Phil Hill was a racing driver in spite of himself, an introspective man who before a race would pace up and down, chain-smoking. Put him in a racing car, though, and the nerves were gone, the style easy and composed. Hill was one of those who excelled at the unyielding circuits, like Spa and the Nürburgring, and he was exceptional, too, in uncertain conditions. Give him rain and murk, and he would thrive.
As Hill admitted, he never really understood the motivation for his racing career. Through a prosperous, if unsettled, childhood in California, he developed a deep love of cars (a trait by no means universal among racing drivers), and wanted to learn about them. And then he began to drive them, very fast.
Early outings in amateur sports car races revealed a diamond talent, but one rough and heedless and in need of refining. When Hill calmed down, he swiftly became the best road racing driver in America. A Jaguar XK120 gave way to a succession of Ferraris, mainly owned by wealthy sportsmen, as was the custom of the day.
In 1955 Hill was invited by Enzo Ferrari to drive for the factory sports car team – and the first race on his schedule was the catastrophic Le Mans 24 Hours, in which more than 80 people, the majority of them spectators, lost their lives. Witnessing the disaster caused fellow American Phil Walters to retire from racing on the spot, and Hill, too, was much affected. But he stayed, and would win many long-distance races for the Scuderia.
At Le Mans in 1958 he scored a memorable victory in atrocious weather, driving for most of the night when the rain was at its most pitiless. Hill, as good as faultless, threaded the Testa Rossa through the floods and accidents, his co-driver Olivier Gendebien. It was the beginning of one of the most successful sports car partnerships racing has known.
The goal, however, was always Formula 1. For some time Hill had tried to persuade Ferrari to give him a Grand Prix drive, but the Old Man had Mike Hawthorn, Peter Collins and Luigi Musso for his three-car team, and Phil, in desperation, accepted a ride at the French Grand Prix in an ageing Maserati 250F. That day at Reims, Musso was killed and Hill was the logical replacement for the number three Ferrari, but it went instead to Wolfgang von Trips. A month later, at the Nürburgring, Collins lost his life, and in those tumultuous circumstances Hill was finally promoted.
His debut, at Monza, was sensational, for he led from the start, eventually finishing third after tyre problems. In the last race of the year, at Casablanca, he obediently handed second place to Hawthorn, thereby allowing the Englishman to win the World Championship.
Throughout 1959 Hill was a permanent member of Ferrari’s F1 squad. There were no wins, but he was often well in contention, and in 1960, following the departure of Tony Brooks, he became team leader. By now, the front-engined cars were outclassed on all but the quickest circuits, but Phil nonetheless put in some remarkable drives, and if his win in the Italian Grand Prix was somewhat devalued – on safety grounds the British teams boycotted Monza that year, for the controversial banking was used – none could deny that he was due a first victory.
Hill’s time truly arrived in 1961, the first year of the 1.5-litre F1, for Ferrari was dominant, and only Phil and his team-mate von Trips were in serious contention for the World Championship.
At Monza he clinched the title, but in the most sorrowful of circumstances, for he won the race in which von Trips was killed, and there began a period of self-examination: he had, after all, achieved his life’s ambition, and all around there was pressure from friends that now was the time to quit.
Hill, however, was firmly wedded to his way of life, not least because he had grown to love the ways of Italy, where he could indulge his passion for music, and visit La Scala in Milan whenever he wished. While he had so much wanted the World Championship, he detested all the attendant trappings, and would run from formal functions and parties. But he was not through with racing.
For 1962 he remained with Ferrari, but the team was complacent after the triumphs of the previous season, and it was a dismal year, at the end of which Hill finally severed his ties with Maranello. For a long time the internal politics had gnawed at him, and when he came to be unreasonably blamed for the deficiencies of the machinery he knew it was time to move.
Rarely, however, do a driver’s fortunes take an upward turn when he forsakes Ferrari for another team, and so it was with Hill. Two desultory years, with ATS and Cooper, followed, but he gave up F1 at the end of 1964, and concentrated once more on sports car racing, with Ford and Chaparral.
After winning, with Mike Spence, the 1967 BOAC 500 in the iconic Chaparral 2F, Hill returned to the United States for good. There was no formal announcement of retirement, and that was typical of a very private man. Instead, he slipped comfortably back into Santa Monica life, devoting himself to the restoration of old cars. At 44 he got married, had children, relaxed for the first time, enjoyed himself. Almost to the end of his life he could drive as fast as most when the mood took him. It is doubtful that anyone more intelligent ever sat in a racing car.
Hill would say that, given his time over again, he would never be a racing driver, and it is stretching credibility to suggest that a career second time around could have worked out so well. In nearly 20 years of racing, he won the World Championship, the Le Mans 24 Hours three times, and countless other races – and, in an unspeakably perilous era, he never once hurt himself. No one could reasonably ask more than that, as Phil was only too aware.
Essentially gentle, acutely perceptive, he was a delightful man, a splendidly waspish raconteur, renowned for loyalty to his friends. To them, but most of all to his devoted wife Alma and their children, we offer our sincerest sympathies. There have not been many like Phil Hill.