L&T Motorsport

Motorsports most versatile drivers – Graham Hill

We move onto part five and with this being the week of both Monaco GP and Indy 500 who better to look at this time than the only triple crown winner in the sport. The charismatic Graham Hill won the Monaco GP, Indy 500 and the Le Mans 24 hours in his illustrious career as well as races and titles across the world. His wit and charm made him a TV personality when drivers where not often seen outside the sport but his determination in the car made his a respect and challenging rival.

Born Norman Graham Hill on the 15th of February 1929 no one would have considered him to become a motor sport legend at an early age. Born to a stock broker in London upon leaving school he attended Hendon Technical College and joined Smiths Instruments as an apprentice engineer. He would soon join the Royal Navy, serving as an engine room artificer on the HMS Swiftsure and would rise to the rank of petty officer. When he left the Navy he re joined Smiths. During this time he met his future wife Bette, who he married in 1955, and had started taking up rowing, something that he would incorporate into his well known helmet design in his racing career.

Hill never even passed his driving test till he was 24 years old. The idea of a future double World Champion not even racing a car by this age now is crazy but in the 50s and 60s it was much more common. Hill’s first car was described as ‘a wreck’ with the man himself once stating about it “A budding racing driver should own such a car, as it teaches delicacy, poise and anticipations, mostly the latter I think!” He had been interested in bikes (something that would be passed to his son Damon in future years) until in 1954 he saw an advertisment offering laps for 5 shillings at Brands Hatch. From this point he was hooked and made an arrangement with the club owner to drive their races cars in return for his labour as mechnic. He would originally get taken advantage of with the owner leaving before he got near the race car but he didn’t give up and it worked.

Graham with his young son Damon Hill

His racing debut was in a Cooper 500 Formula 3 car and proved natural quite quickly. But the next step on his career progression came when he hitched a ride back from one race with another entrant, a man by the name of Colin Chapman. Chapman had started Lotus up at this point with the aim of reaching F1 and Hill seen his chance to progress as well, getting a gig as mechanic at the team. Again his personality meant it was not long before he talked his way into the cockpit of one of their cars (via quitting the team for a short time in his mechanic role) and he would make his F1 debut for the team at the 1958 Monaco GP, unfortunately retiring with halfshaft failure.

It didn’t matter however as Hill now had his foot firmly in the door and he would continue to race for Lotus at selected races through 58 and 59 season with a best finish of 6th at Monza in 1958. During these races however most often Hill would have to retire, mainly due to car failure as Chapman pushed the limits, a formula that would be successful in time. With the frustration of failing to finish races Hill made the decision to leave Lotus for BRM in 1960. During his stint at Lotus Hill also took part in the Le Mans 24 hours in the Lotus Climax but like most of his F1’s races the car failed in both the 1958 and 59 races.

The move to BRM saw a change in fortunes as well, although still a handful of DNF’s the Brit was able to take his first podium at Zandvoort in 1960 with third place. It would take till 1962 before he took his next podium and also his first win, again at Zandvoort. The BRM P57 of 1962 was the car that made the difference and allowed Hill to showcase his talents. Out of the nine rounds in the championship Hill would only finish outside the top six on one occasion, the French Grand Prix, as he took the first of his two World Championship titles. It also made him the second Brit to win the title after Mike Hawthorn in 1958.

Getting air in the Lotus 49 in 1969, most likely at the Nurburgring

The next three years seen Hill come second in the championship race (63 to Jim Clark, 64 to John Surtees and 65 to Clark again). But it was during these years (1963 onwards) that his love affair with Monaco really began. He won the 1963 Monaco GP and repeated this success in 64 and 65 as well. It’s well known that Hill won Monaco five times but was it not noticed as much is that between 1963 and 1969 the Brit was never of the podium, coming third in 66 and second in 67, a spell of seven years. It is no wonder he gained the nickname Mr. Monaco. And, of course, it was the first of the triple crown as well.

Hill would leave BRM at the end of the 1966 season. It was a year of mixed fortune as when the car finished it was never lower than fourth but there was more DNF’s that finishes and Hill would move back to Lotus for 1967 to partner Jim Clark. The return season was filled with the same issues that seen Hill leave Lotus in the first place, DNF’s and mechanical failures. The cars were quick but fragile and although Hill’s driving style was kind of machinery the Lotus still broke down more often that not.

