No regrets

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Celebrating his 67th birthday at a Ferrari function in Alabama, America’s first Formula One World Champion Phil Hill was ready to put the record straight on his turbulent time with the Prancing Horse

Time was when Hill would speak and write with some vitriol about Ferrari — both man and team. Despite bringing Ferrari a World title and three Le Mans victories, theirs was never a harmonious relationship and, like so many before and after, he left under a cloud.

But time heals most wounds and Phil admits the passing of the years has lent a different perspective. If there is still no real affection he is quick to express his respect and admiration for Enzo’s achievements — and acknowledgement that what made life there so hard was perhaps not so much Ferrari himself as those who surrounded him.

“As I get older I have much more understanding of, and admiration for, the man than I ever did when I was driving for him because I can identify much more with what he was. Ferrari had a clear vision of what he wanted to pursue and he just did it. Enzo Ferrari was a tough man, very tough, and totally dedicated to his life’s work.

“There is all this stuff about him being the great ogre but I can see now what a terrible thing it must have been to put up with a bunch of people like us. I remember René Dreyfuss telling me not long before he died last year that he always got on really well with Enzo Ferrari, and I just thought this was incredible. But then I began to think and realised that a lot of this making him into a tyrant was probably more down to us than him.

“Something that is not generally recognised is that the people he picked seemed to thrive on strife and the internal politics. I know Mike Hawthorn and Pete Collins used to love picking on Musso, saying all kinds of disparaging things about him, to him and behind his back. It was a kind of sport, more of an English sport than anything. Most people there just tried to get on with their work the best they could. Ferrari thought he got the most out of people by being the super boss — I guess it depended on who he was bossing. Some responded, some didn’t.

“Mike and Pete were forever carving up Enzo verbally one side and down the other in private, saying what a scoundrel he was, but looking back on it now I can see a lot of the trouble came from the people he employed.”

As an example he points to his 1962 team manager, Eugenio Dragoni, of whom even now he can still only bring himself to say “That guy was just something else.”

Dragoni became notorious as the man behind John Surtees’s defection in mid-66 after continual sniping about the Englishman’s physical fitness following his life-threatening crash in a CanAm Lola at Mosport in ’65. But in 1962, as Ferrari floundered in chaos following the mass defection of key personnel in a “palace coup”, Dragoni chose to use Phil Hill as the scapegoat for a relative lack of results in a car that had clearly fallen behind the British designs. Hill has written that in particular he focussed on what he called a growing cowardice in his driver whom he claimed had been “impressioned” by team mate von Trips’s death at Monza the previous year. And he wasn’t too bothered who heard his opinion.

Hill today concedes that by then thoughts of survival possibly affected his driving, although that does not reduce the part played by the car or the hated Dragoni who he clubbed the “pit psychologist”. Struggling to defend his world championship in a car now outclassed he felt the burden of blame falling unfairly on his shoulders.

The shark-nosed Ferraris had always been out-handled by the lighter Lotuses and now were becoming under-powered too. A wider front track devised for 1962 by engineer Forghieri did little save increase wind resistance and further hamper straight-line speed. Despite the car’s inadequacies Hill was still in contention for the title well into the season and willing to fight on. However, at Spa that year where the red cars were embarrassed by their lack of horsepower he overheard Dragoni slating him during the legendary post-race phone call back to the factory: “II tuo grande campione non ha fatto niente” — Your great champion didn’t do a thing”.

It was nadir in their relationship and at the end of the year he left, to the ill-fated ATS team, followed in 1964 by a move to Cooper, by then a team in decline. Now the anger has faded and he looks back on his time with the greatest motor racing team with a wistful affection.

By the early 1950s Hill was already an established name in racing with several major sports car wins to his credit. He met Enzo briefly in 1952 when picking up a car with friends and indeed owned a Ferrari himself, a 212 Barchetta which was the first Tour de France winner.

For 1955, aged 28, he had tentatively arranged to race Texan Allen Guiberson’s Ferrari partnered by fellow countryman Richie Ginther when he got The Call. “I was summoned to Ferrari. I had already met him on a sort of “How do you do” basis in ’53 but Enzo suddenly decided I should do Le Mans with Umberto Maglioli. I waited in a little outer room and then when Ferrari finally came out we were led into the factory and shown the engine on the dyno, a six-cylinder 4.4-litre 121 motor.

“I had been driving 12s and loved them and here was an ordinary six-cylinder but I made all what I thought were the right noises and said the things I thought he wanted to hear, but he was intimidating because he made it so ‘awkward for the interviewee.”

In that fateful race where Pierre Levegh crashed his Mercedes into the crowd, the Hill/Maglioli car retired from third place when a casting fault caused a leak in the water jacket.

However, although now employed by the factory, a Grand Prix drive was still some way in the future as he was not yet considered ready. Hill disagreed; “I think he would have got the best out of me then as a Formula One driver rather than later.”

