America's first World Drivers Champion
- Felix Muelas, Mattijs Diepraam
- 8W September 2000 issue
Phil Hill (Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn)
Ferrari Dino 246 (Vanwall VW10, Ferrari Dino 246)
1958 Italian GP (7 September 1958)
United States of America's first Formula One World Champion was a wonderful sportscar driver, a spirited Grand Prix racer, a good practical engineer and, in Doug Nye's words "one of the few totally sincere men ever to achieve real fame in motor racing."
Philip Toll Hill Jr was born in Miami, Florida on April 20th 1927 and, according to the official hagiography - his own website at philhill.com - took his first drive aged 9, in a brand new 1936 Oldsmobile. By then the family had already moved to Santa Monica, California, where Phil's father was postmaster. Phil's early passion ("obsession" in his own words) from his school days was the motor car and motor racing. He insatiably devoured every motor racing magazine and book he could lay his hands on. "Even before I ever got to drive anything serious I was completely captivated by the romance of everything I'd read about it, of the great Mercedes and Auto Unions, of Caracciola, von Brauchitsch, Tim Birkin, Wilbur Shaw. Everything about all of it... I was a fan."
As a teenager, Hill became one of the first dozen members of the California Sportscar Club in 1946. Phil went to university to study business administration, but his love of cars took him into a job as a mechanic. At that time, he was the proud owner of an MG TC, which he drove to his first race win in 1948 at Carrell Speedway, San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles. So here starts part of the legend, as Hill is reported to be a unique case in motor racing: he won his first and also his last motor race. But we will get to the second part later. Almost twenty years later, to be precise.
1949 found him in England, on a joint service course at SU Carburettors, Jaguar and Rolls Royce. Back to the States he took with him a Jaguar XK120 that he drove in 1950 to win his first road race at Pebble Beach on the Monterey Peninsula.
Hill offered his services as a mechanic in return for "sponsored" drives and, in 1952, Allen Guiberson entered him in a Ferrari for the legendary Carrera Panamericana open road race through Mexico. He finished sixth. Come 1953 it very much looked looked like sportscar racing was having a healthier time than Grand Prix racing, with dozens of events taking place either side of the Atlantic. A World Championship was organized for the first time. Phil Hill drove in two of the rounds of that Championship. In the Sebring 12 Hours he raced a Ferrari 225S with William Spear, but they retired with differential problems. On the Carrera Panamericana he and his riding mechanic - and friend - Richie Ginther were lucky to survive a huge accident at the wheel of Allen Guiberson's Ferrari 340 Mexico Vignale. The accident took place on the Oaxaca-Puebla leg and, although we are told that as a result of that accident Phil Hill thought of retiring, the reality is that he was at the start of the Le Mans 24 hours with an OSCA.
1954 yielded few things on his racing career. Again under the Guiberson's umbrella, and with David M Sykes as co-driver, they entered the 340 Mexico Vignale in the 1000kms of Buenos Aires, but were forced to retire with an early clutch problem. For the 12 Hours of Sebring, as the previous year, he was partnering Bill Spear, this time with a brand new 375. When the Lancias of Taruffi and Rubirosa made their pit-stops, Spear went into the lead, and then Phil Hill did what was reported as a "masterful job" holding the lead of the race until the gearbox gave up. And then Hill returned to Mexico for the Panamericana - again with the intrepid Ginther at his side - where he finished a brilliant second, winning three of the nine legs. But Maglioli was untouchable that day.
In 1955, again at the Sebring 12 Hours, Guiberson entered Phil Hill and Carroll Shelby to drive a Ferrari 750 Monza. This time things were almost right, and the pair finished second. Then, through Ferrari's American East Coast importer, Luigi Chinetti, Ferrari invited Phil to Le Mans, at the wheel of a Ferrari 118LM, partnering Farina and Maglioli. But alas, the cooling system gave up after 76 laps. We are told again that the combination of the disaster happening on that race following so soon after Indy Champion Bill Vukovich's fiery demise at the Speedway again prompted Phil Hill to consider retirement. But, by that December Chinetti had him back in harness, winning at Nassau in the Bahamas Speed Week. His biography mentions that he also won the 1955 SCCA championship.
Then Chinetti persuaded Mr Ferrari to give Phil a factory drive with Olivier Gendebien in the Argentine 1000kms race of January 1956. They finished second, and a full works team place - based in Italy -followed. Phil settled in Modena, learned the language rapidly and became a fully-fledged works sportscar race and test driver although before that he still found some time to drive for George Tilp at the Sebring 12 Hours, with Masten Gregory as co-driver, at the wheel of a Ferrari 860 Monza.
