But he was so much more than that. Phil Hill was a deep-thinking, urbane, trustworthy gentleman who survived a perilous time in racing to become a hugely respected commentator on ABC and writer for Road & Track magazine. And this has tended to overshadow the on-track accomplishments of Phil Hill, racing driver. As we approach the fifth anniversary of Hill's death, Paul Fearnley reappraises the 1961 Formula 1 World Champion, three-time winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans winner and three-time winner of the 12 Hours of Sebring.
He won on his first and last days as a racing driver. On July 24, 1949, he prevailed at the spindly wheel of an ash-framed, steel-bodied, skinny-tired, front-engined, sit up-and-beg 52.5hp (in standard tune) British sports car that was a pre-World War II throwback, with its flowing fenders, chromed radiator and exposed headlights. On 30 July 1967, he prevailed at the chunky wheel of a semi-monocoque, fiberglass-bodied, fat-tired, rear-engined, low-slung 525hp American sports car that was the most futuristic of its generation, with its suspension-mounted and driver-adjustable aerodynamic wing, hip-mounted radiators and clutch-less torque-converter transmission.
From heel-and-toeing a privateer MG TC to left foot-braking the GM-supported Chaparral 2F, Phil Toll Hill Jr. experienced the whole gamut and excelled (and survived) at every level, in every format and with every type of racecar – front- and rear-engined, single- and two-seater, open- and closed-wheeler, big banger and little tiddler – during the sport's most seismic and dangerous era.
In 1949, he was a SoCal "crazy" – albeit a ruminative one with passions for Italian opera and British engineering – who had cut his speed teeth on Main Street drag strips and in illegal time trials held under the cloak of darkness in and around L.A.'s then-undeveloped mountains and gorges. By 1967, he was the thinking man's racer, a 40-year-old senior pro with precisely the right amount of speed, smarts and sympathy to go the distance.
There was an intermezzo, however, when he cultivated the crazy image while railing against his tag of enduro hero. It was impatience and impulsiveness that set Hill on the road to becoming a Formula 1 World Champion; a hectic sprint that almost burned him out and left him deeply reflective. His day of days, at a circuit where he excelled, was forever blackened by his teammate and title rival's visceral plunge into the crowd.
Hill's F1 door had swung open three years earlier at the same track: Monza. It did so mainly because of the death of his Buenos Aires 1000km- and Sebring 12 Hours-winning co-driver and friend – he was sharing Peter Collins' Monte Carlo-based yacht as well as his Ferrari Testa Rossa in 1958. But the opportunity also arose partly because the American had put his shoulder to it by provocatively hiring a Maserati 250F for that season's French Grand Prix. Enzo, you see, had him marked as a two-seater kind of guy. And that grated with the American, for whom securing the victories (in the unlikely settings of Sweden and Venezuela) that clinched the World Sports Car Championships of 1956 and '57 for Ferrari, and relentlessly pressing on through the murk of the 1958 Le Mans 24 Hours – the first and best of his three wins at La Sarthe – were means to an end. Hill had dreamed of being involved in F1 (initially as an ace mechanic) since attending the 1950 British GP at Silverstone.
As he guided Jo Bonnier's Maserati past Reims' shimmering cornfields (ABOVE) to a measured seventh place, he passed the scene of Luigi Musso's cartwheeling crash: another of his Ferrari co-drivers infected by swirling Scuderia circumstance and intrigue had bitten the dust. Enzo, running out of options, then placated Hill with an offer of the Formula 2 version of the single-seat Dino for the German Grand Prix; the same car with which he had "threatened" newlywed Collins – from golden boy to naughty boy – in France. And as Hill struggled to ninth overall and fifth in class at the Nurburgring, he passed the site of Collins's cartwheeling crash. Such was motor racing when fear was its only safety net.
Hill at the 1959 French GP, where he finished second
Hill, like his peers, put any morbid thoughts to the back of his mind and forged to the front from the second row when the flag dropped to start the Italian GP: thus he led his first race lap in a Formula 1 car. In fact, he led the first four until his team leader and title aspirant Mike Hawthorn forged ahead. Hill pitted two laps later when his left-rear Englebert tire stripped its tread. He would lead again (for three more laps) and set fastest lap before a second stop for new rubber. In a car fitted with drum brakes rather than Dunlop discs and powered by an older-spec V6, he finished third. He would have been second had he not spotted Hawthorn's green sleeve jutting anxiously from the cockpit of a Ferrari hampered by clutch slip and creeping to the finish. Hill was as alert and measured as he was keen.
At the title-decider in Morocco five weeks later, he again acted as Ferrari's hare in a bid to outfox the Vanwalls. Bold, he outbraked himself – drums versus discs again – in a bid to pass the superlative Stirling Moss, and slid down an escape road. He recovered quickly and so was able to hand the all-important second place – and thus the World Championship by a single point – to teammate Hawthorn. A grateful Mike called Hill “loyal and brilliant.”
Even so, Hill played second fiddle to another Brit in F1 in 1959. The like-minded Tony Brooks was educated, thoughtful and quick, but more experienced and therefore more assured. Hill finished as runner-up to him at a roasting Reims and was third – behind Brooks and fellow Yankee dandy Dan Gurney – when Ferrari banked a 1-2-3 in the German GP at Avus. He also finished second at Monza, where he led for 29 laps and set fastest lap only to be outsmarted by Moss, whose light rear-engined Cooper, with its knock-off rear wheels, appeared geared up to pit but ran non-stop to victory.