Master of art and graft

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He wasn’t a natural – or so they say. But consider the prolific list of cars and wins in all corners of the world. Doesn’t Graham Hill deserve more credit?
writer Paul Fearnley

The final action of a packed life was fuelled by a need to be elsewhere, sooner rather than later. Graham Hill had been making up for lost time for more than 20 years, since stepping off the clutch of an outdated Cooper-JAP to briefly lead his first motor race. That he was 25 when he did so wasn’t unusual – teen sensations of that period, Stirling Moss and Peter Collins, were exceptions – but the fact that he’d never seen a race prior to that adrenalin-charged moment at Brands Hatch on Easter Monday, 1954, most definitely was. Incredibly, the future ‘Mr Monaco’ had known nothing of the principality’s motor sport heritage when he moored there in 1951 during his National Service with the Royal Navy. Indeed, his family had never owned a car until he bought a Morris Eight – “a real old heap” – and belatedly passed his driving test.

Yet by 1953’s end, stirred and spurred by four laps – at five bob a time – of Brands in a bike-engine buzz bomb, he’d left his steady engineering job at Smiths (instruments), for which he’d served a five-year apprenticeship, and signed on the dole – at 32s 6d (£1.65) per week – to work for free on somebody else’s racing cars in a barn in Kent. Muscles bulked by rowing were soon wasting: food became a luxury when after four months he was refused further benefits. He nursed half-pints at the influential, members-only Steering Wheel Club in Mayfair for the same reason.

Actually he wasn’t a member. Rowing had taught him to dig deep and hang tough.

He was by November 1975 running an eponymous Formula 1 team and was admired the world over. His trademark crash helmet and cad moustache had helped, as did his witty, occasionally withering, one-liners, but the foundation of his fame was on-track success. In an F1 era boasting Jack Brabham, Dan Gurney, a young Jackie Stewart and John Surtees, he was, more often than most, in the right place at the right time when Jim Clark, its benchmark, faltered. A two-time world champion and five-time winner at Monaco, Hill also bagged a lucrative United States Grand Prix hat-trick at Watkins Glen – a track where he had Clark’s measure – won in the fog and rain of the Nürburgring and in the shimmering slipstream of Monza. He set 13 poles – three of them at spooky old Spa – and 10 fastest laps. He scored the last of his 289 (gross) points – with a sixth place at Anderstorp in 1974 – aged 45.

“When I was getting into motor racing I didn’t aspire to be a Grand Prix driver,” he wrote in his 1969 autobiography Life at the Limit. “As I saw it, my future was in the hands of the people who were giving me the rides. So I had to be completely flexible, making myself available to drive anything, anywhere, as well as helping in the preparation of the cars.”

Though his circumstances would change beyond recognition, that attitude was ingrained. His then-record 176 world championship GP starts was only the half of it. He contested non-championship F1 races; British, European and South American F2 races; Indycar, Intercontinental and Tasman races; sports car, GT and saloon car races. He raced on Boxing Days and New Year’s Days. He dashed home from Sicily after his first overseas race to marry Bette in July 1955, and they honeymooned in Bognor Regis because Graham was Team Lotus’s reserve for the Goodwood Nine Hours; he was allowed just two practice laps.

He raced as Far East as Fuji, as far west as Seattle and as far south as Invercargill in New Zealand. He raced in Argentina, Brazil and Colombia; Denmark, Finland and Sweden; California, Florida and Upstate New York; New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. He raced at East London, Westmead and Sudschleife; Bogotá, Córdoba and Jarama; Brands Hatch in Kent and Kent in Washington; Brussels and Nivelles; Clermont-Ferrand, Enna-Pergusa and Tulln-Langenlebarn; Imola, Modena and Monza; Interlagos, Lakeside and Riverside; Karlskoga, Keimola and Kinnekulle Ring; Montjüich, Montlhéry and Mont Tremblant; Mosport, Oporto and Porto Alegre; Zandvoort, Zeltweg and Zolder.

He drove for Sir Alfred Owen, Sir David Brown and Colonel Ronnie Hoare; Alan Mann and John Mecom; BRP, NART and UDT-Laystall; Bernie Ecclestone and Colin Chapman; Camoradi and The Chequered Flag; Ian Walker and Rob Walker; John ‘Noddy’ Coombs, John Ogier and John Willment; Matra and Porsche; Ron Dennis, Ron Tauranac and Roy Winkelmann; Scuderia Serenissima and Scuderia Veloce; Tommy Atkins, Tommy Sopwith and Team Surtees.

