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Phil Hill – America’s first F1 champion and Le Mans legend

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Phil Hill – America’s first F1 champion and Le Mans legend
By:
Apr 20, 2020, 10:56 PM

On what should have been 1961 Formula 1 World Champion Phil Hill’s 93rd birthday, David Malsher-Lopez pays tribute to an open-wheel ace and a sportscar great.

Philip Toll Hill Jr. is perhaps the most under-appreciated World Champion in Formula 1 history, and one wonders if this is simply a result of him being so smart. The wisest people learn not only from their own mistakes but those of others, too, and this Miami-born, Santa Monica-bred guy had witnessed plenty of trauma by the time he reached the top of the motorsport world in 1961. He had long since learned not to push his luck.

“The obvious truth is, we are all likely to kill ourselves if we drive over our heads,” he told his biographer, William F. Nolan. “Personally, my driving has always contained a high caution factor.”

If Hill left a margin because he was more mechanically sympathetic than others, well, wasn’t that wise at a time when racecars were far less reliable than they are today? He was never a showboating racer, the sort who drove flat out until the car broke. Instead he tried to emulate the style of the great Fangio whose policy of winning at the slowest possible speed paid huge dividends. Hill only revealed the true depth of his talent when he had to, be it in qualifying or storming through the field on a comeback drive, or driving in the wet with a car in which he felt comfortable… relatively speaking.

And if Hill left his margin out of desire for self-preservation, that too was a sound policy when cars bucked and shuddered on wire wheels around tracks lined with ditches, trees, and steep banks of solid soil. The consequences of mechanical breakage or driver error were brutal.

But never mistake Hill’s self-admitted ‘caution factor’, his lack of bravado, for a lack of bravery. After finishing runner-up in the 1957 12-hour sportscar race at Reims, Hill witnessed the demise of friend and compatriot Herbert Mackay-Fraser in the supporting Formula 2 race. This was mere months after Hill had also lost two Ferrari teammates, Eugenio Castellotti in a test at Modena Autodromo, and Alfonso de Portago on the Mille Miglia.

“Any elation I felt at having done well at Reims was canceled out by the death of Mac Fraser,” Hill explained. “Mac was in a very fast Lotus Mk. XI. On Lap 27, he spun on a patch of oil, flipped the car and was thrown into a pole. This was an awful shock to me because we were close friends – but when you race you accept the hazards along with the rewards. You simply cannot allow another fatality, however personal, to make you doom-conscious. It’s difficult for the average racegoer to understand this necessary state of mind, this seeming callousness, but a professional must rule out all destructive emotions if he wants to continue. When three drivers such as Castellotti, Portago and Fraser die in the same season, it isn’t easy, but you learn to adjust to the danger or you quit. And I wasn’t ready to quit.”

Quite the opposite, in fact – he was pushing to be included in Ferrari’s Formula 1 team and would soon be resentful of the fact that Enzo appeared to perceive him more as a sportscar specialist, whereas Castellotti, Luigi Musso, Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn were allowed to flit back and forth between disciplines.

By then, Hill had already won his class in the Sebring 12 Hours, sharing a Ferrari 750 Monza Spyder with Carroll Shelby, had done the same with Olivier Gendebien in a Ferrari 857S in the Buenos Aires 1000km, had twice won the Road America 500 (yup, Ferrari both times), and three times conquered the Monterey Grand Prix on the roads of Pebble Beach, once in a Jaguar XK120 and twice in Ferraris.

Hill drives co-driver Gendebien to the podium ceremony atop the Ferrari 250TR, following the first of their three Le Mans 24 Hour wins together.

Hill drives co-driver Gendebien to the podium ceremony atop the Ferrari 250TR, following the first of their three Le Mans 24 Hour wins together.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Come hell or high water, Hill determined that 1958 would see him make his Formula 1 debut, regardless of Ferrari’s approval.

“I felt a gap opening in my career,” said Hill. “It had to do with Formula racing… I began to feel that perhaps I was not ever going to be a really first-rate driver, that something in my makeup might prevent me from reaching the ultimate stage in motor racing. There are several drivers who do well in sportscars but can’t seem to do well with a GP machine. I was beginning to be haunted by the fear that maybe I’d be one of them. I had to find out.”

Not a man of bullish self-confidence, then, but steely determination. After winning the 1958 Buenos Aires 1000km with Collins, Hill stayed on in Argentina to test an F1 car, Ferrari’s Dino 246, and after initially being shocked by the speed and agility of the single-seater compared with the sportscars, he eventually whittled his time down to one that would have placed him seventh on the grid for the Argentine Grand Prix.

