Driving for F1’s most charismatic team in one of its most beautiful creations, Phil Hill became 1961 World Champion. But it was a title won amid tragedy. He describes that season to Chris Nixon
It was, as Charles Dickens once wrote, the best of times and the worst of times. As Phil Hill completed the final laps of the 1961 Italian Grand Prix he was trying to figure out just how his win would affect his battle for the World Championship with his team-mate, Wolfgang von Trips. He knew a Ferrari had crashed on the second lap and a few laps later his pit had shown him a leader board and Trips was not on it. Clearly, he was out of the race, but was he OK? Would he be able to take part in the final race of the year, the USGP at Watkins Glen?
“I won the Italian GP,” recalls Phil, “but my happiness was short-lived. I came into the pits and Carlo Chili said ‘Bravo! Bravo!’, but there was something not quite right about his enthusiasm for my victory. I asked him, ‘How’s Trips?’, and the look on his face told me right there.”
That second-lap crash had killed von Trips and 11 spectators. Hill was the new World Champion, the first American to win the title, but his well-earned triumph was overwhelmed by the tragedy and he never received the recognition he was due.
This is the 40th anniversary of Hill’s season-long battle for the championship but though now 74, Phil is sharp as ever, his recall remarkable and precise. His happiest memory of that 1961 season?
“Winning Le Mans,” he replies, instantly, “but in F1 terms, it was winning the Belgian GP. People seemed to think it was a walkaway win for me, but it was actually fraught with great challenge because there were rumours that von Trips was going to get the approval of the ‘Old Man’ as Number One driver, but that turned out to be not the case at all. It was also a thrill to win at Spa which, next to the Nürburgring, was my favourite circuit.”
But the ’61 season began at Monaco, where the British teams were in some disarray, having spent the previous two years protesting against the FlA’s new 1.5-litre Formula. Enzo Ferrari, by contrast, simply accepted the inevitable and in his annual press conference late in 1960, unveiled the Carlo Chili-designed 1.5-litre car, the `sharknose’ 156 which would become an icon among F1 cars.
Phil Hill did not drive a 156 until practice for Monaco, but the Ferrari drivers had been given an indication of the new car’s potential at Zandvoort the year before, when the team stayed on after the race and tested a 2.5-litre, mid-engined car.
“There really was a tremendous difference between the feeling that the driver got in his new position in front of the engine, coupled with the car’s reduced polar moment of inertia. You could really throw it around,” recalls Phil. “By the time we got to Monaco, our chances for the championship were looking good. However, being a basic pessimist I thought other teams would have something new, too, so I didn’t count on the 156 being too wonderful. But it was!”
The 156 began life with a 65deg V6 engine (developing 185 bhp at 9200rpm) which powered the cars of Phil Hill and Taffy von Trips at Monaco. A third car had a lighter, 120deg vee, which produced only 5bhp more, but gave the Ferrari a lower centre of gravity. It was entrusted to Phil’s friend Richie Ginther, who had done a great deal of development work on it with with Carlo Chili.
“That car’s lower c of g made quite a difference at Monaco,” says Phil, “especially when getting out of the hairpins. Richie could get more power down and the car seemed to rotate better going in. People always talk about the 40bhp advantage we had over Stirling’s Lotus, but he had a lovely light, nimble little car, which off-set some of our power advantage.”
After a stunning drive, Moss was followed home by the Ferraris in the order Ginther-Hill-von Trips.
At Zandvoort a week later, von Trips won the Dutch GP, with Phil less than a second behind him. “I made the mistake of changing a roll bar just before the race, so I couldn’t test it,” Hill recalls. “I ended up with terrible understeer, and could do nothing about Trips and instead had a race-long battle with Jimmy Clark in the Lotus.”
In Belgium, the positions were reversed, with Hill leading home von Trips, Ginther and Gendebien in a remarkable Ferrari 1-2-3-4.
“The Ferraris were just terrific there,” says Hill, “although they always had to run a lot of negative camber on the rear wheels, which was weird. That was the only way they could be made to handle properly but it drove the Dunlop people crazy, because it overheated the inside edge of the tyre, and we all lost great chunks of rubber.”
