Who was Phil Hill, the legend who shunned the spotlight?
Phil Hill was one of only a few drivers to win both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Formula 1 World Championship. He is remembered as a motorsport icon, known for his kindness, easy-going manner and immense talent. Here is a look back at the career of an extraordinary American driver.
Crossing the Atlantic
Phil Hill began attending the University of Southern California in 1945 at the age of 18, and found himself rather bored with his major in Business Administration. He preferred working on cars, and in his free time made a hobby of repairing British vehicles brought back by American soldiers at the end of the war.
Tired of his studies, Hill left the university after just two years to pursue his motorsport dream. His mechanical know-how very quickly took him behind the wheel and he made a first trip to Europe in 1949 as a trainee. He had already raced his personal MG in the U.S., and upon returning, his career took off thanks to impressive performances in top-tier events.
Hill was then given the opportunity to take the start in the 1953 24 Hours of Le Mans, but was forced to retire in the 10th hour at the wheel of a modest O.S.C.A MT-4. Back in the States, he indulged a preference for Ferraris, especially at the Panamerica, an important race at that time. Even Enzo Ferrari, no fan of the U.S., couldn't deny the potential of the American market. In the early 1950s, Hill met Luigi Chinetti, a naturalised American, three-time 24 Hours winnerand major Ferrari partner. He taught him to speak Italian and Hill embarked on an epic journey with the Italian carmaker.
The collaboration became official in 1955 when he realised his dream of joining Scuderia Ferrari. Unfortunately, Hill was once again forced to retire at Le Mans, this time with a 121 LM in the sixth hour, due to a busted radiator. He was also racing private Ferraris in the U.S., finishing second at the 12 Hours of Sebring with Carroll Shelby as teammate no less. He tried his chances again at the 24 Hours in 1956 without success after an accident ended his race shortly before the midpoint. The following year brought the same result. But Hill's career was about to take a turn. In 1958, his fifth outing at Le Mans resulted in a decisive victory with Belgian driver Olivier Gendebien at the wheel of an iconic Ferrari Testa Rossa. He was the first American to achieve the feat.
Quite an original helmet.
One month later, Hill was handed the wheel of a private Maserati to race in Formula 1, much to the dismay of Enzo Ferrari: two rounds later, Hill was invited to join the Scuderia in F1, the Holy Grail, becoming Ferrari's American ambassador in Europe. Hill had less luck at Le Mans after his initial win, retiring in 1959 and 1960, once (again) for a failed radiator and then for running out of fuel! For the latter running, he shared the wheel with another Ferrari ace, German driver Wolfgang von Trips.
Hill triumphed in Formula 1 at the end of 1960, winning the Monza Grand Prix. By the following year, he had become a favourite in both endurance racing and single-seaters.
A Bittersweet Story
Hill won the 1961 24 Hours at the wheel of a TRI/61, once again with Gendebien, kicking off Ferrari's era of domination. In fact, the Italian marque saw three of its cars take over the final podium. In F1, his Scuderia teammate von Trips was headed straight toward a world title. But, Hill wasn't going down without a fight. The pair duelled ferociously in their 156 "sharknoses." Anything could happen at the penultimate round at Monza, even though von Trips held the lead in the championship standings and had also secured the pole.
The #10 TRI/61 of Gendebien/Hill just ahead of the NART's TRI/61 driven by brothers Ricardo et Pedro Rodríguez in the fight until retiring. The official #23 Ferrari 246SP of von Trips/Ginther.
Sadly, fate had other plans. With the race in full swing, von Trips made contact with the legendary Jim Clark in the second lap. His Ferrari was ejected down an embankment, bounced into the crowd and landed on the track. The German driver was killed instantly, as were 11 spectators, shortly followed by four more. Despite the unimaginable disaster, the race resumed. As time went on, every Ferrari broke down…except one: the one driven by Phil Hill. After winning the race, completely unaware of the tragedy as he exited his car, the engineer Carlo Chiti told him the news...and that in the balance he'd won the world title.
