50 shades of Graham

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The relationship began with a short expletive but blossomed into a solid professional bond. What was it like working for team boss Hill? Read on…
writer Quentin Spurring

The first Formula 1 race I covered as a cub reporter was the Gold Cup at Oulton Park in August 1970, when I was still young enough to have heroes. I met several of them that weekend: John Surtees, Jochen Rindt, Jackie Stewart, Mike Hailwood. Another was Graham Hill, who was debuting Rob Walker’s Lotus 72. I spotted him alone in the paddock, sitting in the brand-new car, getting his bearings in the cockpit, and saw an opportunity to introduce myself as the race reporter for Autosport. As I approached within earshot, he looked up and caught my eye. He spoke first.

“F**k off,” he said.

The revered double world champion was, indeed, an inexplicably grumpy fellow. This side of his personality seemed to be linked to an extraordinary tenacity, which had taken him from impecunious beginnings to the top of his profession, seeing off rivals blessed with greater resources, and some with more natural ability. Graham committed himself totally to the matter in hand, and expected the same from all others involved. There were no half-measures. He believed that his own self-discipline and his determination that everyone should ‘pull together’ came from rowing, his chosen sport as a younger man. Anyone in his team not putting in 100 per cent could expect a tongue-lashing. And got it.

He was as stubborn as a mule. He had flogged BRM into a championship-winning team in 1962. He had stepped up to the plate, standing beside Colin Chapman, to lead Team Lotus after Jimmy Clark and Mike Spence had been killed early in 1968, and had delivered the championship at season’s end. He had won the Monaco Grand Prix five times. He had grafted and grafted, showing no mercy to himself, to recover from a horrible accident at Watkins Glen in October 1969 that had shattered his legs so badly that almost anyone else would have retired to a wheelchair. Condemned to walk forever on painfully bowed legs, he had raced Walker’s Lotus 49 into sixth place at Kyalami in March 1970.

Other aspects of his character were pride, stoicism, courage and charm – the last packaged with a love for his family, a zest for parties, a ready wit and a disarmingly honest penchant for the limelight. Graham was one of the first Grand Prix drivers to become a media star. He adored show business. He was one of Shirley Bassey’s biggest fans and Eric Morecambe was a personal friend, a frequent visitor to the fine 25-room house in Shenley, Hertfordshire, that he shared with Bette, Brigitte, Damon and Samantha.

It was there that I had my first lengthy encounter with him – an interview for a feature in Competition Car magazine to mark his 150th Grand Prix, at Monaco in May 1973. Graham had won the 1972 Le Mans 24 Hours with Matra, completing a ‘treble’ (Monaco, Indy, Le Mans) of which he was genuinely and justifiably proud. But he had endured two disappointing seasons with Brabham, the only highlight being his final Formula 1 victory in the 1971 International Trophy. Now he had set up his own team, using a chassis supplied (eventually) by Shadow. The idea of the feature was to get him to talk about that project, and also to tape his instant reactions on being shown photographs of all the Grand Prix cars that had shaped his career. Graham had invited me to the house but, as I parked in the drive, I still wasn’t sure what kind of reception I would get. I seem to remember walking from the car to the front door on tiptoe…

He could not have been more charming. He was hospitable and cooperative, and gave me all the time I needed. When we had finished taping, and he was leafing back through our photographs, I explored the hundreds of images on the walls of his study. It was a wonderful room, with evocative pictures from floor to ceiling.

I told him my favourite was an embroidered cotton facsimile, about four feet long, of the cheque he had received after winning the Indy 500 in 1966. He put me right: it wasn’t a facsimile, but the actual cheque. He showed me the little stamp showing that his bank had cashed it, grinned broadly, and told me he had used the money to buy his Piper Aztec.

The following year, the penny dropped that incompetent management had doomed Competition Car and I left to make my own way. Soon I won a PR contract with the Embassy cigarette brand of WD & HO Wills, which was engaged in both motor and powerboat racing. I signed the contract with a little remaining trepidation, because it effectively made me the press officer of the Embassy Racing with Graham Hill Formula 1 team, starting in January 1975.

Not to worry. Graham often expressed a sincere belief that sponsorship had improved motor racing beyond recognition, and he immediately showed that he was willing not merely to tolerate ‘PR men’, but actively to help them promote his sport. Again, he cooperated fully. When Competition Car folded (bang on schedule), Nigel Roebuck joined me to help with the journalistic workload, and neither of us can remember him complaining about any press release. We took this as a compliment – although, of course, we would never have dared to write anything that might have offended him.

Part of my brief from Embassy’s likeable sponsorship manager, Peter Dyke, was to design with colleagues and arrange the production of all the paraphernalia associated with the sponsorship: various publications, jackets, shirts, hats, luggage, badges, stickers. Graham approved of the stickers and he put one on his new leather-covered briefcase. Then he thought it looked naff, so he peeled it away – and the mock-leather underneath tore off with it. I ran…

I spent some time in the team’s raceshop in Hanworth, a couple of miles south of London Heathrow. The factory had a big vehicle door with in-built personnel access. Whenever Graham drove up outside with Bette, she would make a point of getting to the personnel door first, and she would open it while holding a clenched fist in front of her. If the thumb was pointing up, Graham was in a good mood. Down, and everyone inside had better watch out…

The extraordinary thing was that, despite his unpredictable behaviour, I knew no one in the team whose admiration for him was ever dimmed. The team spirit always seemed strong.
And I saw yet another side to this complex personality at Silverstone the day before the International Trophy in April 1975.

At the age of 46, Graham had resolved to quit racing after Monaco, but had kept the decision to himself. After practice he confided in me and wanted to plot his retirement announcement. We needed secrecy, so we stayed away from the team’s Revcon motorhome and adjourned to his Ford Granada, which was parked behind the pits. I was ushered into the driver’s seat so that I could rest my notes on the steering wheel. As I got in, I saw Eric Morecambe reclining in the back.

