Phil Hill (1927 - 2008)

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Phil Hill (1927 - 2008)
Phil Hill
Phil Hill - The first American to become World Champion had a love/hate relationship with the sport. Profoundly intelligent and deeply sensitive, he was also remarkably candid about personal demons that caused inner turmoil and made his racing life a bittersweet experience. He was always fearful and throughout his career he struggled to find a balance between the perils and pleasures of his profession. Yet driving became a way of expressing himself and racing took him on a journey to places he never expected to go.
From the 1950's through the mid 1970's, one of the regular features of Grand Prix racing had been the periodic rise and fall of Ferrari fortunes, peaks of success being relatively few and far between since the advent of the 1½-litre unsupercharged Formula One at the start of 1961.

Phill Hill was one of Maranello's great exponents of the late 1950s and early 1960s and was America's first World Champion driver. He was primarily an enthusiast of motor cars and motor racing, this fundamental enthusiasm being responsible for leading him into the sport as a competitor. Throughout his life, and even after retiring from competitive motor racing, Phil Hill's enthusiasm remained untarnished. In 1974 he visited the French Grand Prix so that he could take part in the "restrospective parade" of former participants in historic motor racing as well as meeting old friends and colleagues of his era.

Phil Hill was the son of the postmaster in Santa Monica, California. Hill's first car was actuually a Model T Ford for which he paid the princely sum of ten dollars when he was twelve years old. By the time he arrived in his late teens he was desperately trying to dovetail his college studies with a stint as unpaid mechanic to a friend who raced a midget car on the dirt tracks which abounded all over the United States at the time. "That really was a terribly big deal at the time", Hill later recalled in his reflective Californian drawl, "a case of seven nights a week with a race on every night. The pressure was tremendous. I'd originally become a fan of road racing through reading all the pre-war books written by people such as Davis, Birkin and Segrave - I devoured it all and road racing was the thing I always wanted to take part in".

Interestingly, the enthusiasm which fired Phil Hill to compete in the long Carrera Panamericana road races through Central America and eventually led to his recruitment into the Ferrari works team meant that he was one of the few leading American drivers who stayed clear of USAC oval racing. Hill was also one of the "renegades" along with Masten Gregory, Carroll Shelby and Dan Gurney, who were so aggraavated with what they thought was the overrrigid "amateur" approach of the SCCA they went off and raced for money instead!

By 1950, Hill's overwhelming enthusiasm to compete led him to purchase a MG TC roadsters, setting out on the road to Formula One with a win on its first appearance. By this stage he had decided on a career as a professional mechanic, even coming to England to attend a course at the Jaguar factory before returning to California with one of the famous XK120 models. There followed a brief flirtation with one of the ex-Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeos which was beset by mechanical fragility before an invitation came from Ferrari's North American agent, Luigi Chinetti, for Hill to come to Le Mans and stand by as a reserve driver for the 4.1-litre VI2 which Chinetti was sharing with Jean Lucas. He didn't get a drive at Le Mans, but he did manage to get a run at Reims in the same car with Chinetti, standing in on this occasion for the injured Bill Spear.

Chinetti fully appreciated that his newly-discovered Californian protege had above-average talent and arranged that Hill should have his own Ferrari back in the United States the following year. "This was the 212 export 'barchetta' which had won the very first Tour de France in 1951 in the hands of Pagnibon and Barraquet and it was fitted with a 2.6-litre engine". It served the young Hill most adequately in club races on the West Coast of North America, before he moved on to a 3-litre Ferrari and started to compete in the long distance events.

By the time he was recruited into the works Ferrari team, Phil Hill had developed an almost-lengendary concentration which was to take him to no fewer than three Le Mans victories. If he appeared outwardly slightly agitated, his stamina was clearly unquestionable. In 1952 Hill received an invitation to compete in his first, daunting Carrera Pan americana, the 2,000-mile road race which stretched the length of Mexico from the Guatemalan border to the Southern borders of Texas. He finished sixth overall in his first try. The following year he returned, only to survive a spectacular accident when his Ferrari plunged over a cliff, but came back unscratched in 1954 to finish a dose second behind Maglioli's works-backed car, driving on this occasion the ex-factory 4.1-litre spyder which had won the 1953 Nurburgring 1,000-kms. in the hands of Ascari and Farina. On the last two occasions, Hill was partnered by Richie Ginther, the two Americans later destined to become Ferrari Formula One team mates.