Yet that, along with additional sportscar triumphs in the 12 Hours of Sebring (with Collins) and the race Ferrari valued above all others at that time, the 24 Hours of Le Mans (with Gendebien) still weren’t enough for Enzo to give his Miami-born Santa Monica-domiciled 31-year-old a chance in Grand Prix car. Hill thus took up Jo Bonnier’s offer to race his two-year-old Maserati 250F in the French Grand Prix, much to Ferrari team manager Romolo Tavoni’s chagrin!

 

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Hill’s early encounters with F1 were enough to drill into him the perils of the sport. That debut, in which he would finish seventh, saw Musso suffer fatal injuries after sliding his Ferrari off track and into a ditch, which flipped the car and threw him out. Hill was a gentleman of great compassion and would never have seen this as an opportunity to join Hawhorn, Collins and von Trips in Ferrari’s F1 squad. In fact, having decided that maybe Tavoni had been correct – driving a car built by Ferrari’s arch enemy Maserati could be hazardous to his future with Enzo’s Scuderia – Hill resigned himself to the idea that he’d have to wait until 1959 for another F1 run. In fact, his chance came rather sooner than that.

Just three Ferraris made it to the British Grand Prix, and Collins led Hawthorn home in a 1-2 finish. But come the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, when the race organizers decided to pad out the field with Formula 2 cars, Ferrari entered a little 1.5-liter 156 for Hill. He qualified second of the F2 entrants behind Jack Brabham’s Cooper-Climax, but was then perturbed to see a wheel fall off his car as a mechanic drove it to the grid on raceday: hardly good for one’s peace of mind before embarking on 15 laps of the 14-mile, 176-corner ‘Green Hell’ as Jackie Stewart would later nickname the course.

Nonetheless, Hill held a one-minute lead over the other F2 machinery when he spun on dropped oil, hit a bank and damaged the car before continuing to score fifth in class. When he returned to the pits, however, he learned that Collins was barely clinging to life after sliding off the road and colliding with a tree while trying to keep up with Tony Brooks’ Vanwall. The handsome Brit would die in hospital that night.

Now, with two stars having perished within a month, Ferrari really was in need of someone, as well as von Trips, to help Hawthorn in his title battle against Vanwall’s Stirling Moss. That much was apparent when Moss defeated Hawthorn in Oporto, while von Trips was a lapped fifth. Come the Italian Grand Prix, there would be four Ferraris on the grid, with both Hill and Gendebien supplementing the line-up. Hill attacked from the start to try and act as ‘hare’, hoping polesitter Moss would overwork his Vanwall in pursuit, but equipped with drum brakes – unlike the discs on the Vanwall, or indeed Hawthorn’s Ferrari – and also with a 15hp less powerful iteration of the Dino engine, compared with Hawthorn’s – Hill was having to work his car extremely hard through the turns to maintain the lead. On Lap 4 one of his rear Englebert tires threw a tread, causing him to spin and limp to the pits.

Hill charged back out, lowered Monza’s lap record and got back to the lead (Moss had retired with gearbox failure) before again having to stop for tires. Despite another spin, he closed in on Hawthorn, the pair of them running behind Brooks’ Vanwall, but he held back to allow Hawthorn, who was suffering clutch issues, to maximize his points gain on Moss. Hill had no qualms about playing the team game and was content with scoring his first GP podium in only his second race in an F1 car.

Hill heads Hawthorn in Casablanca, but the rookie would cede second to his teammate, allowing him to score enough points to become Britain's first F1 World Champion.

Hill heads Hawthorn in Casablanca, but the rookie would cede second to his teammate, allowing him to score enough points to become Britain's first F1 World Champion.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Asked to perform the same role in the season finale at Casablanca, Morocco, highlighted the trust in which Ferrari and Tavoni now held Hill. This was a veteran of just three GPs – only one in a works F1 car – being tasked with taking the fight to the greatest F1 driver of the day who was piloting a car that handled almost as well as the Ferrari and had superior brakes to Hill’s version, at least. Phil briefly took the lead from Moss before a brief trip up an escape road dropped him to fourth. Within five laps he had re-passed Bonnier’s BRM and teammate Hawthorn, but could make no impression on the leader’s Vanwall. Eventually, however, he ceded second to Hawthorn which allowed his teammate to clinch the title by one point ahead of Moss.

Hawthorn was grateful for his teammate's help at both Monza and Casablanca.