"I couldn't accept it. I had won the race and the championship, but the accident took all the joy away from me."
He shunned the spotlight, and it shunned him. Hill had become the first – and still the only – driver to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the F1 world title in the same year. But, it was all eclipsed by the devastating accident.
A Changed Man
A great music lover, Hill took solace in his second great passion, the opera, attending as many performances as possible in Europe. Although he remained one of the best drivers in the world heading into the 1962 season, he was never the same.
"I didn't feel the same need to race, to win. I wasn't hungry like before and I wasn't ready to risk my life anymore."
At the age of 35, Hill returned for a final season with the Scuderia, but he'd never quite fit the mold created by Enzo Ferrari in Formula 1. He was too modest, too quiet, too apart. Despite three podium finishes, his heart wasn't in it and he even finished the year with Porsche. At the 24 Hours, however, joining forces with Gendebien still proved fruitful. In the magnificent Ferrari 330 TRI/LM Spyder, Hill won for the third time, firmly establishing himself as a Le Mans legend, all without the slightest animosity towards his opponents.
"I'm not in the right profession. I don't want to beat anyone, I don't want to be the big hero. I am a peaceful man, nothing more."
Watched on by a huge crowd, Hill/Gendebien became the winningest crew in the history of the 24 Hours, with three victories together. The record has since been matched, but not beaten.
Hill's collaboration with Ferrari was over. He still wanted to race, but his best years were behind him. He signed with the Ferrari veteran F1 team ATS, but without success. At the 24 Hours in 1963, he represented Aston Martin, but a faulty gearbox ended the British marque's chances only four hours into the race. Then, an old friend thought of him: Carroll Shelby was at the helm of a project with Ford, the subject of the film Le Mans '66 (Ford v Ferrari). Hill took the wheel of the GT40, his experience looming large, but the effort resulted in two consecutive retirements at the 1964 and 1965 24 Hours.
Around the same time, his career in Formula 1 was slowly dying. A failed season at Cooper led to his absence the next year and then an unsuccessful return. His time in single-seaters ended in 1966 at the wheel of the famous AAR Eagle-Climax created out of a collaboration between Dan Gurney and Shelby.
The 1964 Ford GT40 Mk.I failed to give the Ferraris a run for their money.
Hill's last chapter as a driver was unique. Chaparral was a highly innovative carmaker founded by American drivers Jim Hall and Hap Sharp in 1962. The cars were entirely white, with the famous road runner (from the "Coyote and the Road Runner" cartoons) as a logo. The marque was supported by General Motors. In 1966, Hill was delivering a great race in the 2D model along with his friend Jo Bonnier. Battery troubles shortly before midnight put an end to the promising performance.
In 1967, Hill returned in the 2F equipped with an enormous spoiler directly taken from the aeronautical industry. Though it inspired the design of Formula 1s at the time, the car lacked any hint of reliability. Once again, Hill was forced to retire at the 24 Hours, this time with an oil leak. On the heels of that final participation, the American driver decided to take his well-deserved retirement.
The Chaparral 2D was noticeable from miles away, as was the team's Texan accent...
Throughout his career, Hill competed all over the world, racking up achievements at the likes of the 24 Hours of Daytona (won in 1964 with the NART) to the forgotten Tasman Series, by way of the Pikes Peak hill climb. He even took part in production of the movie Grand Prix (Frankenheimer, 1966) as an actor and advisor.
Always on the scene at demonstration tracks and in support of the motorsport career of his son Derek, Parkinson's disease began to take its toll on Hill in the early 2000s. He passed away in August 2008 at the age of 81 in his adopted California (born in Miami). He left behind a loving family, a truly extraordinary track record and a legendary legacy, albeit tinged with tragedy.
"I feel that racing against him made my career more glorious."
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