He raced Lotuses Seven, 11, 12, 15, 16, 17, 18/21, 19, 23B, 24, 33, 35, 42F, 43, 48, all variants of 49, turbine 56, 59, 69 and 72C; BRM Ps 25, 48, 57, 61, 83 and 261, plus the Rover-BRM turbine at Le Mans; Brabham BTs 4, 10, 11 and 11A, 16, 33, ‘Lobster Claw’ 34, 36, 37 and 38; Ferrari 250s GT SWB, GTO, TRI, GTO 64 and LM, plus 275s P and P2, and 330s P and TRI/LM; Fords Galaxie, GT40, MkII, Lotus Cortina Mk2, s/c Escort TC and Capri RS2600; Porsche 718s RSK, RS60, RS61, WRS and 718/2, plus 356B Carrera Abarth, 904 and 910.

He raced Aston Martins DB3S and Project 212; Austins A35 and Mini 850, plus a BMC 1100 (in a hilarious one-make race at Snetterton in 1962); Coopers Bobtail and Monaco, and Ts 43 (his first works drive, the 1957 International Trophy) and 71; Jaguars C-type, E-type, Lightweight E and MkII 3.8; Lola Ts 70, 90, aka the Red Ball Special, and 370; Matras MS5 and MS670; a Connaught A-type (his first race in a big single-seater, Goodwood’s Lavant Cup of 1957); a Kieft-Norton; a McLaren-Elva; a Maserati ‘Birdcage’; a Tojeiro-Jaguar; and the Willment-Climax. But wisely he walked away from one of Mickey Thompson’s Indy oddjobs.

He won in single-seaters (front- and rear-engined), prototypes and GTs, Indycars and sedans; on an oval, airfield tracks, road courses and street circuits; with 40bhp and 450bhp on tap; on narrow treaded tyres and big fat slicks; in streamlined cars, cars with spoilers, with suspension-mounted skyscraper wings, and with wings shrunk, lowered and fixed to the bodywork.

He drank the milk at Indy and sprayed the champagne at Le Mans. He scored a dozen wins at Brands, eight at Silverstone, seven at Goodwood, five at Snetterton, and four apiece at Oulton, Mallory and Aintree. He won in Africa, Australasia and North and Central America. He won the International Trophy, RAC Tourist Trophy, St Mary’s Trophy and Sussex Trophy – each of them twice – plus the Glover Trophy, Grovewood Trophy, Jochen Rindt Memorial Trophy and Tasmania’s South Pacific Trophy. He won the Albi, Monza Lottery and Rand GPs, finished third in his only Can-Am race, and was 10th on the 1962 Monte Carlo Rally. He was a dab hand at Scalextric, too.

He was on the grid for Juan Fangio’s last world championship appearance and won the race that marked the end of Moss’s career. He won the race that started Stewart’s F1 journey and finished 13th in its last. He secured the GP wins – and front-row spot at Indy – that rejuvenated Team Lotus during a tragic 1968. He won in cars carrying traditional national colours and cars painted to look like fag packets. He scored his first win in a Lotus nicknamed ‘Yellow Peril’ and his last, 16 years later, in a bright orange Brabham.

Tell me he wasn’t a natural.

Sure, he worked hard at it. Brabham reckoned him “perhaps the most coldly determined driver I ever faced”. The reserved Australian and loquacious Englishman were similar in many ways. Fastidious and relentless, they all but invented tailored set-ups for individual circuits and, despite reputations for being hard on their machinery – and tough on tired mechanics! – no one was better at bringing cars home in an age when reliability could not be trusted. That they should lock horns across the fundamental Cooper-Lotus divide of the late-1950s was inevitable, and these ‘ding-dongs’ set the tone for careers that combined for five F1 world titles.

Hill joined Lotus – at £1 per day – by osmosis: a lift from Brands – Chapman mistakenly thought him a mate of his right-hand man Mike Costin – followed by an offer of help with a damaged car. By mid-1955 he was full-time, on £9 per week. A madcap spell spannering adventurous racer/wheel-dealer Dan Margulies’ C-type had convinced Hill that Chapman represented the best chance of his realising the dream. That ‘Chunky’ gave him the parts to build a Lotus 11 for 1956, but planned to keep the car – plus Hill’s start, prize and bonus monies – afterwards hinted at a bumpy road ahead. Although Hill was leading that year’s Autosport Championship when he over-tightened a con-rod bolt before its finale, it wasn’t until he agreed to drive – for £100 a race – a works F2 Cooper in September 1957 that Chapman admitted that Hill would be more use to him as a driver than a mechanic; with assistance from Reg Tanner of Esso, he offered a £1000 retainer for 1958. Hill accepted and immediately proved his worth by setting fastest lap in the cigar-shaped F2 Lotus 12 at Oulton’s Gold Cup, the occasion of Brabham’s biggest win to date.