Phil Hill 1974
The above photo of Phil Hill was taken at the 1974 French Grand Prix. Despite his retirement, he remained a keen motorsport enthusiast, and his own collection included a 1931 blower Bentley, a 1931 Alfa Romeo Zagato, nine Packards and three Pierce-Arrows.
By this time Hill was convinced that he had to cross the Atlantic, so he loaded up his Ferrari on a boat from Houston in Texas and set off on the trip to Catania. Believe it or not, it was on that boat that he received a message from Ferrari himself to go to Maranelloas as soon as he arrived. Upon arrival he was confronted with the question 'Do you want to race at Le Mans with Maglioli?'. Of course there was no question, and Hill agreed immediately.

During the 1955 season, Ferrari were relying on their four-cylinder 121LMs for the long distance events and three such cars were entered for the fateful 1955 Le Mans race. Hill later recalled "Then there was that terrible accident which left me really confused. Here I was, this new-guy American, trying to take in everything that was happening while at the same time trying to understand the reasoning of the team manager who was for ever urging one to go flat out while at the same time telling you not to risk bending the car under any circumstances". Although Hill's status within the team mushroomed progressively over the next five years, he was always aware of Enzo Ferrari's presence and his tendency to keep all his team-members on their toes with a little bit of rivalry amongst themselves. Hill soon learnt that Ferrari never liked complacency, and he found himself always getting pushed around in the Formula One team, particularly during his first season in 1958.

Hill later told reporters that he firmly believed that he could have won the 1958 Italian Grand Prix at Monza if he hadn't been told to stay behind Hawwthorn in third place so he could get as many Championship points as possible. In fact, Hill virtually forced Enzo Ferrari to give him an F1 seat by accepting a Maserati drive at Reims. Ferrari valued Hill very highly for sports car racing and, in consequence, forbade him to drive the Maserati. Hill called his bluff and Ferrari relented; the American got a place in the F1 team!

Hill's first Le Mans triumph came in 1958 with the famous 250 "Testa Rossa" front-engined V12 Ferrari sports car which he shared with Belgian Olivier Gendebien, this duo staying together until 1962 when they won the last Le Mans to be dominated by a front-engined car. Hill and Gendebien became one of the great long distance pairings of the late fifties and early sixties, numbering wins at Sebring and Nurrburgring to their credit as well as the Le Mans triumphs in 1958, 1961 and 1962. Their relationship out of the cockpit wasn't quite as sympathetic, Hill frequently admitting that he was rather upset over the amiably brash fashion in which his co-driver tended to play down Hill's contribution to their success. But there was certainly none of the open hostility alleged by certain journalists at the time, and they welcomed each other warmly when reunited at Dijon.

On the Formula One front, Phil Hill had been very much the "apprentice" during the hey-day of Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn and' he admitted there never existed an awful lot of sympathy between the serious outlook which Hill brought to bear on his racing and the extrovert "devil-may-care" attitude of the two Englishmen. Ironically, Collins' death' and Hawthorn's retirement from motor racing after winning the 1958 World Chammpionship were leading factors behind Hills promotion into the full-time Ferrari team alongside Dan Gurney and Tony Brooks the following year. The advent of the rear-engined Cooper-Climax in the hands of Jack Brabham left little in the way of victories to be collected by the larger, front-engined 2-litre Ferraris, so although Phil Hill won the 1960 Italian Grand Prix on the banked Monza circuit (the final Grand Prix to be won by a front-engined car) it wasn't until the advent of the 1961 V6 Ferraris that his winning streak came to prominence.