Impatient, Hill forced the issue the week after he won Le Mans in 1958 for the first time with Ferrari by hiring Jo Bonnier’s Maserati 250F for the French GP at Reims. “Aspettiamo, vediamo” said Ferrari — “Wait and see”.

With the deaths of Luigi Musso in France and Peter Collins in Germany there were seats to be filled and Hill got the drive.

For 1959 and 1960 Ferrari continued to swim against the tide of the British frontengined evolution as the Coopers of Brabham and Mclaren and the Lotuses of Moss and Ireland swept the board. Permitted bigger engines for their old-fashioned cars, Italian horsepower allowed Ferrari a clean sweep at the Avus speed bowl in ’59 and Hill took the ’60 Italian GP in the absence of the British teams who boycotted the race over engine regulation changes for the following season. Politics in racing is not a 1990’s phenomenon.

But it was the front-engined swansong and for 1961 Ferrari finally built a pusher instead of a puller and gave Hill, Taffy von Trips and Richie Ginther the famous 1.5-litre sharknose.

For Hill, the mid-engined car was a revelation over the front-engined Dinos.

“We were very late making the switch and the first experience we had with it was towards the end of the 1960 season, at Zandvoort, where we had the 2.5-litre car that Richie had messed with at Monaco that year.

“Now Zandvoort was about the worst place for us in the front-engined car because it felt like we were on the end of a piece of string which was about to fail or be cut. Suddenly being in the rear-engined car that whole aspect had gone because we were up near the stable end of the car and so the feeling was very much better.

“Even if nothing else had changed we would been able to drive it more satisfactorily because there was a precariousness about sitting out the rear of one of these things with unstable back ends. We were all arms and elbows all the time trying to do better than was in the car.

“So, whether it was the reduced polar moment with the engine being behind the driver or whether it was because we had a better, safer feel, I don’t know how much of it was this and how much that.”

Although an improvement, the sharknose was still a wayward motor car. Much has been made of the extra 30 or 40 bhp advantage enjoyed by the Ferrari drivers over the Climax four-cylinder, but Phil stresses that what the Ferraris gained on the straights they lost whenever the road turned.

Yeah, we had a power advantage but nobody ever mentions the chassis disadvantage. People talk about Stirling in all his greatness giving away 40 horsepower, but they never say his Lotus was infinitely lighter and didn’t need all that power. We would have gladly traded cars with him anyday. We probably would have been beat anyway but they never look at that side. I think even Stirling would admit it. Along with power you’ve got to have something that is manageable and pleasant, right?”

For proof Hill points to the amount of negative camber they had to carry at the rear and the cars became notorious for their knock-kneed appearance.

“It was the only way we could make it work. But if you have to have that much negative camber on the back then someone hasn’t got it figured out. It was embarrassing and awkward because of the heat buildup. A lot of times we really got the inside edges of those tyres as hot as hell.”

The 1961 series shaped up into a closely fought contest between Hill and von Trips. At Zandvoort the German held on to win by less than a second: a month later Hill reversed the result by an even closer margin at Spa.

The French GP held on the high-speed Reims triangle was a circuit Hill looked forward to. When pole position was translated into a clear race lead, victory looked on the cards until a silly incident when he spun on the melting tarmac at the notorious Thillois hairpin and was clouted up the rear by Stirling Moss.

,p>”The ’61 season could have been so different if it had not been for that absolutely stupid thing at Thillois. Normally a spin there would have been nothing to worry about — Christ, I had spun there so often I made it into an asset. I always tried really very hard there whereas most people just trundled through it because it was so risky. I could never keep from trying at Thillois and one out of 30 laps 1 would spin but overall there was a net gain. Only this time Stirling had to drive into me and nail me! Nine points there would have changed the season.”

Von Trips had already retired with a holed radiator but by the time Hill got the hot engine fired up again two laps had been lost and with them the chance of a decisive championship lead.

Victory for von Trips in the sodden British GP at Aintree put him ahead in the points table, but by the time they arrived at Monza both men were in with a shout at the title.

It was of course in that race that von Trips and Clark clashed on lap 2 at the Parabolica, the Ferrari flying into the crowd and killing 15 spectators and the driver. Hill drove on to victory and the championship not knowing his team mate was dead.

Even today, Hill finds it hard to talk about that afternoon in detail and one senses he does not want to be pressed to talk too much about it. “It was horrible. I didn’t know all throughout the race what had happened and I didn’t dwell on the fact that it might have been a fatal accident because in those days we saw things like that all the time cars upside down and whatever. Was it a broken arm, busted ribs, or what? You thought about it a little but you were just too darned busy to dwell on it. It didn’t really affect my race much. He was eliminated as a competitor which was a relief and I sort of knew about the championship right then.”

