, crossroads, ditches, hedges and trees and everything else. I loved that kind of track, where you could see where you were going. Goodwood was the kind of track which baffled me, because everything was always over the horizon.

Up to then, the McLaren team seemed to have nothing but bad luck. But Longford was a good weekend for us. We finally got rid of this very uncomfortable gyroscopic aspect to our front tyres, which was making the thing very heavy to drive. We just took the corners off the inside and outside of both front tyres, and lost very little rubber on the road. It lightened up the steering, and there was much less tail wagging the dog. I remember that really making an improvement.

Then, at the last minute, Bruce made me swap engines right before the race. I would have liked to have kept my engine, but that’s what happens when you’re driving for somebody else – what can you do? I just remember that my car wasn’t nearly as good as it had been…

Unfortunately there was another terrible accident on the first lap, which killed Rocky Tresise and a photographer. It was so bizarre that something like that could happen, for Rocky was the protégé of Lex who had died just a week before. I just couldn’t believe that Lex’s widow could go through something like that. It was so awful.

At the time we didn’t know how serious it was, and the race went on. I soon got into a fantastic battle with Clark. He was going well enough, and that Lotus was a wonderful car. We just went back and forth, back and forth, for ages. And I kept wishing that I had the engine that Bruce had taken.

I finally found out where Jimmy’s weak spots were. There was one place round the back, over a bridge I think, where my car seemed to be better than his. Or I was taking it better than he was. I slipped past and can remember him looking annoyed that he couldn’t do anything about me there. Then I had a tremendous battle with Jack Brabham. His car was very fast, and my feeling was that it was the best car on the day. Jack was sort of a nemesis in those days. It was almost impossible to get by him. He just pretended that you weren’t there or anywhere around.

I finally passed him at a place which went down under a railroad viaduct. I can then remember him getting very upset with me, because while he was stuck behind, Bruce was escaping in the lead. Jack’s mechanic was down in our pits demanding that they slowed me down, because supposedly I was holding up his boss!

Eventually Jack did re-pass me. In fact he nearly caught Bruce, who was very lucky to hold him off. I don’t know whether I served any real purpose by mixing it up with Jack; I suppose I did, or they wouldn’t have run down and told me to get out the way. Anyway, we were first and third, and Bruce was overjoyed, just delighted. And I’d really enjoyed the race, especially the battle with Jimmy.

However, I really thought it was terrible that that boy, Rocky Tresise, was killed, and a photographer too. I didn’t use to think that way in my earlier days. Before, a blank slate would cover it up, and it was get on with the next race. But that was years earlier.

I had been at it for too long, to tell you the truth, and been to too many funerals. After a long period you run out of reasons as to why it’s them and not you. When you’re driving Grand Prix cars, you can’t have any doubts at all about whether it’s a reasonable and practical thing to be doing. And I think I sort of got to that point. But it was a joy to be able to go out of single-seaters on a high note.