As time has passed, the essential facts of that 1961 season have tended to become rather muddled. True, Stirling Moss worked miracles with the little four-cylinder Lotus 18-Climax belonging to Rob Walker but Hill is emphatic: "Many, many times I'd have willingly traded my Ferrari's power for Moss' handling. That Ferrari was absoluutely awful round circuits like Monte Carlo. It was nothing but a truck and I would have dearly liked the handling of that little Lotus". Whilst in no way disputing the brilliance of Stirling Moss, it was apparent that Hill felt very earnestly that there was a tendency for people to think "anyone can win with a Ferrrari" and he obviously disagreed strongly.

Phil Hill Ferrari V6 1961
Hill's 1½ Litre Ferrari V6 rounds La Source hairpin ahead of team mate "Taffy" von Trips during the 1961 Belgian Grand Prix aat Spa. They finished first and second.
Phil Hill only won the Belgian and Italian Grands Prix, although he took second place behind van Trips at both Aintree and Zanddvoort, and there was obvious disappointment waiting for America's first World Champion when Ferrari decided not to take part in the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. "I really didn't get a lot of pleasure out of that Championship season", Hill later said, "because the 1960 season was much more satisfying., There was a good deal of back-biting in the team in 1961 - remember we had Ginther, Trips, Baghetti and Ricardo Rodriguez. Then, of course, came 1962 and we had virtually no results at all. That proved what a bad chassis the Ferrari really was".

By the middle of the 1962 season, Hill's sensitivity was bringing him to think he couldn't stay at Maranello any longer. He also found relations with team manager Tavoni rather tense. Hill used to talk openly to certain journalists and Tavoni used to upset him by confronting him, take a button of Phil's shirt between finger and thumb and almost pull it off as he said "Pheel, you 'ave spoke too much . . ." Hill muttered "Godddarn; that damn Tavoni - pulling the buttons off my shirt!" "They built up a new car for me with a wider track and the clutch mounted inboard of the gearbox to replace the arrangement whereby we had the clutch right out at the back of the gearbox. That car could never pull the same revs as we'd seen in 1961 and it was virtually impossible to haul round tight corners. You had to use some real funny antics to get it round the slow corners at Monaco, although it wasn't too bad in the closing stages of that year's Monaco Grand Prix because the rubber was well worn and a little bit of rain meant that it was easier to swing round the turns. That's why I was closing in on McLaren's Cooper towards the finish". Despite the odd promissing performance, Ferrari could see his cars being beaten by their British rivals. He decided the responsibility lay firmly with the drivers and was not impressed by their remonstrations about the car. Hill by now absolutely desperate to get away from Ferrrari moved along with his team-mate Giancarlo Baghetti to the newly-formed ATS team for 1963.

The ATS organisation was formed by a number of Ferrari "breakaways" including Autodelta team director Carlo Chiti. Their plan was to build a new Italian Grand prix car to beat Ferrari at his own game; and their efforts failed miserrably. Although neither Hill nor Baghetti scored a single Championship point during the course of that disastrous season, Hill remained reasonable and charitable when reecalling the project. "They'd all gone off from Ferrari to build this ATS and, while there's no doubt it was an extremely ambitious effort, it was considerably misjudged. Also, it must be remembered that Italy was going through probably its first big post-war financial crisis at the time and events just overtook them. Really, it was a marvellous little engine that ATS VS, even though it suffered from the most incredible oil surge problem. You could almost feel the whole thing lose revs as the crankshaft became swamped with oil!"

Not knowing exactly what he should do, Phil Hill became involved with the works Cooper team for 1964 through his links with BP following a brief spell with the Centro-Sud ex-works BRM. But his relationship with John Cooper was difficult in the extreme, a classic case of two human beings finding it totally impossible to get on with each other. The best result he could muster was fourth place in the Silverstone International Trophy and a single Championship point in the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, "I was going through a very confused state of mind at the time", Hill later admitted, "but my spell with Cooper was without doubt the worst experience of my life. I'd yet to deal with a team which had no weird nationalistic temperaament to cope with and I had more incidents with the ATS and the Cooper than I'd had during the whole of my career up to that point".