Hawthorn was grateful for his teammate's help at both Monza and Casablanca.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

It would be Hawthorn’s final GP, as he had elected to retire aged 29 but the blond Englishman had barely three months to enjoy his retirement, before dying in a road traffic accident. Also gone by the time the 1959 season started was the Vanwall team, team owner Tony Vandervell heartbroken by the loss of Stuart Lewis-Evans. The promising F1 sophomore, who already had two poles and two podium finishes to his name, crashed at Casablanca when his engine seized on a fast turn, and the impact triggered a fire. Although Lewis-Evans would emerge from the car, he died of his burns six days later.

The disappearance of Vanwall brought Brooks to Ferrari, where Hill learned more of his craft closely watching a man who on his best days had proven able to match Moss. Brooks would score two wins for Enzo, and while there were none for Hill, he took three podium finishes and fourth in the championship, despite the entire squad missing the British GP when its factory workers went on strike. Hill would have to content himself with a trio of sportscar triumphs – he and Gendebien took over the Dan Gurney/Chuck Daigh Ferrari Testa Rossa at Sebring when their own car broke a diff, and Hill would add triumphs in Nassau and Riverside.

1959 French GP at Reims. Brooks's Ferrari battles with Brabham's Cooper, Hill's Ferrari runs third, while Moss's BRM and Masten Gregory's Cooper dispute fourth. Brooks would lead Hill home in a Ferrari 1-2, the first of three podium finishes for the American in his first full season of F1.

1959 French GP at Reims. Brooks's Ferrari battles with Brabham's Cooper, Hill's Ferrari runs third, while Moss's BRM and Masten Gregory's Cooper dispute fourth. Brooks would lead Hill home in a Ferrari 1-2, the first of three podium finishes for the American in his first full season of F1.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Brooks left the team at season’s end so he could spend more time in his native Britain, while Gurney, who had been brought on at Hill’s recommendation, also left after tiring of team politics. But Hill stayed on for 1960 with similar results – success in sportscars, but driving an outclassed car in F1. Hill would share the winning car with Cliff Allison in the Buenos Aires 1000km, the class-winner in the Targa Florio with von Trips, and the third-placed car in the Nurburgring 1000km with Allison and Willy Mairesse.

In the F1 Dino-saur, he was an impressive third at Monaco, but it was at Monza that the doors to victory lane opened. It was a hollow triumph – with the race being held on the version of the track that incorporated the banking, Lotus, Cooper and BRM had all withdrawn for fear of the strain on their lightweight cars – but Hill’s heading a Ferrari 1-2-3 in both qualifying and race ahead of negligible competition nonetheless produced a result that was doubly significant. It was the final Formula 1 victory for a front-engined car, and the first Grand Prix win by an American since Jimmy Murphy’s Duesenberg had triumphed at Le Mans in 1921.

A significant win, despite the absence of the British teams. Hill's 1960 triumph at Monza was the last for a front-engined Grand Prix car, and the first for an American driver in almost 40 years.

A significant win, despite the absence of the British teams. Hill's 1960 triumph at Monza was the last for a front-engined Grand Prix car, and the first for an American driver in almost 40 years.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

For the season finale at Riverside, California, things were flipped around since the previous round – this time the British teams attended but Ferrari did not, which gave Hill a chance to try a Cooper-Climax for the Yeoman Credit team. Discovering the handling of rear-engined F1 cars were very much to his taste (he’d also sampled Ferrari’s first effort during testing at Zandvoort), Hill was able to overcome stalling at the start to come through and earn sixth place.

The British teams had attempted to fight F1’s new engine regulations for 1961 which saw the FIA reduce engine capacity from 2.5 to 1.5 iters in an attempt to slow the cars in the interests of safety. That added 3sec to lap times at a ‘handling’ track such as Monaco, and 9sec at a ‘power’ track such as Spa. Ferrari, having run the 1.5-liter V6 in its F2 car for three years now, were predictably fine with the idea and the Scuderia’s first ‘proper’ rear-engined F1 car in which they installed the unit would prove to be a peach – the classic ‘Sharknose’ Ferrari 156.

Hill duly delivered. At both Monaco and the Nurburgring the team had to concede victory to the brilliant Moss in his underpowered Lotus 18, but over the season’s long haul, the title battle distilled to a battle between Hill and teammate von Trips. Each won two races, and they were usually evenly matched, but Hill scored five straight poles – including the first sub-nine-minute lap of the Nurburgring! – only looking inferior to von Trips at a rainy Aintree. There Phil spooked himself after requesting a brake balance shift that emphatically didn’t work in the wet and caused him to have a near-miss with a gate post. A spin and stall on molten tar at Reims would be his only race-losing mistake all season.

