When Formula One fans think of the sport’s great champions the obvious names spring to mind. However move away from Prost, Senna, Fangio or Schumacher and it is clear to see than much is still unknown about some of the men who have also sat the top of the tree.

One example is Phil Hill, a man whose story largely remains consigned to only a few knowledgeable enthusiasts.

Born in Miami in 1927, Philip Toll Hill, Jnr spent his formative years in Santa Monica California – one of three children living with their father, a Postmaster General, and mother, a hymn composer.  Due the turbulent nature of his parent’s marriage Hill found great solace in spending time with his Aunt, who would nurture his love for cars by buying him a used black Model-T Ford.

Through saving up his allowance and finding part-time work pumping gas, he would soon widen his collection – purchasing a 1926 Chevy and a 1940 Packard Convertible. As the years went on Hill would be more and more drawn to speed, heading out to the desert in groups and driving along the flats.

In June 1947, Hill quit his business administration course after only two years to work for the pit crew of a midget car owned by automobile spring maker Marvin Edwards. [1] It was here that Hill got his first taste of motor racing close hand, although his chance to get behind the wheel would not come until 1948 where he won his first competitive outing at the Carrell Speedway, driving an MG which he had recently purchased from an International Motors dealer.

A year later Hill was sent to England to study mechanics through apprenticeships at the likes of Jaguar and Rolls-Royce.[2] Returning to America a year later along with a Jaguar XK120, Hill had already had his first taste of Grand Prix racing when he attended Formula One’s inaugural event at Silverstone. Nevertheless, despite an increase in his racing back home Hill could not have imagined ever taking part in such a prestigious event, especially as he was riddled with anxiety which made him often question his commitment to fostering a career.

After achieving all he could with the XK120, in 1951 Hill purchased a Ferrari Barchetta from the company’s American importer and Ambassador Luigi Chinetti. It was here the American’s association with the great Italian manufacturer would begin, although not in an official capacity straight away.

With an increase in horsepower Hill impressed Chinetti enough for the Italian to invite him to drive in his first international event – the daunting 1,933-mile assault down the spine of Mexico known as the Carrera Panamericana. Facing a strong challenge from Mercedes the Prancing Horse pulled out all the stops to give itself a better chance of victory, inviting Hill’s private entry into the fold and making sure its mechanics attended to its needs. Despite struggling with various mishaps the American would finish a credible sixth in a race which injured many and claimed the life of local hero Santos Letona Diaz.[3]

Despite returning to Mexico and getting his first taste of Le Mans, 1953 saw Hill mainly focus on racing at home. However as his reputation continued to grow his health began to deteriorate, forcing him to retire in the spring of 1954 to settle his nervous issues.[4] However, having been already infected by the racing bug, he would soon return to action – finishing second in the final Carrera Panamericana in 1954.[5]

By now word of the American’s exploits had made their way back to Modena and following the tragic death of Alberto Ascari, Hill found himself offered the opportunity of a life time – the chance to compete for the works Ferrari team at Le Mans in 1955. The race of course would be remembered for the tragic accident which claimed the lives of 83 spectators and Mercedes driver Pierre Levegh. [6]

Having run as high as third alongside partner Maglioli, only to retire when a stone pierced their car’s radiator, Hill would be taken on board by the Scuderia on a full-time basis – allowing him to flourish in its Sports Car Programme.  By 1958 Hill, having played an instrumental role in winning the Sports Car championship, had set his sights on moving up to join the team’s Formula One programme. As well as victory in Buenos Aires and Sebring, the American underlined his potential with victory at Le Mans that year. Alongside Belgian Olivier Gendebien, the pairing successfully upheld the honour of Ferrari following the retirement of Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn’s challenger. After Stirling Moss’s Aston retired in the third hour, the 3-litre Ferrari Testa Rossa became locked in a feverous battle with the Jaguar driven by Ivor Bueb and Duncan Hamilton. As night fell the clouds opened to a deluge of torrential rain. One by one the Ferrari’s rivals exited but Hill, whose vision was impaired due to the huge volume of water, raced on consistently lap after lap – not only retaking the lead from Jaguar after taking over the wheel but expanding it by more than a lap. As the conditions improved by sunrise, Hill and Gendebien – despite having to avoid the same Jaguar which crashed out in front of the Ferrari as it was about to be lapped – continued unscathed to clinch a famous victory.[7]