That same pair began 1958 with a gloves-off scrap in the Lavant Cup in April; Hill again set fastest lap, but Brabham was victorious due to an on-the-grass pass. Five days later, in a Lotus 15 that arrived just 15 minutes before the start, Hill matched Moss’s sports car lap record at Oulton’s British Empire Trophy. And he won the sports car race at May’s International Trophy thanks to a brake-less banzai moment at the final corner.

Then the wheels fell off. Literally. Hill was headed for points on his world championship debut when a rear ‘wobbly web’ wobbled off. (At least he won £120 at Monaco’s Casino). Retirements across the categories came thick and fast. Though dotted by victories, including a defeat of Brabham in the soaking sports car race at Aintree’s 1959 British GP meeting, Hill’s patience wore thin and he told Chapman he was leaving. His timing wasn’t ideal. With the Elite in production, Chapman could again concentrate on racing; at last convinced of the rear-engine layout’s superiority, his Type 18 raised the bar.

Hill’s switch to perennial underachiever BRM for 1960 at least allowed him to set out his stall, and he soon instigated the coup that replaced unyielding Peter Berthon with Tony Rudd as technical director; they swapped detailed notes and knuckled down. Within weeks a charging Hill came within five laps, a failing rear brake (sic) and a spin – when under pressure from Brabham – of winning the British GP. This, however, proved a false summit. The full ascent would take two years.

Meanwhile, Hill’s F2 and sports car programmes in works Porsches proved enlightening: “A super engine, very smooth and reliable. They felt as though they were one unit and not a collection of parts.”

These enabled him to raise his profile via class wins at the 1960 Buenos Aires 1000Kms, Targa Florio and RAC TT. In 1961, stretched diff bolts five miles from home cost him an outright Targa victory alongside senior partner Moss.

Jaguars, too, provided relief from BRM’s travails. Hill gave the E-type a winning debut at Oulton in April 1961. Then, having switched from Equipe Endeavour to John Coombs for 1962, he became the ‘getaway driver’ to beat as a swirl of trick 3.8s fought the burgeoning British Saloon Car Championship: he scored a hat-trick of wins – and repeated the feat in 1963.

By which time BRM was ready. Hill’s maiden overseas victory – the 1962 Dutch GP – opened a new window: “Crikey, I wouldn’t mind being world champion.” Moss’s accident, Rudd’s sweet new V8 and BRM’s new-found purpose, united behind a charismatic, dogmatic number one, meant anything was possible, even though Lotus had further raised the bar with its bathtub Type 25. Unanticipated oil consumption cost Hill the Monaco GP, but wins in Germany and Italy kept him in the hunt until Clark disappeared from December’s South African finale in a puff of oil smoke. Crikey.

The world champion’s 1963 tour began in New Zealand and Australia with Ferguson’s 4WD P99: Hill finished second at Lakeside. He followed this with a third place at Sebring in a Ferrari, and by two wins in a day at Snetterton – including a fair-and-square victory over Clark in the F1 Lombank Trophy – and at Goodwood and Aintree. Hill won at Monaco, too, but Clark’s 25 was virtually unbeatable thereafter, and wins at Watkins Glen and in Lightweight E and GTO (the TT) would have to suffice for Hill.

Ten years into his career, he was at his peak. Two of his nine wins from February-December of 1964 took him to the brink of a second world title. Among the accompanying seven second places were: a last-corner loss to Brabham at the International Trophy; a brilliant drive that almost denied Rindt his F2 breakthrough at Crystal Palace; and a Le Mans beset by “a spate of curious maladies”. Despite the latter, this was to be Hill’s most successful season in sports cars, with wins at the Reims 12 Hours, Paris 1000Kms – both co-driven by Jo Bonnier – and TT, all in Maranello Concessionaires Ferraris.