Nonetheless he arrived at Monza behind von Trips in the title race, and on the track which would again utilize the banking as well as the regular road course, Hill was unhappy with his engine during practice and would qualify only fourth. However, with a fresh unit for the race, Hill was into the lead at the end of the first lap, ahead of Ginther as they headed down to the Parabolica on Lap 2. Von Trips, having fallen back initially had just passed Clark’s Lotus but, misjudging his speed differential to the Lotus, moved back across to the left of the track under braking for the turn. His left-rear tire rubbed Clark’s right-front and both cars spun out of control. The Lotus made solid contact with an earth bank leaving Clark stunned but uninjured, but von Trips’ Ferrari rode up the bank and struck the spectator fence, killing 14 fans, before thrashing itself to a standstill, having tossed the driver’s body to the ground.

Another Italian GP win for Hill, this time in the Ferrari 156 in 1961, and resulting in the championship. There would be no celebration, however as teammate and title rival Wolfgang von Trips had died in an accident on Lap 2.

Another Italian GP win for Hill, this time in the Ferrari 156 in 1961, and resulting in the championship. There would be no celebration, however as teammate and title rival Wolfgang von Trips had died in an accident on Lap 2.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Hill drove past the crash scene – as usual in those days, the race wasn’t stopped – and noted the cars involved and after winning the race, he was stunned to hear the news of the accident’s violence and consequences. After serving as pall bearer at his teammate’s funeral in German, it was only a private visit with Wolfgang’s mother that started to ease the tension that Phil been feeling all year.

The sportscar season had been a mixed bag for Hill. He and Gendebien won the Sebring 12 Hours in the Ferrari 250TRI/61, then they fell out with each other immediately before the start of the Targa Florio, prompting an angry Hill to shunt the new mid-engined 246SP on the first lap of the Piccolo Madonie course. Hill had partnered von Trips for the Nurburgring 1000Km, and proved sensational on that trip to the ’Ring, too, lowering the sportscar lap record by 16sec. However, on worn out rain tires on a drying track, his 246SP aquaplaned on a puddle on a straight and the crash ended their race.

For Le Mans, Hill and Gendebien patched up their differences and reverted to the front-engined V12 Testa Rossa. Dueling with the similar North American Racing Team [NART]-entered car of Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez for 15 hours, the American-Belgian combo were only able to let up when their Mexican rivals lost almost half an hour in the pits with a condenser failure, and later blew up. Hill and Gendebien scored their second win together, and Gendebien’s third in total.

The Hill/Gendebien V12 Ferrari 250 TRI/61 heads to another Le Mans triumph in ’61, here chased by the Ginther/von Trips V6 246SP which would fail to go the distance.

The Hill/Gendebien V12 Ferrari 250 TRI/61 heads to another Le Mans triumph in ’61, here chased by the Ginther/von Trips V6 246SP which would fail to go the distance.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Title won, a more relaxed Hill should have been a more formidable driver in ’62, despite his increasing irritation at what he perceived as some Ferrari team members’ tendency to backstabbing and recrimination in difficult times. Climax and BRM had come up with V8 1.5-liter engines that overwhelmed the barely altered V6 Ferrari 156s, and after opening the season with three podium finishes, Hill never troubled the scorers again.

Again he found relief in sportscars – with Ricardo Rodriguez he was second in the Daytona 3 Hours, while with Gendebien he would win the GT class (second overall) at the Sebring 12 Hours in the new Ferrari 250 GTO, conquer the Nurburgring 1000km in the 246SP and score a third Le Mans win in the 330TRI version of the Testa Rossa family.

Yet Hill would finally leave Ferrari at season’s end, and without a backward glance.

“Enzo Ferrari never understood me,” said Hill. “I wasn’t his type, not super gung-ho enough to suit him. A lot of fine drivers died racing for him and he always favored the man who would take that extra risk in a live-or-die situation. I won a lot of races for him – which is why he kept me around – but I was never his kind of driver. I wasn’t willing to die for Enzo Ferrari. I wasn’t willing to become one of his sacrifices.”

The weirdly shaped 4-liter Ferrari 330 TRI/LM would earn the third Le Mans win for the Hill/Gendebien combo in 1962. Here it leads a little Porsche 695.

