Paying tribute to the man who defied age, critics and injury to earn racing's unofficial Triple Crown.
Forty years ago this Sunday, Graham Hill was killed in a plane crash and racing lost one of its great all-’rounders. It seems appropriate that as we consider the exciting possibility of Juan Pablo Montoya attempting to win the sport’s Triple Crown – Monaco Grand Prix, Indy 500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans – we can also reflect on the only driver to achieve that treble.
However, it’s important not to forget the five who died with Hill, all members of his three-year-old Formula 1 team. Manager Ray Brimble, designer Andy Smallman, mechanics Terry Richards and Tony Alcock, and hugely promising driver Tony Brise, all perished when Graham’s Piper Aztec crashed into trees at Arkley golf course in the UK. Hill was attempting to find Elstree Aerodrome through thick November fog, and it is speculated that he mistook the lights of a nearby town for one that was even nearer to Elstree, descending too far, too soon.
The whys and wherefores – and the completely understandable recrimination that followed – will not detain us here. Instead, let’s celebrate the career of a driver who didn’t make his Formula 1 debut until he was 28 yet was still able to cram in so much achievement – including two F1 World Championships and 14 grand prix wins – in such a short space of time.
Norman Graham Hill was born in February 1929 in London, and after spells at Smiths Instruments and in the Royal Navy, he became intrigued by racing in 1954, a mere year after passing his driving test. Motorcycles had been his chosen mode of transport and motorized sport up to then, taking part in motocross events. But how quickly the four-wheeled version of the sport became an addiction. While racing his own Formula 3 car, he also served as a mechanic for Team Lotus – anything to be involved in racing.
Hill’s self-entered Willment-Climax rolled home only 13th in the non-championship BRDC Trophy in 1957, but manipulating metal and showing mettle had won him favor with Lotus owner Colin Chapman. In April ’58, Hill raced a works entry Lotus 12 in another non-points race – the Glover Trophy at Goodwood – before Chapman entered him for his World Championship debut at (Fate surely decreed it) Monaco.
There were 31 entries for that 1958 Monaco Grand Prix, yet Hill outperformed many more fancied runners and put the little sausuage-shaped front-engined Lotus 12 into the race and was running as high as fourth at two-thirds distance when a halfshaft broke. Encouraged, Chapman had a car for Hill again at Zandvoort, although again the machinery capitulated.
Armed with the quicker and more deft (but still front-engined) Lotus 16, Graham impressed by outqualifying his respected and more experienced teammate Cliff Allison for most of the remaining races that season, although only the Italian Grand Prix yielded a top-10 finish – a very distant sixth place in a hopelessly outclassed car.
Nonetheless, Chapman was convinced and retained the Englishman for ’59, pairing him with Scotsman Innes Ireland for the majority of the season. Fifth on the grid at Zandvoort was Hill’s highlight, however, even if those who looked more carefully at his speed all year would note that again he outperformed his teammate.
Flying the flag with BRM
From his engaging wit, cheeky smile and absolute focus on extracting the most from himself, Hill was the epitome of the racing driver in the ’60s. He was also perceived as very, very English, his bourgeois drawl topped with rhotacism, and it seems only natural that he should end up driving for a team as patriotically titled as British Racing Motors.
However, his first two seasons at the squad showed more potential than hard results. In the P25 – BRM’s final front-engined F1 car – Hill qualified third for the 1960 Argentina GP but retired with an overheating engine. In the hastily conceived rear-engined P48, he seemed on the verge of winning the British Grand Prix at Silverstone but cracked under pressure from Jack Brabham and dumped his car in a ditch. Later finishing second in the non-championship International Trophy hardly made up for the error. By the end of ’61 he had scored a less than grand total of seven points for BRM, along with a handful of podium finishes in non-points races.
But the BRM P57, complete with homebuilt V8 engine, would change all that. No, the P57 was not a match for the searing pace of Jimmy Clark in a Lotus 25, but it had reliability firmly on its side. Clark took six poles but only three wins; Hill took just one pole – a brave effort at Spa-Francorchamps – but had four wins. In fact, he finished all nine of his races, while Clark suffered four DNFs. The World Championship was Graham’s.
So too should have been the Monaco Grand Prix but on his first trip to the French principality with a race-winning car, Hill dominated but was let down by his engine. Famously he would make up for this in ’63 – and ’64, ’65, ’68 and ’69…
By the end of ’66, however, Hill was ready to leave BRM. Three straight years of finishing runner-up in the championship (to Clark twice, John Surtees once) had been followed by fifth place in the points standings. Jack Brabham and his team was dominating now that F1 engine rules had increased maximum engine displacement from 1.5- to 3.0-liter engines, and everyone else was having a pretty thin time as they scrambled to find suitable power supplies.