Phil Hill
After leaving Ferrari, Hill had a melancholy 1963 season with the abortive ATS which is pictured above at Monza sporting "streamlined" wheel fairings.
The big split between Phil Hill and Cooper effectively took place after two accidents during the Austrian Grand Prix on the bumpy Zeltweg airfield. "I crashed my regular car into a straw bale in practice, then repeated this performance in the race, although this time the car simply burnt out. John Cooper went almost mad with rage after that and the next thing I knew was that I'd been replaced in the team by John Love for the Italian Grand Prix. I read about it in one of the papers!" Although they just managed to work out the United States and Mexican Grands Prix, without coming to blows, Cooper and Hill split up for good at the end of 1964. Phil Hill never drove in another Grand Prix event again.

"A beautiful switch to sanity" was how Hill described his recruitment into the Ford prototype team at the start of their multi-million pound Le Mans challenge in 1964. After an abortive drive at Le Mans in 1963 with Lucien Bianchi in an Aston Martin - "we cracked the sump" - an approach from John Wyer resulted in the first GT40 prototype challenging the works Ferrari hard in the opening stages of the 1964 race with Hill at the wheel. His enthusiasm for the Ford set-up is almost gushing. "It was more fun than a barrel of monkeys, it was like heaven - a real boost to my confidence".

That mixed 1964 season ended with a trip to the Tasman series along with Bruce McLaren to contest the winter races with, almost ironically, a pair of Cooper-Climaxes owned by McLaren. It was here that Hill enjoyed what he considered the most satisfying race of his career - "it was at Longford, where I finished third behind Clark and Bruce". Perhaps it is indicative of Hill's sensitivity that he should select an event where his own personal performance was the criteria rather than his best result, a facet of his character which left him more satisfied with 1960 than his Championship season the following year.

By the time Phil Hill joined the Ford team, in his own words he was "little by little coming to see the rational aspect of racing. Having seen a good number of drivers killed over the years, I found myself becomming more aware of the potential for hurting oneself. It was not something which worried me, it was simply a fact which I suddenly found present in my mind". But before Hill finally slipped out of motor racing, there was to be one final team for whom he would drive, Jim Hall's Chaparral organisation.

Much has been written about the famous "two pedal" Chaparral sports cars of the mid-1960s; they were really the first of the "computer cars", machines designed with an engineering perfection in mind that few of the rivals approached. It wasn't so much the Can-Am machine that stuck in Hill's mind as much as the beautiful winged prototype which arrived in Europe for the 1967 season. In 1966, Hill had triumphed in the Nurburgring 1,000-kms. event, sharing the first Group 6 Chaparral with Jo Bonnier, but the exciting 2F model with its foot-operated movable rear wing, automatic transmission and powerful Chevrolet-engine enlivened the 1967 World Championship for Makes.

Phil Hill BOAC 1000 1967
Phil Hill's last racing appearance was in the BOAC 1000 kilometre race at Brands Hatch in 1967. Driving the Chaparral 2F, he won with the late Mike Spence.
"We took it to Sicily for the Targo Florio", Hill later reflected with a mischievous grin, "and I can remember the way it frightened everyone around the course when it came into view scything the foliage off the trees with its wing. But the best thing was when it was standing still and somebody moved the rear wing without the car moving, just by presssing that third pedal. It created an almost spontaneous reaction as a quarter of a milllion Sicilians fled for their life!"

"Seriously, though, I nearly found myself caught out on one occasion when I hit the brakes and the wing pedal at the same time when this guy in a Corvette wandered across in front of me coming off the Daytona banking. He just didn't see me coming. My last race for the team was the 1967 BOAC 1,0000kms. at Brands Hatch which Mike Spence and I won. It was a wonderful car, but I think that Jim Hall was just a little bit disappointed after its minor bouts of unnreliability that year".

Hill ambled on through 1967 and then suddenly found himself without a contract arranged for the following season. There can be very few drivers who can lay claim to the distinction of winning their very last motor race before they retired, but the good natured Californian justly could even though, at the time, it's probably unlikely he realised that retirement was just round the corner. His interest in historic cars was maintained with his own collection, he owned a 1931 blower Bentley, a 1931 Alfa Romeo Zagato, nine Packards and three Pierce-Arrows. More than enough to keep him occupied. Phil Hill was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1991, and sadly passed away on August 28th, 2008.

Also see: Phil Hill - The First American World Champion (USA Edition)
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