Despite his heroics his plea to drive in Formula One was rebuffed by Mr Ferrari. Nevertheless Hill would not be stopped and despite warnings for his future at the team, he made his Grand Prix debut in the 1958 French Grand Prix, borrowing Jo Bonnier’s Maserati 250F. Despite finishing a lap down to Hawthorn’s victorious Ferrari, the American would finish a credible seventh – giving his Sports Car employer something seriously to think about. Buckling under the pressure the team finally gave in to Hill’s wishes, allowing him to make his debut for the Formula One outfit at the Nurburgring. However the race would be tinged with disaster following team-mate Peter Collin’s fatal accident while fighting for the lead.[8]

As a result, a heartbroken Hawthorn would retire at the end of the campaign – taking the title with him and leaving Hill with big shoes to fill. Despite a string of podium places, Ferrari spent much of 1959 and 1960 on the back foot as its aging 246 suffered at the hands of the growing challenge from the British Constructors. Although Hill’s breakthrough came at the final race of 1960 at Monza, this would prove to be the final-ever victory for a front-engine car – banishing such designs to the sport’s history forever. In doing so he had completely dominated the weekend, adding pole position and fastest lap to his overall victory.

Ferrari’s hopes for 1961 would be boosted by the switch from 1.5 to 2.5 litre regulations – a move which angered many of the constructors who could not implement the changes in time to be competitive. Of course the move was highly advantageous for the Scuderia which was already well down the road with Chiti’s 156, featuring the characteristic shark nose front air intake and powered by the 120-degree V6 Dino engine.

Thus the scene was set for the epic scrap which played out between Hill and his young and dynamic team-mate Wolfgang Von Trips. Although Stirling Moss would spoil the party in the famous season-opener in Monaco, Ferrari soon got into a dominating stride as Von Trips took victory in Holland as Hill battled to a second with clutch problems. However the American would turn the tables at the daunting Spa-Francorchamps circuit, edging out his German team-mate by less than a second as Ginther and Gendebien helped the team round off a dominant 1-2-3-4 finish.

Tension between the two protagonists began to escalate at the next round in Rheims, with Von Trips’s claiming inferior machinery as he found himself around a second off Hill’s pole time. However neither man would emerge triumphant, with Von Trips retiring with a cracked radiator after twenty laps and Hill collided with Stirling Moss’s Lotus dropping him down to ninth. Hill would finish second to his great rival at a rain-soaked Aintree, before Von Trips underlined his title credentials with a second place in Germany – as Moss once again stole the show.

Heading in to the penultimate round at Monza, both men knew that victory would effectively seal the championship. Initially fortune seemed to favour Von Trips, who claimed pole with Hill only managing fourth. However this season-long battle would not have the grand showdown which it deserved, when at the end of second lap Von Trips locked wheels with Jim Clark’s Lotus – sending his car flying into the crowd and killing fifteen as well as himself.

Out of the all the instant carnage and the appending politics which took hold immediately afterwards, Ferrari had a new champion, with Hill’s victory ensuring that he took the crown – the first American to do so.

Ultimately it was a bittersweet moment for Hill; while he was more than deserving of the crown and had done so in the most convincing way, his triumph was somewhat dampened by the death of his great rival and team-mate and the feeling of what might had been had Von Trips finished the race. To add insult to injury Hill would not be able to round off the season in style, with Ferrari withdrawing from the final race of the season; his home grand prix.[9]

Thus it was on this sad note that Hill reached his peak in the sport. After a fruitless defence the following year, Hill and team-mate Baghetti left to join up the rebellious Ferrari management and engineers at the brand new ATS team. This move effectively ended his career as a front runner, with the ATS 100’s conventional space frame chassis and V8 engine completely futile to the established runners. Debuting at Spa the car could only set the seventeenth fastest time in qualifying and retired with transmission problems only fourteen laps into the actual race. With no improvement Chiti closed ATS after only one season, forcing Hill to seek refuge with Cooper. However the move would not rejuvenate his career, the final straw coming at Monza when he was rested.[10]

