Phil Hill

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Rob Widdows

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The first American to be crowned F1 world champion and a three-time Le Mans winner, Phil Hill always was a man apart. Rob Widdows enjoys the company of one of racing’s gentlemen

More than half a century ago a young man called Philip Toll Hill Jr turned his back on California sunshine and came to England, joining Jaguar as a trainee. He’d already won his first ever race back home but Europe had always captured his imagination, and later in life he became a confirmed Anglophile.

Now very frail, Phil Hill has made what will probably be his last journey to his adopted homeland of Europe for a celebration of his extraordinary career at the Goodwood Revival. The words that follow do not pretend to detail his achievements but simply offer an appraisal of the man, a feeling for the character of the first American to play the Europeans at their own game and win.

And win he did, with intelligence and the mechanical sympathy he’d learned and nurtured as a teenager with a passion for cars and what made them tick. The bare facts speak for themselves, Hill winning his first race in 1948 at the age of 21, then taking the first of three Le Mans victories just a decade later before clinching the World Championship at Monza in 1961. Six years later he won his last race, in the Chaparral 2F at Brands Hatch, and returned to his home in Santa Monica. Job done.

Like all great achievers, he is frustrated and sometimes flustered by the imperfections of old age and failing health. But the glint in the eye is there, the sharp humour not yet extinguished and the sheer passion for racing still in the bloodstream. This is a rounded individual, so gifted in a racing car and yet so humble with it, and always intrigued by the wider world. The closed and shrink-wrapped world of Formula One today would have suited him not a bit.

“I don’t know if I can recall the facts and the figures,” he tells us as we surround him with cameras, microphones and notebooks. Doug Nye is here to prompt him, the historian preparing a book of sensational photographs taken by Hill during his racing career to be published next year. And Phil’s wife Alma is by his side making sure he’s looking his best.

“Goodwood is an important place for me,” says Hill. “I first came here on Easter Monday in 1950 and I’ve loved the place ever since. There were those great Tourist Trophy races with Ferrari and the Daytona Cobras, and all the testing with the Ford GT project. Bruce McLaren and I spent days and days at Goodwood, testing that car. Then coming back to race twice at the Revival, and now this tribute with so many old friends and my old cars. Just great.”

We need to go back a lot further, though, to understand the achievements. The victory at Le Mans in 1958 was the breakthrough, the first big moment when the relaxed driving style caught the attention. It was a watershed year. In late June he won at La Sarthe with Gendebien in the Ferrari and was then promoted to the Scuderia’s GP team not long after.

“Le Mans ’58 was my first big race, the first really Important race and unquestionably the best of my three wins there,” recalls Phil. “It’s such a huge thrill reeling off all those laps and then coming in to cross the line almost at a crawl, all those people flooding onto the track. In ’58 we had terrible weather. It was hard to see, the rain was torrential, and my trick was to get the tool bag out from under the passenger seat and sit on it so I could see over the windshield. The other guys had mops, towels, and sponges but they were floundering while I’d duck down, look up, duck down and look up again over the screen. Boy, I had the worst neck ache for a month after that. But hey, the need to see was so much greater than the pain. I picked up a whole lap on the guys that night in the rain, just because I could see. It was an important win for me, period.”

That first win at Le Mans in the Testa Rossa was shared with Olivier Gendebien, with whom he also won in 1961 and 1962. “It was something special,” says Hill, “that feeling when you know you can win, when the sun shines after the rain and there’s no tension any more. We were a good team, we had faith in each other. Some team-mates are so concerned about their own status and they lead you down the garden path. But we had faith in each other, Gendebien and I, and we’d never kid ourselves, we were always open with each other. I liked Peter Collins a lot as well. We got on real good, and Mike Hawthorn too. They both liked to party, especially Mike.”

Promotion to the grand prix team followed a run in Joachim Bonnier’s Maserati 250F at Reims. Joining the Scuderia’s F1 squad for the German GP, Hill was quick in the Ferrari 156 straightaway but it was by no means all sweetness and success. Enzo Ferrari ran the team with an enormous amount of discipline and there was a huge level of internal politics. At Monza that same year he was asked to slow down, not an order a young racing driver likes to receive. The new boy was about to be summoned by the headmaster.