In such circumstances the title was a joyless thing. Saddened and perhaps tired with the politicking he left at the end of the year, only to return before the ’62 season. Ferrari was the team he knew best and a safer bet than BRM. Unknown to him, however, the palace revolution was brewing at Maranello, and several key figures including engineer Carlo Chiti walked out in protest at Enzo Ferrari’s autocratic management style to form the ATS team.

Ill fortune now dogged his F1 career. 1962 turned into a bitter dispute between driver and management and at the end of the year he left Ferrari, for good this time, signing for the Bologna-based ATS outfit.

But growing doubts about the dangers of racing gnawed at him and compounding it all, the ATS team was crippled by an economic nosedive.

“The main reason ATS failed was that Italy suffered its first financial crisis since the war and when that happened in Italy everyone went home and stayed indoors. The economy went down into the dumps. The owner was a guy called Billi, who was in stocks in Russia and I think my name went on one of McCarthy’s lists! The whole thing was awkward all the way. Chiti was trying to design a factory, a foundry and everything — it really was an impossible job.

The whole thing went from bad to worse. I still wanted to be a racing driver yet part of me was saying “Jeez, is this crazy or not?”

Ironically, he drove what he considers his best race in what turned out to be his last ever event in a single-seater, the 1956 Australian GP at Longford, part of the Tasman series. “I always say my best race was at Longford and no one has ever heard of that one! I was in a 2.5-litre Cooper belonging to Bruce McLaren and had a race-long battle with Jim Clark. Afterwards he complained — and I took it as a compliment — that he couldn’t get past but he did, several times. We had a tremendous dice all race.”

Back in the ’60s Grand Prix drivers were not the specialists they are today and Phil Hill drove successfully for the Cobra team and later for Ford’s GT40 onslaught, before ending his career on a high with victory in the famous Chaparral 2F at Brands Hatch in 1967.

Phil rolls his eyes at the memory of the big-banger GT cars, especially the monstrous 2F.

“That was a huge car. We took it to the Targa Florio and if there ever was a case for applying the syndrome of why a dog is faster around a living room than a racehorse, that car was it. Good fun though.

“I think by then though it was a little late in my career, because time was going on and I had been through a lot in my time behind the wheel, so I’m not sure if I ever regained the enthusiasm you need for doing the job in a first class fashion.”

As he got older Phil Hill could no longer ignore the dangers of a sport which at that time claimed too many drivers, and looking back now he candidly wonders if this did not sometimes work against him.

“Those were dangerous times for drivers, with a lot of funerals, and although you would go around saying to yourself ‘This is not affecting me’, you don’t really know if that is so. I look back on my ’62 year and wonder if I wasn’t affected in ways I didn’t know. The decades roll by and you look at things differently. In many ways we hid from the danger aspect. It was self-denial in the extreme.”

Perhaps thinking of men like Luigi Musso who was killed at Reims when under pressure to do better, he continued: “People could be developing an accident pattern and be in such denial that they refused to limit themselves and in short order they died.

“That was a bad business because they would get a little panicky and do the wrong thing. I saw any number of cases where this happened where instead of a little more conservatism and introspection being the better approach to something going wrong, they would just try all the harder and the next thing was a fatal accident. That is just tragic.

“I never hurt myself and was lucky as hell. I had a great big caution factor that served me well and a certain cowardliness in it that I am not particularly proud of but I guess I am still here today to tell the tales.”

Hill raced against some of the greats in the sport but has no hesitation in naming Moss as the outstanding driver of his era. “As an all-rounder Stirling was the best. He had Jim Clark beat plenty. All you had to do was see a car that wasn’t quite right or something and suddenly Jimmy had an off-day. To me, Jimmy, Colin and the car made for a great package, but if any one of the three — and in fairness it was very rarely Clark — was off a little bit he had a hard time dealing with it. Whereas with Moss, the guy just seemed able to get into anything, adjust to its vices and make virtues of them. It did not seem to matter what he got into, he always seemed to be the best.”

Interviewed before the Imola tragedy, Hill ranked Ayrton Senna as the best of the generation, also expressing admiration for Prost and Schumacher while adding the caveat that in the modern world of F1 “it is so hard to measure because there is so much excellence in machinery and there is also a lot of fine talent out there.

“All the cars now are so good and a few are a tiny bit better, whereas in my day cars were good or bad and the bad ones were really bad. Stirling could get into a bad car and with his ability make up the deficit. Today that is impossible.”

As passionate as ever about motor cars Phil still works in the restoration business but looks back with mixed feelings at this racing career. “When I think back on it all, it really does seem crazy to be so obsessed with that occupation. I had a lot of happy times with Ferrari and in racing generally, but I would have liked to have been more mature across the board throughout my career — but then if that had happened I would probably have had more sense than to be a racing driver in the first place! Racing is a young man’s game for many reasons.” J.S.