Graham Hill (1929 - 1975)

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Graham Hill (1929 - 1975)

Graham Hill

Norman Graham Hill

Graham Hill was Born on 15 February 1929, and christened Norman Graham Hill. He was the son of a wealthy stockbroker who was not interested in the car or in driving, so the motor car did not play any significant part in Graham Hill's development. Like so many other top racing drivers Hill's schooling, undertaken mostly at Hendon Technical College, was borne grudgingly, but he took refuge in sport by playing football and cricket and becoming a very competent oarsman with the London Rowing Club.

After leaving school he was apprenticed to Smiths (instrument makers) in Cricklewood. They despatched him to Birmingham, where he bought a motor cycle and took part in one or two minor scrambles and trials with no great success. Returning to London one day on the motor cycle he was involved in an accident which left him with a slightly shortened left leg after it had been badly broken.

National Service with the Navy

This left him with a permanent limp and the slightly rolling gait which almost became a hallmark. He was able to practice the rolling gait in 1950 because he was called up for National Service and joined the Navy as an engine room artificer, a period in his life which he enjoyed immensely. After being discharged he rejoined Smiths in their development department, turning his spare time attention once more to rowing.

The London Rowing Club of 1953 had a first class eight and Hill stroked them to victory in the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley. In 1953, at the age of 24, he learned to drive a car. He bought a 1934 Morris 8 Tourer and set off home in it, although he had never driven a car before and had no licence. Despite never having taken a driving lesson he took his test soon afterwards and passed.

Later that year he spotted an advertisement in a magazine which offered lessons in a racing car at the Brands Hatch track for five shillings a lap. Although he had no real intention of becoming a racing driver at the time he thought that it would be interesting so he set off for Brands Hatch and the Universal Motor Racing Club who owned a pair of rickety 500cc Formula Three cars.

Hill, paid up a UK£1 for four laps and thoroughly enjoyed the experience although the car had little resemblance to the only car he had driven to date. At the end of the four laps he knew that he had to become a racing driver. Since he had no money to buy a racing car, he struck upon the idea of offering his services to the racing school as an instructor! Since his experience consisted of those four laps he had no qualifications at all, but the school was not too fussy and he was given the job so long as he maintained the cars and did not require any salary. Hill's dedication to motor racing was so great that he threw up his job at Smiths and took the 'job', although he was in reality unemployed and on the dole.

Unfortunately for Hill his Morris had been written off in a crash so he had to catch a train or bus to Brands Hatch each day. He did not mourn the loss of the Morris, describing his first car as "A wreck. A budding racing driver should own such a car, as it teaches delicacy, poise and anticipation, mostly the latter I think!". He had been promised that one of the perks of his job would be to drive in a race, and on 27 April 1954 Graham Hill took part in his first motor race, driving a Mk IV Cooper-JAP. To his surprise he surged into the lead of the race but was eventually overtaken by another driver, so he finished second in his first event. Later in the day he finished fourth in another race.

It was obvious that the cars in the racing school would never set the tracks alight so in August of 1954 Hill obtained a job with Lotus at £1 a day. He helped to build cars for customers and on occasions was loaned out to owners who needed a mechanic. In 1954 he worked for Dick Steed and the following year he looked after Dan Margulies' C-type Jaguar in return for the occasional drive. He also worked for Lotus owners Jack Richards and Peter Lumsden, who allowed him to drive their cars occasionally. Hill married his girlfriend Bette in 1955. Because he had spent all his money on his racing career to date, Bette had to pay for the wedding. Graham and Bette would have two daughters, Brigitte and Samantha, and a son, Damon, who later became Formula One World Champion – the only son of a former world champion to do so.

The Yellow Peril

At the end of 1955 Lotus held a test day with a Mk 9 sports car for prospective customers and right at the end of the session Hill was allowed out for a few laps, putting up second fastest time of the day. Lotus could not afford to give Hill a works drive but they offered him a full time job at UK£9 a week and told him that he could build up a Lotus XI at the factory and race it himself. This appealed to Hill and he put a lot of work into the Lotus, which was painted yellow and quickly dubbed the 'Yellow Peril'. With this car he performed extremely well during 1956, winning a number of club races. However, he is principally remembered for spinning the car on four consecutive laps on a streaming wet track at Brands Hatch, eventually earning the black flag and a stern lecture from the Clerk of the Course.

Lotus retained Hill as a mechanic during 1956, working on gearbox development, but they would not let him drive works cars, so he left to join Speedwell Engineering, the tuning company, of which he later became Chairman. During early 1957 he drove for whoever would have him but, after Cooper had given him a drive in a Formula Two car, Colin Chapman of Lotus had second thoughts and invited Hill back as a fully fledged driver to handle the new front-engined F2 car. The car was not very competitive against the rear-engined Coopers but Hill gained useful experience and in 1958 he was asked to drive the new front-engined Lotus 16 in Formula One races.

Graham Hill at Monaco in 1961
Graham Hill at Monaco in 1961, driving a BRM, number #10.