On his retirement from Formula One – barring a failed effort to qualify for the Italian Grand Prix a year later – Hill continued to compete a number of events, winning his final ever race in the 1967  BOAC Six Hours. Prior to this the American also assisted in the making of John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, driving camera cars and offering advice on its production. [11]During his championship year in Formula One Hill had again triumphed at Sebring and Le Mans with Gendebien – the latter after overcoming a close battle with the Rodriguez brothers. The same two pairings would again contest Le Mans the next year; this time the battle even more intense with Hill and Gendebien breaking the lap record in their one-off 4-litre Testa Rossa before resuming battle with the Mexican pairing driving the better handling and more frugal Dino 246 during the race – only emerging triumphant after the brothers’ car withdrew with transmission failure.[12]

Following his retirement from racing Hill turned his attention to restoring classic cars, setting up a successful business with Ken Vaughn. He married late in life, fathering two children to teacher Alma Baranowski as well as raising a step daughter. Derek, his only son, would also go on to enjoy much success in motor racing – winning Barber Dodge Pro Series in 1997 before competing for three years in the International F3000 series.

Towards the end of his life Hill would suffer from Parkinson’s disease and multiple system atrophy with complications from the former leading to his death at the age of 81 in Monterey.[13]

While Formula One statistics may not be in his favour, Phil Hill’s talent should not go unrecognised. Remaining as the sport’s only American-born champion, his never-say-die spirit on the race track and consistency, coupled with his attention to detail proved crucial to much of his success.

Overall Hill was a humble man, who understood the limits of his own mortality and those around him.

A true ambassador to the whole of motor racing. One whose legacy is up with the very best of them.


[1]Cannell, M. The Limit, (Atlantic Books: London, 2011), pp. 1-10.

[2]Muelas, F. & Diepraam, M. “America’s first World Drivers Champion”, http://www.forix.com/8w/phill.html  Accessed: 15/02/12.

[3] Cannell, M. The Limit, (Atlantic Books: London, 2011), pp. 33-44.

[4] Cannell, M. The Limit, (Atlantic Books: London, 2011), pp. 52-57.

[5] Muelas, F. & Diepraam, M. “America’s first World Drivers Champion”, http://www.forix.com/8w/phill.html  Accessed: 15/02/12.

[6] Cannell, M. The Limit, (Atlantic Books: London, 2011), pp. 64-65; “1955 Le Mans disaster”, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1955_Le_Mans_disaster, Accessed: 15/02/02.

[7]Muelas, F. & Diepraam, M. “America’s first World Drivers Champion”, http://www.forix.com/8w/phill.html  Accessed: 15/02/12; Spurring, Q. Le Mans – The official History of the World’s Greatest Motor Race 1949-1959, (Somerset: Haynes, 2010), pp. 308-315.

[8] Muelas, F. & Diepraam, M. “America’s first World Drivers Champion”, http://www.forix.com/8w/phill.html  Accessed: 15/02/12; Lang, M. Grand Prix Vol. 1, (Somerset: Haynes, 1981), p. 135.

[9] Lang, M. Grand Prix Vol. 1, (Somerset: Haynes, 1981), pp. 174-175; Henry, A. Fifty years of Ferrari, (Somerset: Haynes, 2000), pp. 83-88.

[10] Lang, M. Grand Prix Vol. 1, (Somerset: Haynes, 1981), pp. 215-248.

[11] Cannell, M. The Limit, (Atlantic Books: London, 2011), p. 279.

[12] Spurring, Q. Le Mans – The official History of the World’s Greatest Motor Race 1959-1969, (Somerset: Haynes, 2010), pp. 48-104.

[13] Muelas, F. & Diepraam, M. “America’s first World Drivers Champion”, http://www.forix.com/8w/phill.html  Accessed: 15/02/12; Cannell, M. The Limit, (Atlantic Books: London, 2011), pp. 279-282; “Derek Hill Racing Driver”, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Hill_(driver) Accessed: 15/02/12.

 

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