It turned out that Graham wanted me merely to compose and mail out a press release: evidently limelight at the moment he retired from the cockpit did not have the old appeal.

I told him that a press release was not good enough for him, and far too impersonal. But he was adamant: he wanted to go out quietly. This was modesty…

But it was not appropriate. I argued with him and, happily, our bespectacled companion in the back seat felt as strongly as I did, and joined in. And, of course, Morecambe made the case for more elaborate arrangements while being very, very funny. After five minutes, we were all laughing, and Graham agreed that I would get Peter Dyke to cough up for a suite at Silverstone during the British Grand Prix meeting for a full-scale media announcement. And then Graham, driving a Lola revamped by his young chief engineer Andy Smallman (the ‘Hill GH1’), finished 11th in what turned out to be his final motor race.

It was obvious that Graham relished the prospect of his ongoing new career as a team owner. That held true even after his traumatic experience in Barcelona, a fortnight before Monaco.

On the Friday and Saturday of the Spanish Grand Prix meeting, all the team principals were faced with a situation in which their drivers, on the one hand, were effectively on strike because of the unsafe condition of inadequately installed track barriers, while the race promoters, on the other, were threatening to impound all their hardware if the owners failed to honour their contracts. The paddock was inside a lockable football stadium on the site and, at one stage, Guardia Civil soldiers (with machine guns) were actually deployed to show how easily this threat could be carried out. The FIA delegates were hopeless, totally unable to resolve the stand-off. The eventual solution was found by Graham and the other principals: they divided up the circuit between them, and put their mechanics to work with spanners to secure the barriers to the satisfaction of most of the drivers.

Come Sunday and, to everyone’s astonishment, events early in the race put Rolf Stommelen’s Hill GH1 into a narrow lead over Carlos Pace’s Brabham. But Graham’s delight turned to shocking distress in an instant. As the leading cars passed the pits to start their 26th lap, to the horror of everyone watching, the Hill’s novel carbonfibre wing support shattered. The car went out of Rolf’s control at 150mph, hit the barrier on the left, then careened back across the track and into the very section of Armco that had been secured by Graham’s mechanics. One of them, Steve Roby, had actually written “Rolf, don’t crash here” very close to the point of impact. The barrier held, but the car went over it. By merciful chance, it landed in a small area from which spectators were prohibited, but five people (marshals, a fireman and a photographer) were killed.

The race was allowed to continue for four more laps before it was red-flagged – one of many disgraceful decisions by the organisers that deranged weekend. By the time Nigel and I arrived at the scene, Graham was supervising the removal of his injured driver from the cockpit. We watched as, calmness personified, he ignored the panic at the crowded, grisly scene, and stamped his authority on the situation. Then he climbed into the ambulance that took Rolf to hospital with both legs broken and a fractured wrist.

Meanwhile, in the paddock, team manager Ray Brimble was trying to cope with a crew that was in a state of shock. As I approached, one of the mechanics was vomiting on the football pitch. I asked if there was anything I could do to help. Ray was worried about a possible prosecution by the Spanish authorities. He asked me to put on Embassy Racing overalls and drive out to the scene of the accident in the team’s liveried Fiat 500 runabout, which was towed to all the European events behind the Revcon. Once there, I was to search the wreckage for any telltale shards of carbonfibre, and bring them back. I reluctantly agreed. This was a bad decision that led to one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life: I was subjected to violent hostility by shocked Spanish onlookers.

Two weeks later, an engine problem afflicted Graham’s new car on the Thursday morning in Monaco, and forced him into the older spare chassis for an entire session. He narrowly failed to qualify. It was an understandably big disappointment for him at the race for which his career had been most famous.

A fortnight later, his spirits were visibly uplifted by his new recruit, Tony Brise, who had been hired to replace Stommelen. Brise was one of those supremely gifted young drivers who come along once in a generation, and his potential had been shining in the junior formulae like a beacon. Having made his Formula 1 debut with Frank Williams in Barcelona, Brise put a GH1 seventh on the grid at Zolder – by far the team’s best qualifying result to date. His Belgian Grand Prix ended with a blown engine, but he finished sixth in the next race, at Anderstorp. Later Alan Jones (having been outpaced by Brise all weekend) delivered a fifth at the Nürburgring.

Points in the bag. And Graham was using his many willing contacts in the sport to consolidate his position as a team owner. He had finally confirmed his retirement from the cockpit and, free of the pressures of driving, he was becoming less irascible – more focused on his new role, and at ease with it. But he retained his famous tenacity, and there was no doubt this would bring him success as a constructor, probably sooner rather than later. The Embassy contract had been renewed for 1976, Smallman was well advanced with the first pukka ‘Hill’ and Brise was on board for his first full season.

The team had to see out 1975 with its modified Lolas but embarked on post-season testing of the all-new GH2 with optimism and in the knowledge that, in 23-year-old Brise, it had found an exceptional young man who would undoubtedly end up as a world champion. I seemed lucky enough to be in at the start of something big.

One foggy night in late November, as all the key team members were returning from Paul Ricard, Hill’s Aztec crashed on a Hertfordshire golf course, claiming not only his own life but those of Brise, Brimble, Smallman, and team mechanics Tony Allcock and Terry Richards.

Was it really 40 years ago? I can never forget that terrible night and the considerate telephone call from John Blunsden, then the motor racing correspondent of The Times. I burst into tears immediately: the shock, I supposed. And yet, analysing this reaction the next day, it was clear that it had stemmed from the realisation that all that talent had instantly been snuffed out, and had gone forever. What a crying shame it was.