Hill learned of Chapman’s plans to run the all-new Ford-funded Cosworth DFV in the Lotus 49 in ’67, and was soon champing at the bit to have 400hp with which to take on Brabham’s Repco units. Yet on a personal note – or rather, personnel note – a move to Lotus was not a slam-dunk. Graham well knew that Clark and Chapman were joined at the hip, and that Jimmy’s towering talent had dwarfed those of respectable teammates such as Trevor Taylor, Pete Arundell and Mike Spence.
Yet Hill’s self-confidence was justified. No, he was no Clark, but he was a driver of genuine front-running quality and did a very respectable job as Jimmy’s teammate. Wretched unreliability (a long-established characteristic of the ‘second’ Lotus) meant that Hill’s results look feeble in comparison with Clark’s; over their 11 races as teammates in Lotus 49s – 10 championship, one non-championship – Clark won five, Hill zero. Yet Graham outqualified Jimmy three times – something none of Clark’s previous teammates could have dreamed of – and had looked a genuine match for the flying Scot at Silverstone and Watkins Glen.
Speaking of America, and speaking of Scots, Hill conquered both on his first trip to the Indianapolis 500. The result of the ’66 “500” is eminently debatable, and you will find many who are adamant Clark scored his second consecutive win that year, with USAC lap scorers mistakenly awarding one of Jimmy’s laps to his rookie teammate Al Unser. But Hill was very much in the game all day.
Graham and BRM F1 teammate Jackie Stewart had traveled to the Brickyard in the wake of Clark’s game-changing win in ’65, and remained teammates in the John Mecom-owned Lola squad, effectively run by resident engineer genius George Bignotti. Now Graham and Jackie had a wee bit of cordial but needling history, as Stewart had arrived in the BRM team in ’65 with a fine reputation as the next big thing. Intimidated by little, the Scots rookie had more or less matched his experienced team leader that season, and beaten him to victory in a straight fight during a slipstreaming battle at Monza. Then, the impudent youth had even dared to beat Hill in “his” province by winning in Monaco for the opening round of ’66.
At Indy, again it was Stewart ahead all race, although it was an event largely dominated by Lloyd Ruby and Clark. But when Ruby’s engine expired and Clark spun for a second time, Stewart found himself in the lead by 40 seconds at three-quarter distance. That should have been easily enough to ensure victory, but in order to prepare for the possibility of a caution period that would allow his closest rivals to catch back up, Stewart was eager to put Hill a lap down. Graham was equally eager for this not to happen, and to the chagrin of Bignotti, the pair started lapping faster and faster, F1 egos in full flight…
With 10 laps to go, Stewart’s engine bent a valve and he pulled over and out. Hill went to Victory Lane but then Clark and Lotus arrived nearby too, Chapman convinced his lap scoring was correct and USAC’s was wrong. When a bemused Clark put this suggestion to Hill, Graham stonefaced him, then grinned confidently. “No way, mate,” he said. “I drank the milk.”
Hill’s subsequent visits to the Racing Capital of the World were less impressive. In the Lotus 42 of ’67, a piston burnt; in the Lotus 56 turbine, he joined polesitting teammate Joe Leonard on the front row but crashed soon after half distance; and in ’69, the Lotus cars were withdrawn during practice following Mario Andretti’s hub failure on the troublesome Lotus 64.
Nonetheless; Hill was already the only Monaco F1 winner who had also won the “500”. The second piece of the Triple Crown had fallen into place.
Second championship, and a long fade-out
If Hill had been de facto Number 2 driver to Clark at Team Lotus through ’67, when Jimmy was killed in a Formula 2 race in April ’68, Graham became the team’s leader and a pillar of strength. Chapman’s resolve temporarily dissolved in the wake of Clark’s death, but a somewhat fortunate victory for Hill in Jarama was followed by a dominant win from pole at Monaco on the debut of the Lotus 49B. There was still a title to fight for.
Through the remainder of the season, both Jackie Stewart (Tyrrell-run Matra) and Chris Amon (Ferrari) were faster, but Hill remained in the running for a second championship in the newly named – sponsored! – Gold Leaf Team Lotus squad. In the Mexican finale, Graham outqualified and outlasted rivals Stewart and defending champion Denny Hulme to emerge as World Champion for the second time. It was no more than the whole team deserved.
But at the age of 40 by the time the ’69 season started, Hill had reached a plateau. The younger breed was taking charge, ready to push to the nth degree, in a manner unthinkable for a wise old racer, and Graham’s new teammate Jochen Rindt would outqualify the champ at every opportunity. Yet the Englishman was still in love with the sport and swallowed his pride. And to be fair, his qualifying average of 6.6 that year – in a car design now in its third season – would indicate he wasn’t too far off the mark.
When Rindt was concussed following a huge shunt at Montjuich Park in Spain, Hill was left temporarily as the Lotus pacesetter for one race – at Monaco of all places – and duly took advantage with his fifth win there. It was his 14th and final championship victory.