“I led the first few laps, then a tyre went down and I had to make a stop. Later I got the lead back and Tavoni came out in front of the pits and signalled me to slow down. I was a new boy, I wasn’t supposed to be up at the front. He was on his knees at the side of the track and the message was clear, the board reading HAW HILL, meaning Hawthorn was to be allowed to pass me and take second behind Brooks in the Vanwall. Anyhow, I started messing with the ignition switch, popping and banging past the grandstands for a few laps, so it looked like I had a problem and Hawthorn just went by. The Brits always seem to leave that story out when they talk about the ’58 season! It was kinda silly really, and the same thing happened in Casablanca, that time Enzo Ferrari and Tavoni had planned for Hawthorn to finish ahead of me. There was less than a second between us at the finish. But he was, you know, the team leader, and he had disc brakes on the car by then, you know.”

Compare this with recent machinations to keep Schumacher ahead of Barrichello and the clumsiness of that most public debacle just yards from the line in Austria. But it was ever thus at Ferrari, and Hill went through the school of hard knocks before winning the championship for the Italians four years after joining the team.

The title came in 1961, at Monza, Phil having already won at Spa. Both fast circuits, demanding skill and bravery from the American in the famous shark-nose Ferrari 156.

“I don’t know if I loved those tracks, or it was just that I wasn’t afraid of them,” he says. “People spoke badly about Spa and Monza: they were afraid of being hurt bad I guess.

And the Nürburgring, I liked that, the car flew so beautifully, landed so beautifully, and lap by lap we went faster and faster. We got the lap record, first time under nine minutes. Incredible, yeah.”

But the victory at Monza was an emotional rollercoaster, a storm inside his head, the news of Wolfgang von Trips’ death during that race thrusting a dagger through the celebrations for his world championship.

“It was blighted alright. Of course it was. We didn’t know how bad the crash had been, you know. I mean in those days there were so many like that. Then we got the news and part of me wanted to be so happy for the championship and part of me was so full of grief. I’d gotten to a point by then when I was more sensitive to things like that and then the press asked me all this crazy stuff about inheriting the championship and all of that. It was ridiculous. I was in cold turkey. It wasn’t pleasant at the time I tell you.”

At this point in Hill’s career there were those who talked of a lucky title, that the American was a one-hit wonder. Perhaps they chose to ignore three wins at Le Mans, three more at Sebring and two at the Nürburgring 1000kms.

The Ferrari days came to an end in ’62, a massive row resulting in a wholesale walk-out by team insiders.

“Looking back I got myself in a bit of a fix with Ferrari and I often felt some guilt about all the stuff that went on there. But Enzo was the toughest of them all, and if I’d had another couple of years in Italy I could have handled him. He never got that much the better of me either — we communicated in schoolboy French and maybe I should have learned to be fluent in Italian. There was a lack of fairness in that team and that made it difficult. Things were being stirred up all the time and there came a point when there just had to be a breach, and there was. I stayed another year after the championship and that was bad. I only functioned as I did because of my relationship with the engineers.”

The move from Modena to Bologna was not a good one. ATS was chaotic and the car was never competitive. “They were never going to achieve what they set out to do,” says Phil. “It was just way too ambitious. I thought about quitting but it didn’t take long for the juices to get going again.” A subsequent move to Cooper brought little in the way of results, with one notable exception.

In those days, the grand prix drivers wintered in New Zealand, taking in the Tasman series. Hill claims that his battle with Jack Brabham for third place in the South Pacific GP at Longford was one of his best ever performances, and the old flair was back in evidence for those few races with Bruce McLaren’s team of Coopers. “It was my very last single-seater start. I’d given the best engine to Bruce after practice: he asked for it and he was the boss. But still I had a quick car and it was one of my very best races ever.”

Things get better, though, towards the end of this story. Leaving single-seaters behind, Hill went out on a high with Ford and Chaparral, and he made a huge contribution to bringing the Ford GT project to fruition.

Moving to Chaparral he was able to take some valuable information from Detroit to Texas. “Jim Hall was a wonderful guy,” he says. “Going from a big company to a smaller race team was great fun. We had good times and Jim was always fending off the media who wanted to know the secrets of the transmission or the secrets of the wings. It was simple really. You know, it was really just a fluid coupling, a torque converter and a dog clutch with three speeds. But the aerodynamics, the wings; that was marvellous gadgetry.”

And it was in the Chaparral 2F that Hill took his final win (with Mike Spence) in the BOAC 500 at Brands in 1967. It was a great way to bow out, and one that showed all the old skill. He will be remembered, even revered, for the intelligence and the humility that he brought to the sport and for the dry humour.

“I guess it all came a little late,” smiles the 79-year old all-American hero. “It was a short time to be in Formula One, but that’s life. You can’t explain all the whys and wherefores. Good and bad times, you know”.

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