One of the first things that any race reporter learns is that all is not necessarily either what it seems, nor what one is told by otherwise perfectly pleasant, straightforward and respectable team members. This is why Internet-age statisticians and tabulators create such dismissive mirth when it comes to pinning down numerical data. You know the kind of thing? McLaren-Peugeot suffered six retirements with clutch failure, and also broke three camshafts, whereas Ferrari retirements involved suspension damage on four occasions, ignition trouble on three and fuel pump failure on two.
Now it was pointed out to me very early on – during the brief period which might laughingly be described as my race reporting ‘career’ – that Ferrari ignition failures were sometimes caused, in reality, by the distributor having been smashed clean off the side of the engine by a broken conrod exploding through the block.
At the time of the great Phil Hill’s death last year, I was working closely with him and his friend Steve Dawson on a book based around the fantastic Kodachrome colour photos which he took of racing and racing cars from 1948-62, “…to show the folks back home”. Our target was to produce the most outstanding World Champion Driver’s book there’s ever been, or that’s ever likely to be. Phil’s passing has not changed this objective, and the project continues with Derek, his son, as a memorial to a really good and great man.
When it comes to camouflaging reasons for retirement Phil told the true story of his run in the big 3-litre Dino 296 ‘Monzanapolis’ Ferrari V6 in Monza’s Two Worlds Trophy race of 1958. In practice the big engine had started to seize. Phil recalled: “It felt like one giant hand had reached out and pulled on the back of the car. I declutched just in time, and coasted into the pits where sure enough they found a piston had picked up. They cranked it over and it freed a bit so they put a magic compound in it, a household cleaning powder…
“You can often save an engine that’s started to seize if it’s been caught in time, and the more you run it the more free it gets. I remember Marchetti looking in the cylinder with a magnifying glass, seeking molten metal on the spark plugs and a very hot plug, then saying ‘Here it is’. So we knew we weren’t going to be able to run it for long and yet they were on a shoestring and they needed that starting money, so I would start the 500 Miles in a compromised car.
“They told me to stop on the ninth lap over on the back stretch with ‘magneto failure’ and get the hell back to the pits quick. I knew the footpath and got there just in time to see that Musso had been hauled off to the clinic with heat prostration and Mike Hawthorn had taken over the sister V12 car… At one stage we had tested rubber-covered springs on this car and it handled just like a pogo stick out of control! When I came in and told Chiti, he said ‘OK, OK, OK – I thought it was going to be that way’… and I ended up being sent out in the V12, because Mike – well – that was one day when he just didn’t want to know…”
So, P Hill, 1958 Two Worlds Trophy, Heat 1 – retired to save engine further damage after partial piston seizure during practice. ‘Magneto’ sounds much more simple. But it’s not what happened…