The shunt in the penultimate race at Watkins Glen, that left him with broken legs, might – should? – have signaled to Hill it was time to retire from a still desperately perilous sport. But the same dogged determination that saw him reach racing’s peaks was what also defined his ambition to return to the only way of life he loved. Broken limbs be damned; this 41-year-old would make an F1 comeback.
But while Hill’s spirit remained willing and his will iron, the flesh and bones were now weak. Topline racing drivers who suffered severe leg injuries rarely came back as strong as they went out, and Chapman, the ultimate realist, had known Graham was on a downward slope even before the crash. So while the two-time champ would still pilot a Lotus in 1970, it was a 49C run by Rob Walker’s privateer team, as Team Lotus went title hunting with Rindt driving the radical new 72.
It was long fade-out for Hill. A handful of points-scoring finishes that season were more the result of race-long persistence than outright pace; just twice he started in the Top 10. And the decline continued at Brabham throughout ’71 and ’72. There was the false dawn of a victory in Silverstone’s non-championship International Trophy, driving the lobster-claw BT34. But throughout that season and the next, Hill was nowhere near the front-running pace.
Guts and Gloire
In 1972, before the Le Mans 24 Hours, Henri Pescarolo tried to hide his grumpiness at having to share a Matra MS670 with a 43-year-old race veteran who everyone knew was in decline. With the outlawing of the Group 5 cars at Le Mans – no more Porsche 917s or Ferrari 512s – this was the little French team’s chance to score the first French win at La Sarthe since the 1930s. And given that the other Matras were piloted by Chris Amon/Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Francois Cevert/Howden Ganley, and Jean-Pierre Jabouille/David Hobbs – all six drivers on the rise or in their prime – Henri went into the event worried he was going to be supporting dead weight.
The Frenchman was thrilled to discover he was wrong. Not only did he end up liking Hill, he had to respect him too. Graham had that crucial metronomic endurance race ability to drive endlessly at 95 percent pace without harming the car, without being drawn into unnecessary early battles with less seasoned teammates, and without trying to tackle the potentially faster fizzbomb Alfa Romeo T33s and Lolas which largely accounted for themselves.
In the night, in the rain, Hill was extremely quick and error-free – just as he had been in F1 throughout the ’60s – and took the lead just past midnight. Once the sister car of Cevert/Ganley was damaged by an errant backmarker, Pescarolo and Hill had little opposition. Notable too, was that despite being floored by the loss of his close friend Jo Bonnier, who crashed fatally into the trees on Sunday morning, Graham didn’t forget his manners. Aware how big a deal this victory was going to be in France, he insisted on arranging the Sunday driving shifts so that Henri was at the wheel of the little blue car as it passed the checkered flag and into the hearts of the local fans.
Hill had completed his triple crown, the irony being that despite being some way past his prime, it was a far more convincing triumph than his Indy 500 win.
Reality and tragedy strikes
That victory at La Sarthe was yet another missed opportunity to retire on a high. Still, in his final years, Graham proved he wasn’t in the sport for the money. Unable to find a paying F1 ride for 1973, he invested some of his own fortune and that of Imperial Tobacco into setting up the Embassy Hill Formula 1 team, and over the next two seasons, he plugged away, well aware that in terms of racing, he was little more than an extra. His final points-scoring finish came in the 1974 Swedish Grand Prix, in which he climbed from 15th on the grid to clock sixth place.
Tragedy struck in the Spanish GP in 1975 when Hill’s second car, driven by Rolf Stommelen, lost its rear wing on race day and pinballed off the barriers at Montjuich Park and into a spectator viewing area, killing five fans. Two weeks later, Graham suffered the indignity of failing to qualify for the Monaco Grand Prix, of all races. Video footage from immediately after that fruitless final qualifying session shows a driver looking about 20 years older than his 46 years, speechless and trying to bury his emotional turmoil. Finally, it seems, the reality that had only been seeping in over the previous couple seasons had broken through in a dam burst.
That became a tsunami when his replacement Tony Brise and Alan Jones (subbing for the injured Stommelen) clocked four top-eight finishes in the next five races. Andy Smallman’s Hill GH1 design was now showing highly encouraging pace for a first-time effort, and although the Embassy Hill team still only consisted of 14 people, there were high hopes that the GH2 would take them yet further up the grid in 1976.
It was on the way home from testing Smallman’s latest creation at Paul Ricard in France that the final disaster happened. On a dismal night 40 years ago, a cartwheeling ball of flame blew apart an ambitious young F1 team and tore the hearts out of six separate families. By then as well known for his smooth, witty and urbane TV persona as his racing achievements, Hill’s countless fans worldwide grieved the loss.
They say records are made to be broken, and there is a chance that next June, Montoya will join Graham Hill in the Triple Crown club. Should he do so, one can only hope he fully appreciates not only his very special achievement, but also the significance of matching one of motorsport’s most important figures.