Graham Hill at the 1963 Monaco GP, just ahead of Jim Clarks Lotus
Graham Hill at the 1963 Monaco GP, in car #6, just ahead of Jim Clark's Lotus.

Graham Hill at the 1964 French GP driving his BRM
Graham Hill at the 1964 French GP driving his BRM. Hills helmet carried the London Rowing Club colours.

Top down shot of Graham Hill in the Lotus 56 Turbine
Top down shot of Graham Hill in the Lotus 56 Turbine. This car was not very successful.

Graham Hill pictured at Monaco in 1968, driving his Lotus 49B
Graham Hill pictured at Monaco in 1968, driving his Lotus 49B. Hill would win from Attwood's BRM and Bianchi's Cooper.

Graham Hill meeting with Lord Mountbaten and the Duke of Kent during the 1975 British GP at Silverstone
Graham Hill meeting with Lord Mountbaten and the Duke of Kent during the 1975 British GP at Silverstone. He was to retire that year, to set up his own racing team.

Tony Brise demonstrates the pace of the new Embassy Hill before coming to grief in a multi-car pile up that ruined the 1975 British GP at Silverstone
Tony Brise demonstrates the pace of the new Embassy Hill before coming to grief in a multi-car pile up that ruined the 1975 British GP at Silverstone. Brise would suffer head injuries when struck by a fence pole.
Unfortunately, the cars were fragile and Hill seldom finished a race, but he scored his first World Championship point when he finished sixth at the Italian Grand Prix. He did have the slight consolation of winning the Silver City Trophy at Brands Hatch in the 16 and also the Christmas Trophy at the same circuit in the type 15 sports car. The 1959 season proved to be no better for Hill, as the front-engined Formula One and Two Lotuses were uncompetitive against the rear-engined cars, so for 1960 Hill joined the BRM team to drivethe new rear-engined car. Again he had little luck for the BRM was a poor handling car, but he picked up third place in the Dutch Grand Prix.

He stayed with BRM for 1960, when they were forced to use a Coventry-Climax engine as their own V8 was not ready for the new 1.5-litre Formula One. All he had to show for the season was a sixth at the French GP and a fifth at the US GP, but the new V8 was looking promising at the end of the year. Hill's painstaking attention to detail was already becoming apparent and, although his mechanics often complained, they realised in 1962 that he knew what he was talking about when he began to win races with the V8 BRM.

Hill won his first F1 race at Goodwood at Easter 1962, followed up with a breathtaking victory over Jim Clark at the International Trophy at Silverstone when he broad sided the BRM across the line inches ahead of the Lotus and then won his first World Championship race by taking the Dutch Grand Prix. He followed this with sixth place at Monaco, second at the Belgian GP, fourth at Aintree, first at the German GP, first at the Italian GP, second in the US GP and then, needing to beat Jim Clark at the South African GP for the World Championship, he had to sit behind the Lotus in second place. But Clark's engine gave up and Hill drove on to victory and the World Championship.

Prior to 1962 he had never won an F1 race and had scored but a single Championship point. In 1962 alone he won four Championship GPs and had scored 52 points to become World Champion. He adapted well to his new role as World Champion and soon became an articulate speaker, accomplished raconteur and a splendid ambassador for a sport which boasted few characters at that time. Naturally, he stayed with BRM for 1963, but this year Jim Clark was at his brilliant best and Hill had to settle for second place in the Championship despite winning the Monaco GP and the US GP as well as finishing third in the French, third ill the British, fourthin the Mexican and third in the South African GPs.

Hill remained with BRM once more in 1964, winning the Monaco and US GPs, but Ferrari and Lotus were very competitive and his string of second places at the French, British and German GPs just kept him out of the title, and he was rammed out cif the final race in Mexico by Bandini's Ferrari, which allowed team-mate Surtees to take the title. Hill also drove Ferraris in sports car races, winning the Reims 12 Hours and Paris 1000 Km, with Joakim Bonnier as co-driver, and the Tourist Trophy. The BRM was not developing as well as its rivals and in 1965 Hill's BRM did not quite match Jim Clark's Lotus although he again won the Monaco and US GPs. However, several other good placings brought him second place in the Championship.

Winning the Australian and New Zealand Grand Prix's

Hill's final year with BRM was 1966, the year the new 3-litre formula arrived. He picked up a few good places early in the season, such as third at Monaco and the British GP and second at the Dutch GP in a 2-litre BRM, but when the 3-litre V-16 BRM engine was used it proved very unreliable and Hill never finished a race. Earlier in the season he won both the New Zealand and Australian GPs in a BRM and in May he won the Indianapolis 500 mile race driving a Lola T90 with a Ford V8 engine. His win was much disputed as many people thought that his friend Jim Clark had won.