It was in 1968 that he would take his second championship but not without it being tinged with sadness as both his team mates, Mike Spence and Clark, would be killed during the season. Neither lost their lives in an F1 race with Spence killed at Indianapolis in the Lotus 56 gas turbine car while Clark was killed at Hockenheim in an F2 race. Hill helped carry the team through this difficult time and the championship crown come the end of the season. He was unable to defend his crown in 1969 and his season was ended early due to a leg breaking crash at Watkins Glen. But in typical Graham Hill style when asked if he wanted a message passed to his wife Bette he replied “Just tell her I won’t be dancing for two weeks.”

Hill continued in F1 till 1975 but never at the same level again. Despite being a double world champion Chapman farmed Hill out to Rob Walker’s team for 1970 with the deal sweetened with Lotus providing a 72 chassis for the privateer team. He moved to Brabham for the 1971 season and his last win came in a non championship event at Silverstone in the same year. After Brabham was sold in 1972 to one Bernie Ecclestone Hill stated up his own team for 1973, Embassy Hill. But it was not a success and multiple DNF’s followed through the years till his retirement in 1975, his last race fittingly at Monaco.

During his F1 career Hill competed at Indianapolis three times. He did attempt to run in 1963 with John Crosthwaite who worked with Hill at Lotus but after crashing the car in practice and with Hill’s commitments in Europe he could not wait in the USA for the car to be repaired and did not want to risk not qualifying or qualifying badly for the sake of it. His first proper run at Indy was in 1966 and he would win the race in his rookie start, taking the lead ten laps from home when Jackie Stewart suffered a failure of his car. It was the first win for a rookie since the 1920s and the last until Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000. Hill’s two other attempts in 67 and 68 would see DNF’s due to car failure and crashing at turn two respectively.

On the way to win number four at Monaco in 1968 in the Lotus 49D.

During his time in the sport Hill would race the Tasman series in Australia each winter, taking race wins but never a championship. He also continued his Le Mans experience as well coming second overall in 1964 in a Ferrari 330P and second in class in 1965 with Jackie Stewart in a Rover-BRM. It was not until what ended up being his final Le Mans appearance in 1972 that he would complete the tripe crown. Driving a Matra-Simca MS670 alongside Henri Perscarolo the car ran the car and despite worries about reliability they took the short tailed car (with team mates taking the long tailed version) to victory, but like the 1968 championship title it was tinged with sadness as Jo Bonnier was killed during the race after his Lola was launched into the trees. It was this victory that made Hill the first, and so far, only winner of motor sports triple crown.

But despite the great driver Hill is remember for his wit and charm as much as his on track grit and determination. The flash of that cheeky grin almost as synonymous to the man as the London Rowing Club colours that he carried through his career on his helmet. He would become a TV personality taking part in shows like Call My Bluff and even working a double act with Jackie Stewart during the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards in a number of years in the 70s. Hill was immortalized on the famous Monty Python show as well with St.John the Baptist appearing with stick on moustache and St.John running around making putt-putt noises of a race car engine.

The remains of the Piper Aztec after the fatal crash in 1975 that killed Hill

Hill was also a pilot of both helicopters and planes and regularly flew himself and other drivers to and from races. However it was while piloting his Piper Aztec home from a test at the Paul Ricard circuit on November 29th 1975.  The plane was flying through heavy fog and crashed near Arkley golf Course while attempting to land, killing Hill and his Embassy Hill team manager Ray Brimble, mechanics Tony Alcock and Terry Richards, designer Andy Smallman and up and coming driver and Hill driver Tony Brise. The resulting investigation found that the plane was not registered and that Hill’s own US and UK pilot certifications and FAA instrument ratings had expired, thus he was effectively uninsured.

The lost of a double World Champion with the easy going and enjoyable personality of Hill along with Brise, who was seen as the UK’s best and brightest future hope at the time was a blow to UK motor sport. Hill left behind his wife Bette, two daughters Brigitte and Samantha and son Damon, who would become F1 champion himself in 1996. There is a road into Silverstone named after him along with others around the country and Brands Hatch named its second corner, the up hill right, Graham Hill bend in his honour. Hill was inducted in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990 and is still remember to this day for his achievements as well as dashing style and witty charm.

Andrew Campbell
Photo Credits: Main: grandprixhistory.org
Lotus 49 airbourne: Silodrome
Graham and Damon: f1-history deviantart.com
Monaco in the Lotus49D: espn.co.uk
Plane Crash: Daily Express




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