With three races run, Hill and von Trips had one victory apiece and Ferrari refused to nominate a number one driver. Phil was not happy. “I was very much the senior driver, having been with Ferrari since 1955, but the Old Man refused to nominate me as Number One. I always got along with Trips, but I never considered him a rival, as he had been on and off the team a couple of times. More to the point, he had had a number of accidents and by 1961 it was hard to tell if he had matured or not. It was an awkward position to be in because, even though I was sup posed to have an advantage, there was none because my principal adversary was von Crash, and that was not a pleasant situation.”
Next on the agenda was the French GP at Reims and Phil admits that here he made “the stupidest mistake of my entire motor racing career.” He won pole with a lap 1.5sec faster than von Trips and the German was demoralised.
“Before the season began we had decided we would not drive one another’s car in practice, in case one guy over-revved the other guy’s car on purpose. But at Reims, Trips was so put out that he asked Tavoni WI could try his car.
“I had just heard someone in the next pit talking about oil all over the track, so I thought if my time was not so hot I could complain about the oil. But on my first lap I couldn’t see any oil at all, so I really nailed it and improved on Trips’ time, which sent him further into the depths of despair. I knew I had a psychological advantage over him, as I must have lucked my way into a good set-up and a good engine.”
It was extremely hot all weekend and early in the race the road surface began to come apart. But due to its long straights, Reims was very much a slipstreaming circuit and so several cars retired due to overheating when stones went through radiators. One such was the Ferrari of von Trips, which went out on lap 18. Hill was now in a secure lead, 20sec ahead of his other team-mate Richie Ginther.
After losing four laps to have a broken brake pipe repaired, Stirling Moss rejoined the race in Rob Walker’s Lotus, just ahead of Phil, who recalls: “I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to get Moss at Thillois, before he can hole in my radiator.’ I was a Master at Thillois, I really had that turn nailed down and there was nothing to hit — no trees, no walls, nothing. The worst thing you could do was misjudge it, but that was no problem because you just added 50 yards to the lap, made a tighter turn on the escape road and you hardly lost anything at all.
“So I passed Moss, then spun on the wet tar. He T-boned me and my feet were knocked off the pedals and I stalled. That was the first year of starter motors on F1 cars, but it was so hot all the water had boiled out of the battery and it wouldn’t restart the engine, so I had to push the car and lost a lot of time. I had that race in my damn pocket, with a golden opportunity to move ten points ahead of von Trips. It really was a disaster; it could have changed the whole climate of the season. If I had held that points lead Trips might not have been busting his tail at Monza”.
So, with four of the eight championship races completed, Phil led von Trips by 19 points to 18, with only the five best results to count towards the title. And from the heat of Reims, the F1 teams moved to the cold and rain of Aintree for the British GP. On race day it poured and Phil led for the first seven laps until von Trips got by. Then in the most appalling conditions Hill had a huge moment approaching Melling Crossing. “For a long moment I thought I was going head-on into a concrete gate post and that ruined my concentration. Ginther got by me for a while, but then let me back into second place, behind Trips, which is how we finished.”
Next came the German GP, and another of Phil’s happy memories of that year. “I really did enjoy breaking the 9-minute barrier at the Nürburgring.” That tremendous lap of 8min 55.2sec put him almost six seconds clear of the field and a confidence-boosting 10sec faster than von Trips.
Despite Phil’s superior speed, the race was won and lost on tyres. Dunlop had recently introduced their demon wet weather tyre, the high hysteresis D12 ‘green spot’, which had proved itself at Aintree, so when it started to rain about an hour before the ‘off at the Ring, all the teams fitted them. With 15 minutes to go, however, the sun was shining and Dunlop, fearful of excessive wear in the dry, instructed everyone to change back to normal rubber. Ferrari and Porsche obliged, but Moss and Lotus refused, as Innes Ireland had won at Solitude in the dry with D12s and was convinced that their extra grip was worth the risk in uncertain weather conditions.
He was right Moss led from the start and after three laps had a 10-second lead over the Ferraris of Hill and von Trips. On lap eight, Stirling lapped in 9min 02.8sec, but this was immediately bettered by von Trips, who surged past Hill, recording 9min 01.6sec in the process but Hill retaliated with 8min 57.8sec, but they were still almost 10 seconds behind Moss. With ordinary Dunlops fitted, Phil found his car “lost part of the balance that it had with D12s.
