Graham Hill: a portrait
He survived the bloodiest years in f1-history, he was meant to be a hundred
Few drivers in the history of motor sport can prove they’ve won the Triple Crown. Well, only one of them can actually. Graham Hill, Formula One world champion in 1962 and 1968; winner of the 1966 Indianapolis 500; winner of the 1972 24 hours of Le Mans and five time Monaco GP winner. An incredible achievement that underlines the fact that Hill was one of the most complete drivers of his time. He was fast, but not the fastest. Talented, but not the most talented. The best, but not always and everywhere. Explosive, but predictable. Professional, but with enough self-mockery to pull his pants down at dinner parties, running up and down the tables. Hill drove his cars throughout the most dangerous years of the sport. Calmly and reserved, while he tried to fight off virtuoso's like Clark, Rindt and Stewart. He was and to me still is the greatest British ambassador of F1.
Hill, Siffert and Stewart in full flow in Mexico, 1968.
He did a grid-walk before every Grand Prix, inspecting the cars of his fellow drivers. Every now and then he would pull a dramatic face when looking at a certain part of the engine or suspension and theatrically walk off to his own car, leaving his competitor in sheer anxiety re-checking every part of the car that Hill just scrutineered. Hill's nickname was Mister Monaco. Five times did he manage to win the race. It was his pièce de résistance, the podium upon which he could show the world he lived in perfect harmony with the speed of his car and the parts that kept it going (which, with a Lotus, was never a guarantee). Hill drove 179 Grands Prix, over a period of 18 (!) seasons. He overcame the bloodiest period in the sport, he was meant to be a hundred.
FROM MECHANIC TO RACING DRIVER
Norman Graham Hill was born in Hampstead, londen in 1929. He attended Hendon Technical College before becoming an apprentice instrument maker at Smiths. He was conscripted into the Royal Navy where he was stationed on the cruiser HMS Swiftsure as an Engine Room Artificer (ERA). The ERA’s were competent men, able to read and write and were to be considered experts on the entire mechanical plant of warships. They were often the senior mechanics on board. It’s not difficult to see where Hill got his mechanical skill from, which proved to be beneficial in his F1-career. In 1954 Hill answered to an ad from a Brands Hatch race club who offered everyone a drive in a Cooper 500 F3-car for five shilling. Hill paid for four laps and was immediately addicted. With his mechanical skills Hill was able to find himself a spot as a mechanic in Chapman’s Team Lotus.
Hill in his Lotus-Climax 2lL at his debut in the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix. Source: F1-History, DeviantArt.
In 1958 Hill finds himself in the cockpit of a Lotus 12 at the start of the Monaco Grand Prix. In 1975, Hill remembers: ‘I was sitting there on the start line, wondering what was going to happen (…) so I just rounded up to six thousand revs per minute. I sat there looking at the start grid, he dropped the flag, I slipped my foot off the clutch and I went up the road like a rocket!’ The interviewer and the audience started laughing as Hill fiddled with his mustache. ‘But I was in the lead, wasn’t I?!’ Well he wasn’t exactly in the lead. After 75 laps he was in fourth place. Just as Hill thought, ‘this is great, Formula 1 is a piece of cake’, his halfshaft broke and he had to retire from the race. Even though Hill was now competing on the world’s highest level of motorsports, he became increasingly disgruntled over the fact that Chapman wasn’t able to build a race car that could finish a race. BRM offered Hill a drive in 1960. ‘I remember everyone saying ‘’well that’s a mistake, you’ve joined a losing team’’ ’. Hill teamed up with Tony Judd and started developing a new car that would eventually evolve in the 1962 championship winning P57. How ironic that Clark lost out on that title because his Lotus broke down in the last race while in leading position.
All his Monaco wins are portrayed in the pictures below.
HILL, STEWART AND A GROUP OF NUNS
Spa Francorshamps, 1966. Heavy rains poured down on the track as the drivers made their way through the first lap. Seven out of fifteen cars that started the race made it through the first lap. Jo Bonnier slid off the track and managed to come to a standstill on the edge of a viaduct with the cockpit of his Cooper hanging in the air. The only thing keeping him from plummeting 15 feet down to the ground was his heavy Maserati V12 still parked on the track. Together with Jo Siffert and Mike Pence, who crashed their cars nearby, Bonnier sought shelter under the porch of a nearby house from where he spectated the rest of the race. Moments after, Jackie Stewart suffered the heaviest crash in his career. He spun off the track at 164mph, crashing into a telephone pole and a shed before coming to a standstill nearby a farmhouse. The impact wedged Stewarts BRM, subsequently getting him stuck and pinned underneath his steering wheel and in-between the ruptured fuel tanks which, by now, were filling up the cockpit.
