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F1 Flashback: Phil Hill blazed American trail in F1 with skill, class

12 September 2000

Posted By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
INDIANAPOLIS-- Among the 19 starters at the 1961 United States Grand Prix, at Watkins Glen, there were no fewer than eight Americans, but the driver everyone wanted to see -- the man who a month before had become the countrys first World Champion -- was not among them. Instead, Phil Hill was present in the capacity of "Honorary Grand Marshal."

His championship had been clinched in the most harrowing of circumstances. All season long, only the genius of Stirling Moss, in Rob Walkers privately-owned Lotus, had occasionally disturbed a fight for the title between Hill and his Ferrari teammate, Count Wolfgang von Trips of Germany. At Monza, in September, Hill won the Italian Grand Prix, but von Trips lost his life in an accident on the second lap.

At the time much was made in the press of their close friendship, and Phil went along with it because, he says now, it would have been churlish to do otherwise.

"We got along fine, but we were very different types. Trips was much more extroverted than I was, for one thing, and he knew nothing about cars - except how to drive them. At Ferrari they really liked that, because back then they didnt think it was the drivers place to do anything else!

"All year long, it was him or me for the championship, and if wed been really close friends, it would have been a hell of a lot harder to be sufficiently competitive with him. Face it, its not a normal situation race drivers are in: You try to beat the other guys all day, and then at night youre supposed to forget all that."

Hill made his name with Ferraris in American sports car racing, after which he was hired by the factory team. He drove for Enzo Ferrari an unusually long time, from 1955 to 1962, and in that period, as well as von Trips, Alberto Ascari, Eugenio Castellotti, Alfonso de Portago, Luigi Musso and Peter Collins all suffered fatal accidents while driving for Ferrari. It was an extraordinarily perilous time to be a racing driver.

In light of the events at Monza -- and the fact that the World Championship was already won - Ferrari declined to send any cars to the final race of the season, at the Glen, and Hill was thus denied his day before his own people. "Oh, I didnt have enough sense to think about that at the time," Hill said with a shrug. "I was disappointed, of course, but I just sort of fell into it, thinking it would seem selfish, in this time of great trauma, to say, 'I want to go race some more..."

Hill thinks of legendary team boss Enzo Ferrari still as a dominating force in his life, a power, but says that as the years have passed he tends to remember him more benevolently than at one time seemed possible. They did not part amicably, but when they met in Italy again, years after Phils retirement, Ferrari greeted him like a long lost son.

Hill is wonderful company, an immensely civilized man, and a cultured one, too, with wit as dry as you will find; it is doubtful that anyone more intelligent ever climbed into a race car. Unusually articulate, by any standards, it is no surprise he writes better of this sport than any driver who ever lived. Of working at Ferraris factory in Maranello: "When you come to see that the emperor has no clothes, you are more comfortable with your own nakedness ..."

His delivery of one-liners is reminiscent of vintage Bob Newhart. On Ferrari again: "La Scala may have lost a great star when Ferrari went into cars ..."

Milans celebrated opera house meant a lot to Phil in his days of living in Italy, for music has been one of the enduring loves of his life. As Ferrari s number-one driver, though, the World Champion of 1961, was he not mobbed on these outings to hear Joan Sutherland or Maria Callas, pestered for autographs all the time?

He says it was never a problem.

"Apart from Stirling Moss, drivers werent widely recognized back then -- there was hardly any Grand Prix racing on TV, remember. And ... probably it didnt hurt that I arrived in a Peugeot!"

Hard to believe now of a racing team which employs nearly 600 people, but until the Fiat money began to arrive, in 1970, Ferrari was the relative pauper of Formula One.

"It was a different time," Hill said with a smile. "Just a different time. I read somewhere that Michael Schumacher is making $30 million or whatever from Ferrari -- and still they gave him a Maranello coupe as a reward for winning something or other! I didnt even have the use of a Ferrari road car.

"Whatever else, no one could be accused back then of doing it for the money! For one thing, there wasnt any; for another, it was so dangerous back then youd have had to be crazy to do it unless it was something you had to do." Hill said he cant remember exactly what he was paid.

"And even if I could," he said with a laugh, "Id probably be too embarrassed to tell you! The Old Mans line was very much that you drove for Ferrari for the honor of it. And he wasnt kidding."

Indeed, he wasnt. Dan Gurney, at Ferrari with Phil in 1959, and a close friend to this day, recalls that his salary was $163. Per month.

In many ways, Hill was a racing driver in spite of himself. Before a Grand Prix he would pace up and down, puffing on endless cigarettes, but once he was in the car the nerves disappeared. He was one of those who excelled at the unforgiving circuits - the "old" Spa and the "old" Nurburgring, places like that. And he was exceptional, too, in poor conditions. Give him rain and murk, and he was at his ease.

At Le Mans, in 1958, he scored a memorable victory in atrocious weather, driving for most of the night when the rain was at its worst. Hill, faultless, threaded the Ferrari Testa Rossa through the floods and accidents. His co-driver on that occasion was Belgiums Olivier Gendebien; it was the beginning of the most successful sports car partnership in racing history.

In the mind of the enthusiast, at least, that period of Ferrari history, hazardous as it was, has an irresistible romance. The cars of the time dripped with charisma, yet few originals remain, thanks to Enzo Ferraris policy of routinely breaking them up at seasons end.

In 1961 Ferrari dominated with the 156 "sharknose" machines, yet not a single example survives, and Hill was always sad about that, it being the car which took him to the World Championship.

Years later, in the mid-90s, when rock musician Chris Rea was working on a movie about his childhood hero, von Trips, he commissioned the building of a replica sharknose. It was uncannily true to the original, and Phil laid eyes on it for the first time at Goodwood in England.

"Well, Ill be darned," he murmured, and then he stood silently, stunned by this apparition of a time gone by.

After leaving Ferrari, at the end of 1962, Hill continued in Formula One for a couple of years with the uncompetitive ATS and Cooper teams, but thereafter concentrated on sports car racing, with Ford and then with Jim Halls Chaparrals.

After winning for Chaparral the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch in 1967, Hill went back to his native Santa Monica, Calif., and never raced again.

Typically, there was no formal announcement that he had retired; at 40, he had simply decided that enough was enough. Back home, he got married, had children and devoted himself to the restoration of old cars.

Unlike some, he has never lost his love of motor racing, and still, at 73, drives very quickly. A regular at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and other historic events, he also attends three or four Grands Prix each season.

In nearly 20 years of racing, Phil Hill won the World Championship, the Le Mans 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours several times, as well as countless other races - and he never once hurt himself. No one can reasonably ask more than that.

Text provided by Paul Kelly

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot racing photos and art, visit The Racing Photo Museum and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.