” There was nothing he could do about the Lotus, so the interest now centred on which Ferrari would finish second. Phil’s concern over von Trips’ reputation came into play.
“I had been racing a long time and had been to enough funerals, so I was beginning to understand the hazards of motor racing and it made for an uneasy situation, wondering what I might get dragged into. At the Ring I shouldn’t have let myself get tangled up in that mess on the last lap, yet I did.
“We always got a good tow on the three-kilometre straight before the pits, so Trips and I both wanted to be behind, so we could slipstream the other and be first across the line. Well, I was behind and just getting ready to gobble him up when we hit a rain squall as we took the swerves after the Antoniusbuche Bridge. I saw him lose it, then lost it myself.
“It looked like we were in for a monumental crash that would take us both out, and as we slithered around I was trying to dodge him. When we got straightened out he was further ahead than he had been originally, so he finished second and I lost two valuable championship points to him.”
And so, going into the penultimate race at Monza, the battle for the Championship could be decided in favour of von Trips if he was to win and Hill was to finish lower than second. If he did finish second behind Taffy, however, his ‘best of five’ total would be 31 points to Taffy’s 39, so he could still win the title at Watkins Glen.
As in 1960, the Monza circuit included the banking, which had frightened off the British teams that year, handing Hill a hollow victory with the Ferrari Dino. The banking held no fears for him. “I had finished third with the 4-litre Ferrari in the 1958 Monza 500 and compared with that, the little 1.5-litre car was just foot-to-the-floor all the way around. That was how, during practice, I realised there was something wrong with my Ferrari I was one second slower than the others on the banking alone. I demanded a new engine for the race.”
Ferrari had tested Phil’s car the week before to see how they could avoid bottoming on the banking, yet still have a low car with lots of negative camber. “It was a difficult compromise with spring rates and a taller final drive,” says Phil, “but we got an increase of several hundred revs on the straight, causing the inner valve springs to break. That’s why my car was slower in practice, but no-one put two and two together in time for the race. In the event, my new engine survived the race, but the others didn’t.”
And neither, tragically, did Wolfgang von Trips. On the second lap he was involved in a collision with Jim Clark’s Lotus and though Clark walked away unhurt, the Ferrari careered up the sloping earth bank which was lined with spectators. Eleven died, as did von Trips, who was ejected from his car and broke his neck.
“Trips made a bad start and Richie Ginther and I both went to the front from the second row.” recalls Hill. “Clark got by him and then Trips got him on the straight between Lesmo and the Parabolica. Trips was being cautious because we were all aware that on the opening lap at Monza you never knew if someone’s loose filler cap was going to dump a load of gas all over the road under heavy braking, and you found that out on the second lap.
“I was in the lead and so saw nothing of the accident, but what we all heard afterwards was that Trips outbraked Clark and, assuming that he was past, set himself up for Parabolica by moving slightly to the left. In doing so he touched the right front wheel of the Lotus with the left rear of the Ferrari.”
And so Phil Hill won the Italian Grand Prix and the 1961 World Championship, but in tragic circumstances. To cap it all, he was denied the pleasure of racing as title holder in front of his fellow Americans at Watkins Glen.
“I’m glad that teams today can’t do what Ferrari did then and just refuse to go to the next race. It threw a monkey wrench into the plans of the organisers at Watkins Glen when Ferrari failed to show up with me, the first American champion, to drive in front of my home crowd. I tried to persuade Enzo Ferrari to send one car for me, but he wouldn’t budge, because he had his championships in the bag.
“He played the role of martyr to the hilt, to tell the truth, meeting the press with several days’ growth of beard and looking distraught and grief-stricken. They were all crocodile tears to me he was putting on a show, as he’d done many times before.
“I went to Watkins Glen, of course, but I was just driven round on a lap of honour on the back of a convertible. I was really sick about that, for that day should have been the crowning glory of my career, the biggest day of my life.
“Also, there was a certain amount of guilt on my part in that Trips was dead and I was alive and I had won the championship. I was unequipped to deal with that situation. If I had been more experienced in life I would have been able to wade through it, somehow. It was the most terrible way to win a title.”