Moments later Graham Hill lost control of his BRM in the same corner. Hill was able to continue his race, but he noticed something below him: ‘I started looking for the gear lever and as I looked down I was like ‘bugger me, that’s Jackie down there! In a car! Good god that doesn’t look so good.’ (…) so I jumped out of the car and he was trapped.’ Bob Bondurant, also out of the race, assisted Hill in his efforts to help Stewart. In a car belonging to a spectator they managed to find a toolbox with a spanner in it. It took Graham and Bob 25 minutes to get Stewart out. By then, the high octane fuel started to irritate Stewart’s skin, so Hill insisted on him taking his clothes off. Stewart was put in a parked van (or pick-up as some sources say) naked. A group of nuns from a nearby abbey heard of the crash and made their way to the scene to see if any assistance was needed. The three nuns almost got a heart attack when they saw Hill, with his devilish mustache and perfectly combed hair looking after a naked Jackie Stewart. ’Poor, old injured racing driver being taken advantage of’, Stewart remembers.
Stewart with his wife in an ambulance on their way to st. Thomas hospital after an airlift to England.
Hill was a ruthless driver. Not so much ruthless on the track as he was in the garage. He took notes of every test, every practice, every race and how his car handled specific track conditions and setups. He was constantly on top of his mechanics with these early versions of telemetry and his expertise on engineering meant that the difference between mechanic and driver was nothing more than a grey area. According to some of the mechanics who worked with Hill, it was sometimes impossible to please him. By the end of his career, when he was already in his forties, Hill still was extremely competitive and refused to quit driving. He would go the extra mile to realize his dream of driving in Formula 1, even after all those years. His victory at the 1972 Le Mans showed everyone he still possessed the necessary pace to go for victories, though not a single F1-team offered him a seat.
Hill driving his Matra-Simca at the 1972 24h of Le Mans. He co-piloted with Le Mans legend Henri Pescarolo.
Subsequently, Hill started his own team: Embassy Hill Racing. However, Hill was still able to hide his business-face from his trolling-face. In a time when an F1-driver was closely followed around by international media, Hill, like no other, knew how to put aside his obsessive character when the cameras started rolling. Jackie Stewart remembers this as an almost scary trait. One moment you’d be walking through the pits with him, giggles all the way while taking time to answer questions from journalists, next moment he’ll be throwing a tantrum against his mechanics back in the garage. Do realize, behind his perfectly trimmed mustache and charming smile, a serious business man was hiding.
The Embassy Hill motor pool. Graham proudly standing alongside car #26.
HILL IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA
Needless to say, when Hill did manage to jump in front of the camera, it was a blast. Hill and Stewart often formed a duo on BBC-shows in which Hill blossomed as an interviewer. Hill interviewed Stewart in 1971 just after the Scot won his second title: ‘You’ve won six Grands Prix, which is hogging it slightly. Seven Grands Prix is the record [Jim Clark in 1963], where’d you think you could have done it and it didn’t happen?’ Stewart looks at the audience slightly perplexed: ‘I don’t think that’s a fair question’, the Scot replied. In 1973, Hill congratulated Stewart on his retirement. Stewart replied: ‘Graham, I only hope that the example I’m giving will allow a few more to retire.’ Obviously hinting at Hill’s age. In a different interview Hill was asked if there are any terribly personal things he does which others don't know about. Hill looks at the interviewer with a straight face: ‘What, wanking you mean? Or something like that?’ The interviewer bursts out in laughter as Hill himself cracks up as well.
Motor Racing magazine put Hill on the cover of their Monaco-special. Hill, surrounded by Playboy playmates is ‘practicing for Monaco’. He loved women, women loved him. According to Damon it was the mustache, ‘My dad slotted into this image of a cad kind of British person who could be a charmer one minute, and the next minute standing on the table dropping his pants.’ Friend and artist David Wynne acknowledges that, ‘He had a keen eye for the ladies, that’s not only [a] fair [thing to say], it’s dead on the mark! He was the man.’
Graham Hill never saw his son Damon win the world title and that’s a shame. The two generations Hill were the only father and son to have won the world title until Nico Rosberg clinched his title at the end of 2016, following his father’s footsteps as well. Graham Hill was 46 years old when he tragically died in a plane crash in 1975. One of the biggest ambassadors of Formula One and one of the most likable figures of the F1-paddock.
’You say you want to live to be a hundred. Aren’t you in the wrong job for this?’
’That’s why I want to live to be a hundred’
Graham Hill OBE, 02-15-1929 / 11-29-1975