This post was originally published on Grab Bag Sports in December of last year, as part of the VivaF1 blogger swap shop.
“The Shy Champion” reappears here today, as it marks the 50th anniversary of Phil Hill’s World Championship success.
“The Shy Champion: Phil Hill”
When Wolfgang von Trips found himself involved in a horror crash on the second lap of the 1961 Italian Grand Prix, it once again hoisted Grand Prix motor racing into the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
A slight error from the German Count saw the red Ferrari bounce politely into Jim Clark’s Lotus-Climax, before clouting the inside barrier and ricocheting violently across the circuit.
The out of control machine became airborne and plunged into the crowd, killing fifteen spectators. In the middle of this melee, von Trips himself was thrown clean of his car, landing fatally upon the Monza tarmac.
This was a black day – not just for Formula 1, but for all motorsport.
It was all the more galling for a Ferrari team on the verge of crowning a new World Champion – as the season drew to a close, von Trips was leading team mate Phil Hill and only needing a podium to claim the crown. In the end, death betrayed the German – with von Trips dead in the circuit’s medical unit and Sir Stirling Moss eleven points adrift of the points lead; Hill became the first American World Champion with one race to spare.
It would be bittersweet – a distraught Hill was to be one of von Trip’s pallbearer’s.
Favourite Aunt’s and Model-T Fords!!
An almost unlikely Champion, Philip Toll Hill Jr was born on April 20th, 1927. A deeply intelligent and introverted Florida native, he initially started out towards a path in music, quickly becoming prodigious as both a pianist and a horn player.
Music was not his only love. The young Hill became enamoured with motorcars, often delving into the magazines and the annuals of the day. All the while, he absorbed the dangers and the romance of competition – the very same perils that would later haunt him during his time behind the wheel.
Hill had already assumed control an Oldsmobile by the age of nine, often driving around the dirt fields of Santa Monica, aided by his Aunt’s chauffeur. These lessons would soon assume an extra depth and three years later, Hill was gifted a Model-T Ford. It would begin a process where he would dissemble the car and put it back together again – just to find out how it worked.
With the passing of his teenage years, a post-war Hill became more embossed in the automobile culture and soon settled into the California Sportscar Club, only to be interrupted by a two-year sojourn in the University of California to study Business Administration. This deed, done more to please his father rather than gain intellectual credits, simply bored Hill and soon the allure of speed pulled him back to his Sportscar roots, where he took to working as a mechanic for a local amateur racer.
Although tinkering with midget car entries soothed his interest temporarily, the 21-year-old was keen to get behind the wheel, soon picking up and MG-TC. Converting the machine to a single-seater, Hill settled into racing very quickly, winning on his racing début at Carrell Speedway.
It would be the beginning of a legacy that would eventually see Hill winning both his first and final races.
As the curtain drew upon the 1940’s, Hill left for England to work as a trainee for Jaguar – it would not be long before the American found himself behind the wheel in a number of sponsored drives.
Instantly recognising his potential, Texan oil tycoon Allen Guiberson placed Hill in one of his Ferrari’s for several entries of the Carrera Panamericana – a popular Mexican road race that ran from the city of Ciudad Juárez towards Texas. The 22-year-old impressed immediately with a 6th place finish on his first outing and would be the beginning of an incredibly successful relationship with the famed Italian marquee.
It also was a time of distinct change for Hill. Having both passed away in 1951, Hill’s parents left him enough money to purchase his own 2.6-litre Ferrari and further success soon followed, where the American began to develop a fresh sense of self-depreciation over time; often crediting wins to his machinery rather than his own skill.
Anxiety, Horror and Success
Yet, constant anxieties about the dangers of motor racing lingered left Hill suffering from stomach ulcers and in great pain – so much so that he was sidelined for ten months and even then, tranquilisers were a necessity to drive.
Such was the struggle to find a sensible balance between the pleasures and perils of racing; Hill became the cause of his own discomfort.
As he recovered gingerly, sportscars came back into view and with his Ferrari at the ready; Hill had every intention of hitting the track. Indeed, sportscars had become so popular, that in 1953 a World Championship was declared, with Hill contesting two-rounds – the first at Sebring and the next at the Carrera Panamericana.
For the famous Mexican event, drivers were allowed to take riding mechanics along and at Ciudad Juárez, Richie Ginther sat in with Hill. Whereas differential problems ended the Ferrari’s Sebring race early, his run at the Carrera Panamericana was halted by a violent accident, but despite initial reservations, neither Hill nor Ginther would not be deterred from further competition.
Where 1954 brought some further solid results for the American, it was 1955 that things really began to fall into place for Hill – a period that culminated in him being proclaimed as America’s best sportscar driver by Sports Illustrated as the year drew to a close, earning the canny racer a prized front cover appearance.
Yet while he took some of the acclaim with grace and honour, the truth is 1955 was another horror year in motorsport’s history – a horror best represented by the tragic events at the Le Mans 24 Hour Race. Hill’s entry – a Ferrari 121LM with Umberto Maglioli – retired after only 76 laps. Just over two hours into the race, the Mercedes of Pierre Levegh ramped over Lee Mackin’s Austin-Healy and plunged into the main stand. It would claim more than 80 lives, including Levegh himself.
As sensitive to the dangers as Hill was, it almost seemed as if he was spurned on, yet remained apprehensive. For many others, each fatality was an invitation to an early retirement and a longer life. While motorsport remained under the microscope, Hill took the SCCA Championship – his first title.