For 1967 Hill joined Clark in the Lotus team to drive the new Lotus 49-Ford F1 car. Although the cars were fast Hill had a good deal of trouble, with the result that his only placings of note were second at the US GP, second at Monaco (in a 2-litre Lotus-BRM) and fourth in the Canadian Grand Prix. One of the saddest days in motor racing occurred when Jim Clark was killed at Hockenheim early in 1968, elevating Hill to number one place in the Lotus team. He realised that some good victories might pull Lotus through this tragedy and immediately he won the Spanish GP, followed by yet another win at Monaco and a victory at Mexico right at the end of the season. Added to second places in the German and US races this gave him his second World Championship, a heartening win which renewed Colin Chapman's appetite for motor racing.

The 1969 season should have been equally successful but a broken aerofoil wing on his Lotus at the Spanish GP destroyed his car and although he won his fifth Monaco GP he was seldom placed in other races. In the United States GP he suffered a severe accident when his Lotus somersaulted several times after suffering a puncture. He was thrown out and suffered a broken right knee, dislocated left knee and severely torn muscles and ligaments. Many friends and racing enthusiasts hoped that Hill would retire after recovering from the crash, as he was now 40, but he subjected himself to a strenuous series of exercises and, although still hobbling painfully, he drove Rob Walker's Lotus in the South African GP in March 1970. He finished an incredible sixth despite being unable to press the brake pedal properly. However, the rest of the season was not as happy because he was still unable to regain full control of his leg muscles, but his fourth place in the Spanish GP showed that he was certainly not finished.

The Lobster Claw

Far from retiring in 1971 he took over the place of retiring Jack Brabham in the Brabham team, driving the 'Lobster Claw' Formula One car. He showed how well he could still drive by winning the International Trophy race at Silverstone after a duel with hard charging Pedro Rodriguez. He also won the' Formula Two race at Thruxton on Easter Monday to the delight of motor racing enthusiasts. But the Brabham was temperamental and all he had to show at the end of the season was a couple of points for fifth place in the Austrian GP. Hill remained with Brabham for the 1972 season but he seemed to have lost much of his old fire and the season was one of lowly placings and retirements, although it was punctuated by a glorious win at Le Mans together with Henri Pescarolo in a Matra, thus giving him the distinction of being the only driver to have won Indianapolis, Le Mans and the drivers' World Championship.

Again, many supporters hoped that Hill would retire, especially after his Le Mans win but he had no intention of retiring for he still enjoyed his racing. He was not signed by any of the major teams in 1973 so he decided to purchase his own car and settled on the new American financed Shadow. This proved to be uncompetitive both in his hands and those of the works drivers and he seldom finished a race. For 1974 he made more ambitious plans, persuading Eric Broadley of Lola to build a special Formula One car for him. With sponsorship from Embassy cigarettes, Hill ran a two-car team during 1974 with Guy Edwards as his number two driver.

Hill was known during the latter part of his career for his wit and became a popular personality - he was a regular guest on television and wrote a notably frank and witty autobiography when recovering from his 1969 accident, Life At The Limit. Hill was also irreverently immortalized on a Monty Python episode ("It's the Arts (or: Intermission)" sketch called "Historical Impersonations"), in which a Gumby appears asking to "see John the Baptist's impersonation of Graham Hill." The head of St. John the Baptist appears on a silver platter, which runs around the floor making putt-putt noises of a race car engine. Hill was involved with four films between 1966 and 1974, including appearances in Grand Prix and Caravan to Vaccarès, in which he appeared as a helicopter pilot.

In July 1975, Graham Hill OBE finally stepped down from driving to assume a new and still more challenging role with a racing team of his own. His formidable race-craft and track experience could now become the inspiration and life-blood of a team with the potential to take-on and beat the established might of Ferrari, Lotus and Tyrrell-Ford on the World Championship Grand Prix scene despite Ralf Stommelen's bad accident at Barcelona while leading the race. He even constructed his own team-car, the GH1, which was designed with the help of Andy Smallman. That obvious and refreshing optimism, the ambitions' and expectations, hopes and plans of both team and followers were, tragically, never to be fulfilled.

On Saturday 31 November 1975, a light aircraft crashed into a golf course on the outskirts of Elstree Aerodrome; poor weather conditions had caused a fatal error of judgement from its pilot. When the first people arrived at the scene all that remained of the plane and its occupants was charred debris scattered over a wide area. Some hours later, an announcement was broadcast on television and radio that Graham Hill had been killed, along with members of his team, while piloting them from a test session at the Paul Ricard circuit in France.

The team included Hill's Number One driver, the young and talented Tony Brise, along with an up an coming Australian driver, Tony Alcock. It was a tribute to Graham Hill's strength of personality, his immense courage and determination and, not least, his brilliance as a racing driver that motor racing folk represented only a small number of the total who mourned his death throughout the world. His death, and the death of his talented team, will be remembered as one of sport's saddest losses. His funeral was at St Albans Abbey, UK. After his death, Silverstone village, home to the track of the same name, named a road, Graham Hill, after him. Graham Hill Bend at Brands Hatch is also named in his honour.
Graham Hill's Embassy Lola at the 1974 Dutch GP
Graham Hill's Embassy Lola at the 1974 Dutch GP.
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