Stewart’s arrival at BRM in 1965, however, triggered a sea change. Although ‘Grandad’ kept the whippersnapper in his place with a superb victory, arguably his best, at Monaco, time and ultimately talent were against him. There was no acrimony – Stewart has only praise for Hill’s attitude – but after a difficult 1966, leavened by a brace of Tasman wins and $156,297 for winning the Indy 500 – remarkable given his lack of practice at the Brickyard – Hill knew the onus was on him. He left BRM – he felt the relationship was going stale – to join Clark as part of Ford’s superteam at Lotus and drive its next big thing, Type 49. He did so as joint number one and led in Holland, France, Britain, Italy, America (where he’d lost the pre-race coin toss) and Mexico. But it was Clark who won in Holland, Britain, America and Mexico; even an Italian defeat added to his legend. Though Chapman had played it straight down the line, the peerless Scot was around the corner, away and gone.

That pattern carried into 1968 – Hill was second to Clark at Kyalami, Surfers Paradise and Warwick Farm – but in April everything changed. Everything except Hill, the rock. His marshalling of a devastated team in the aftermath of Clark’s epochal death was his greatest achievement. Stewart, his closest title rival, insists today that he himself wasn’t then yet ready to fulfil a world champion’s role, and that the right man, Hill, won. His clinching victory in Mexico was a master class of speed, strategy and mind-management. Stewart took note.

Hill was 40 when he began his second defence and, with Stewart indubitably ready, his priority soon became the protection of his status at Lotus against feisty newcomer Rindt. Though he beat the ‘King of F2’ at Albi in September – his first F2 win for more than four years – the younger man’s freakish speed wore him down. When, at Watkins Glen, the Austrian ended his long wait for an F1 victory and a puncture caused his team-mate a massive accident and diverse painful injuries, many hoped that Hill might choose this moment to retire. Nothing was further from his mind. Gruelling gym sessions became “the most important race of my life” and in March 1970, still walking with sticks, he was lifted exhausted from his privateer Lotus after chiselling a championship point from his comeback at Kyalami. He would also score points in rounds two and three. Amazing fortitude.

Fully recovered by 1971, he embarked on an unexpected Indian summer. Fewer big-name, graded (i e ineligible for points) drivers were contesting F2 in Europe yet Hill continued to fold his bulky 6ft frame into tiddlers and go wheel-to-wheel with the thrusters. Driving a BT36 for a couple of ex-Brabham mechanics, one of whom was Neil Trundle, he blocked bad memories to win a slipstreaming heat of the Jim Clark Memorial Trophy at Hockenheim. The next weekend he outfoxed ‘Mad Ronald’ Peterson’s March to win outright at Thruxton.

Buoyed, he qualified the radical BT34 seventh for the International Trophy and finished third in its first heat behind the runaway Tyrrell of Stewart. When a stuck throttle caused the latter to crash at the opening corner of the second heat, Hill harried the BRM of Pedro Rodriguez mercilessly until slicing past and controlling proceedings to register an aggregate victory.

A rare mistake at Monaco – a crash at Tabac – was a precursor to a disappointing F1 campaign thereafter, but F2 brought Hill a third at Rouen and a second at Brands. Also, paired with Surtees for a singular ETCC outing, his Ford UK-entered RS2600 inflicted a defeat on Cologne’s works car in the first six-hour heat at Paul Ricard in September; a drivetrain failure sidelined them from the second.

When Bernie’s new broom swept through Brabham in 1972, a best of fifth, at Monza, was insufficient to save Hill’s F1 seat for 1973. He did, however, pip the sister F2 BT38 of jockey-sized Silvio Moser at Monza to score his final victory. His penultimate win, three weeks earlier, had completed his unique Triple Crown.

At his 10th attempt – if you count the unclassified ‘00’ Rover-BRM of 1963 – and his first since 1966, Hill won Le Mans. Matra co-driver Henri Pescarolo had been worried that a fading F1 star might not take the necessary risks, but Hill wanted to win it as much as any Frenchman. With gritty stints in the rain and dark and inspired tyre decisions, he more than held his end up.

The death of Bonnier, Hill’s oldest friend in racing, tarnished this success, however, and the stresses of creating an F1 team from scratch, which Hill admitted he had underestimated, exacted a further heavy toll. Busier than ever, he trimmed his schedule: third in the Spa 1000Kms with Matra was his only extra-curricular activity of 1973.

Matters became even more complicated in 1974 – a factory move and the need to run two F1 cars – and it came to a head in 1975. Hill made the inevitable decision that he would retire from driving because it had become an indulgence he could no longer afford. If his team were to flourish he was needed in its pit. That was true. The harsher truth was that the speed was gone and he could no longer make up for lost time. He had, however, more than earned the right to award himself some.

Given more time, he might even have taken it.