The weirdly shaped 4-liter Ferrari 330 TRI/LM would earn the third Le Mans win for the Hill/Gendebien combo in 1962. Here it leads a little Porsche 695.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Joining the ATS team comprising fellow ex-Ferrari ‘disenchantees’ was a disaster for Hill, the car constantly flickering between barely ready and far from competitive. A switch to Cooper in ’64 was hardly better, as he caught the one-time revolution starters in the middle of a rapid descent to also-ran status. A solid if unspectacular campaign for Bruce McLaren’s team in the Tasman Series was his only ‘proper’ open-wheel action in ’65, and when he returned to F1 fleetingly in ’66, it was to drive the camera car for the brilliant John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix movie.

The sportscar scene still yielded some satisfaction for Hill in the mid-’60s – there was a class victory at Sebring in an AC Cobra in ’63, and overall honors in the 1964 2000km of Daytona (a forerunner to the track’s 24 Hour event) in a NART Ferrari shared with Pedro Rodriguez. In the ’63 Le Mans 24 Hours, Hill raced the Aston Martin DP215, but couldn't avoid the hood of a crashed car, lying in the road, and later retired with transmission failure.

The following two years, Hill was also able to demonstrate that the initially fragile new Ford GT40 had a lot of potential…. but needed a lot of work. 

The early versions of the Ford GT40 were somewhat scary to drive given their tendency to lift at the front end, but Hill's input and bravery helped push their development.

The early versions of the Ford GT40 were somewhat scary to drive given their tendency to lift at the front end, but Hill's input and bravery helped push their development.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Two seasons driving for Chaparral saw him prove his (and the cars’) pace, even if the technically intriguing beasts were predictably temperamental. Nevertheless, in the 2D, Hill and old buddy Bonnier won the 1966 Nurburgring 1000km, in the 2E, he led marque founder Jim Hall in a Chaparral 1-2 at Laguna Seca’s Can-Am Series round, while in the 2F, Hill and Mike Spence conquered the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch. It would be the last race of Hill’s career, as he determined to retire, aged 40, on a high.

Jim Hall's Chaparrals were like nothing Hill had experienced before, which is one reason why he loved the last two years of his career. Here his Chevy-powered 2E heads for second place in the Can-Am race at Mosport.

Jim Hall's Chaparrals were like nothing Hill had experienced before, which is one reason why he loved the last two years of his career. Here his Chevy-powered 2E heads for second place in the Can-Am race at Mosport.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Hill then finally allowed himself to marry, and he indulged his passions for collecting vintage cars, listening to opera, writing and reporting for Road & Track magazine (his prose was very elegant yet informative), and attending countless car shows, retro race events and modern day Grands Prix.

Following Phil’s death on August 28, 2008, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, this writer spoke with Brooks, who always met up with both Gurney and Hill whenever visiting his daughter in California. Brooks described Hill as “a thinking driver – very smart but very quick… He was also very safe on track. Wolfgang von Trips was a guy you wanted behind you rather than in front, if you know what I mean, but Phil was very sensible and controlled which made him such a tremendous sportscar endurance driver. He was aware of what was going on around him and he was mechanically sympathetic.”

Moss also paid tribute, saying, “As well as being a super-nice person, he was a terrific driver… He always gave a good account of himself whether he was racing a sportscar or a Formula 1 car, which is a real compliment – a great many sportscar drivers weren’t so good in Formula 1 – [so] I would imagine that’s why he had no problem when grand prix cars switched from front- to rear-engined.

“So Phil was a pretty complete racing driver and if you were in the same event as him, you always looked for his name on the time sheets in practice and qualifying to see how quick he’d been.”

Far more often than not, he would have been quick, too, despite leaving a margin that may have been crucial to him surviving a hazardous age. Formula 1 World Champion, four-time Sebring winner, three-time Le Mans winner, two-time Nurburgring 1000km winner, Phil Hill was undeniably one of the aces of his era.

The author strongly recommends Phil Hill: Yankee Champion by William F. Nolan, available on Amazon.com. The original 1962 edition is available here while the revised and expanded 1997 edition can be found here.

Wheeling the winged wonder to a win at Brands Hatch. This race in the Chaparral 2F with Mike Spence was Hill's perfect sign-off to a great career.

Wheeling the winged wonder to a win at Brands Hatch. This race in the Chaparral 2F with Mike Spence was Hill's perfect sign-off to a great career.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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About this article

Series Formula 1 , Le Mans , WEC
Drivers Phil Hill
Author David Malsher-Lopez