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 supposed 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”.