An Italian Renaissance
Ferrari beckoned in 1956 and the Floridian moved to Modena, competing in the Nurburgring 1000kms and Le Mans. Partnering Peter Collins, Hill would have a quiet, but successful 1957, claiming a podium and a win at races in Sweden and Venezuela respectively.
However, whereas the previous two seasons saw Hill complete reasonable campaigns, 1958 would prove to be a year of change for the American. Wins at the Buenos Aires 1000km race and the Sebring 12 Hours set Hill up for his first Le Mans triumph with Olivier Gendebien.
As he crossed the line, he became the first American to win the famed 24 Hour Race, eventually taking it three times – all the while partnered by Belgian sportscar legend, Olivier Gendebien.
Still, being with the bounds of Ferrari was not that easy. Frustrated by not being afforded the opportunity to race in Formula 1, gave Hill the impetus to hire Jo Bonnier’s private Maserati 250F for the French Grand Prix at Reims.
The American, as always, drove a solid race and it was one that eventually changed his career – nine laps in saw Ferrari pilot Luigi Musso crash fatality at the tricky Muizone Curve. Suddenly a place opened up within the red team, but this was never how Hill intended to make his progression.
More disaster was to follow. While Hill made his début for the Prancing Horse at the Nordschleife in a Formula 2, Ferrari’s second driver Phil Collins would perish behind the wheel.
The lead Ferrari, driven by Mike Hawthorn would eventually take the title from Sir Stirling Moss by a single point, while Hill claimed two podiums in the final two events of the year at Monza and Casablanca.
Still in mourning following the deaths of Collins and Musso, the new Champion retired instantly from the sport, only for Hawthorn to be killed in a road accident several weeks later. Ferrari’s tragic 1958 was complete. Four podiums followed in 1959 and 1960, before Hill comfortably won his first Grand Prix in 1960 at Monza in a field made up mainly of Formula 2 machinery.
However the fear was still all too apparent in approach. Before races, he would be very nervous; often spending time chain smoking, chewing gum or constantly cleaning his goggles – the pre-race nervousness became almost compulsive.
With a difficult 1960 out of the way, Ferrari went into the following year buoyant. The introduction of a new formula signalled the dawn of a new period of success for the red cars, as Carlo Chiti’s “sharknose” machines powered their way to six pole positions and five victories in the seven events they contested. Yet, as fast as the new Ferrari’s may well have been fast, their handling was regularly derided its drivers.
Having secured both titles on that ill-fated afternoon in Monza, Ferrari never bothered to show up at the final race of the season – ironically, the United States Grand Prix.
The Falling Star
Sadly for Hill, as the curtains were pulled on 1961, his success flirted away too. The tail end of the year saw the great walkout at Ferrari as many the key personnel and engineers left to form their own team and while the season began reasonably well (three podiums in the opening trio of races), it was fairly clear that Ferrari’s advantage had disappeared. Thereafter, their season deteriorated and Ferrari found themselves routed by their British opponents – particularly BRM and Lotus.
Hill eventually finished 6th in the Championship following two retirements and a poor Italian Grand Prix; while Ferrari withdrew from the French, US and South African Grand Prix altogether!
Eventually Hill left Ferrari for ATS with teammate Giancarlo Baghetti, but by now the success of two years previous was a distant memory. Blighted by unreliability, Hill only managed to see the chequered flag once – ironically at Monza where he took 11th, while Baghetti only managed one 15th place finish, also at Monza.
ATS withdrew from several races during the 1963 season, compounding the frustration, prompting Hill to jump ship to Cooper in 1964. It would be his final season in Formula 1 and although Hill started to reach the chequered flag on a more consistent basis, he only scored a single point for his efforts.
As he crossed the line to finish 9th at the Mexican Grand Prix, Hill waved goodbye to Formula 1 forever.
Once Hill left the top flight, he continued to race sporadically in sportscars for Chaparral and with Ford’s GT programme, taking several more victories before hanging up his helmet, including a win at the BOAC 6 Hour Race at Brands Hatch – a victory that ensured Hill was a winner in both his first and last races. Thereafter, many offers poured in to tempt the former-World champion out of retirement, but a wary Hill always politely turned these temptations down.
After two years away from the Ferrari squad, Hill did step back into a single seater, but not to race. With John Frankenheimer direction, Hill stepped in as the driver of the camera car for the 1966 feature film, Grand Prix.
While other drivers of the day appeared as cameos, Hill took to a modified Formula 3 car, as he sped around Monaco, Spa-Francorchamps and Monza on practice days of race weekends. When viewing the film now, it is clear that a true professional is turning the screws of the speedy machine.
Later in life, Hill became a commentator on ABC World Wide of Motorsports, formed a classic car restoration company and also became a regular judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. He would also fill up his time by occasionally writing for Road & Track magazine.
Hill was often sensitive and suffered from an inner turmoil about the dangers motor racing. These feelings instilled a sense of care behind the wheel; while also allowing him to pull the maximum out the machines he had at his disposal.
For a man so pre-occupied by the perils of motorsport, Hill was never once injured during his career. Such was the ease of his driving style, the American rarely suffered accidents or offs and he always left his best for the monster circuits like Monza, Spa-Francorchamps or the Nordschleife, while finding great comfort in difficult conditions, such as heavy rain.
Having being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the turn of the century, Hill retired to a quiet life in Santa Monica, before passing away in August 2008 and the age of 81.
Phil Hill became America’s first World Champion in 1961 and with the 50th anniversary approaching in nine months time, let’s hope it is a anniversary suitably embraced.