Phil Hill's 1961 World Championship victory that ended British winning run

“Thoughtful Phil Hill agonised over how his title might be viewed”

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Right now I’m remembering a very important year. It was 60 years ago, the summer of ’61, still a schoolboy, in my teens, sap rising – remember? Even then I had already spent 10 years entranced by motor racing. What extraordinary years they were for a UK kid.

Initially our country couldn’t field a Grand Prix car worth a light in face of Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati – and their great drivers, “the Continental crecks” as the piercingly cut-glass Queen’s-English tones of BBC or Movietone News commentators, even then relics of the 1930s, put it…

Into the mid-50s, HWM, Cooper and Connaught made some inroads as the great Italian marques ran out of steam – and lire. Then in 1954-55 the might of Mercedes-Benz avalanched into the fray. One could hardly help but gaze on in awe-struck admiration.

A less-unequal racing world re-emerged after Merc’s retirement ending ’55, Ferrari shook itself like a soaking Labrador, made the most of its inherited Lancia V8 technology and Fangio’s greatness… and still there wasn’t a British GP car worth a light. But, happily, some wonderfully promising home drivers were plainly on the verge.

For any increasingly motor racing-mad English kid, the blossoming competitiveness of Vanwall through 1957 with Moss, Brooks, later Lewis-Evans driving, was every bit as thrilling as a ’66 World Cup win at Wembley for round-ball freaks. We young Brits always wanted our home team, our blokes, to excel. We were schooled to do it. I for one did not resist. I had no interest in woolly-ball (tennis) or golf (why would anyone want to drop that tiny ball down that hole?) but I’d still be dismayed if the Brits were beaten at anything, even tiddlywinks. It was natural – but losing happened far too frequently.

Then Moss, Brooks and Vanwall won our home British Grand Prix at Aintree. Wahoo!!! And it got better. They drove Vanwall to victory over rival Ferrari to win the Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship in 1958. Wahoo!!! And Cooper and Lotus were on the cusp. When Vanwall withdrew – mission accomplished – for 1959 Cooper-Climax took on their mantle. Ferrari crushed again. Wahoo!!! Through 1960, Cooper-Climax dominant, Lotus-Climax winning. Ferrari crushed again. More wahoo!!!

For so many young fans such as myself it was fulfilment. Bentley and Jaguar and Aston Martin might have waved our flag for years but only in endurance sports car stuff. Now ‘we’ were up and flying at Grand Prix level. It was heady, life-shaping.

And then came the change of Formula for 1961. The old 2½-litre class which ‘our blokes’ had come to dominate was swept away by FIA bureaucrats in Paris and replaced by a feeble new 1½-litre Formula, part-orchestrated by the Old Man of Maranello himself, Mr Ferrari. Through 1½-litre Formula 2 he had an all-powerful V6 racing engine developed and ready.

“We young Brits always wanted our home team, our blokes, to excel”

What seemed – even then – pathetically wrong-headed British efforts to continue racing existing hardware as the InterContinental Formula stood no hope. Instead, the new 1½-litre Formula took root.

Ferrari started that ’61 season with a clear advantage for its powerful ‘Sharknose’ cars, and nearly crushed all that ‘our blokes’ could throw at them. The sheer genius of Moss at Monaco and the Nürburgring prevailed over the duelling Ferrari team leaders, Phil Hill and ‘Taffy’ von Trips. We fans hung on every tense moment…

Phil from California won the Belgian GP, and Taffy from Cologne won the Dutch and the British GPs. Phil added huge gloss when he co-drove with Olivier Gendebien to win his second Le Mans 24 Hours, Olivier’s third. Phil had also been the Ferrari team’s fastest driver in qualifying, taking five consecutive pole positions up to the German GP on the Nordschleife. There, Moss’s private Lotus won again, while Phil and Taffy fought a terrific internecine duel, which ended with Trips second and Phil third after they had both spun in unison in a last-lap rainstorm.

The World Championship title could be decided at Monza. On race day Trips made a poor start, and while trying to compensate he collided with Jim Clark’s Lotus 21 and crashed into the trackside fence, he and 14 spectators losing their lives.

Phil Hill won the race – and became the first American to win the Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship. But thoughtful Phil agonised over what had happened and how his title might be viewed. He had won it on merit, the Trips accident had happened behind him, he had not seen it, even in his mirrors. But its circumstances triggered many a flashback for him of standing on the Le Mans pit counter six years earlier, waiting for his co-driver to stop and hand over the car to him for his debut as a Ferrari factory team driver – when mayhem erupted 20-30 yards before him in motor sport’s most ghastly catastrophe ever…

On his ‘tainted’ title, philosophical Phil would only say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about that”. Yet it always rankled.

Now it’s 60 years since he achieved his racing ambition of becoming Formula 1 World Champion driver. Might I suggest raising a glass in memory of that? Just sometimes the nice guys win.


Doug Nye is the UK’s leading motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s