In this 1956 sportscar season, that saw Ferrari become World Champions and both Stirling Moss and Eugenio Castelloti clinching ex-aequo the driver's title, Phil Hill drove for the Scuderia in the Nurburgring 1000kms (finishing third with Alfonso de Portago and Olivier Gendebien), at the Le Mans 24 Hours (with Castellotti and André Simon) where they retired and finally at the Swedish Grand Prix in August, where the Hill-Trintignant pair won the race in front of the similar 290MM driven by Von Trips, Collins and Fangio and an 860 Monza allocated to Alfonso de Portago and Mike Hawthorn.
1957 was another low-key year, Phil partnering Collins - who would clinch the title at the end of the season - in both the Swedish Grand Prix, where they finished second to the unstoppable Maserati 450S of Moss and Behra, and the Venezuelan Grand Prix, that they won.
But 1958 was a completely different year altogether. It started beautifully with wins at the Buenos Aires 1000kms and the Sebring 12 Hours, both sharing with Peter Collins. Victory on the Targa Florio was then for Musso and Gendebien, Hill and Collins finishing in fourth place. Another fourth place was obtained at the Nürburgring 1000kms, this time partnering Musso and just after that he became the first American ever to win the prestigious Le Mans 24-hour race, with Olivier Gendebien.
He finished third in an heroic drive in the Monzanapolis 500, driving a special Ferrari single-seater, and then, no doubt tempted into Grand Prix racing and frustrated about Enzo Ferrari not giving him the opportunity to drive for the squad in Formula 1, he handled Jo Bonnier's private Maserati 250F in the French Grand Prix at Reims, finishing seventh.
From then onwards, facts precipitated. In that race Ferrari's Italian star driver, Luigi Musso, crashed at the high-speed, narrow and deceptive Gueux curve after the pits, and was killed. Ferrari then made up team numbers by asking Phil to drive a Formula 2 entry in the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, which saw the team's joint-star British driver Peter Collins crash fatally.
In the middle of this misery, Ferrari promoted Phil to works Formula 1 team status, with instructions to do his best and help protect Mike Hawthorn's slim World Championship advantage over his Vanwall rival Stirling Moss.
So officially Hill's first appearance in the Ferrari Formula 1 team took place at Monza, for the 1958 Italian Grand Prix (our picture). During practice it was found that the Ferraris were not as fast as the Vanwalls although Mike Hawthorn managed to get onto the front row of the start beating the previous year's practice lap record. The other three Ferrari drivers had the second row to themselves being very close on times: Gendebien with 1m42.5, Von Trips 1m42.6 and Phil Hill 1m42.7.
At the start, the Vanwalls jumped into an immediate lead whilst Hawthorn was off slowly having had some clutch problems. Gendebien had difficulties as well and adding to them he was rammed in the back by Jack Brabham's Cooper. The troubles however were not over as, going into the Lesmo corner, Von Trips crashed into the back of Schell's BRM and both cars hurtled off the road being completely wrecked. Schell and Von Trips luckily got away with scratches plus a damaged knee for the German driver.
Despite the fast start made by the Vanwalls, it was Phil Hill who was leading by the Ascari curve. When the cars roared by the pits, Hill had several car lengths over the very surprised Moss and Lewis Evans. Hawthorn was already up with the leaders and tucked in behind the two Vanwalls, being followed equally closely by the Vanwall of Brooks.
Hawthorn quickly dealt with Moss and Lewis Evans and went after Hill. By the fifth lap Hawthorn was in the lead and Phil Hill demoted to second, but he had a tread strip off his tyre and had to pull into the pits. Hawthorn was repassed by Moss but pressed him very closely. Then the Vanwall went out with a broken gearbox and Hawthorn pulled away to a fairly comfortable lead. Hill worked his way back to 3rd place and then into 2nd. When Hawthorn came in to change tyres at half distance Hill went by in the lead but, when Phil Hill came into the pits to change a rear wheel, Hawthorn was out in front again although he was challenged for some time by Masten Gregory with his Maserati.
Whilst Hill was in the pits he was passed by Brooks who now set out after Hawthorn whose clutch was beginning to sound worn and the Vanwall was making up time fast; ten laps before the end of the race he was by the Ferrari driver. Hill was also catching Hawthorn fast but the team manager slowed him down so that he would not take valuable World Championship points from the Englishman so finally he finished his first Formula 1 race in 3rd place, 4.1 seconds behind Hawthorn. The very special relation that Monza and Phil Hill were establishing had already yielded two podiums finishes - at the Monzanapolis and at the Grand Prix - and a fastest lap record. That he would repeat both in 1959 and 1960, whilst improving his finishing position: step-by-step: second in 1959 and winning in 1960.
The final Formula 1 race of the 1958 season was held at Casablanca and there was much speculation as to who would be the next World Champion. Hawthorn was leading on points but could still lose the title if he did not take second place and provided that Moss won and set the fastest lap. Naturally, as expected, there was to be a lot of team play with both Ferrari and Vanwall trying to cause the other marque to break.
For this final event, Ferrari sent three cars to be driven by Hawthorn, Phil Hill and Gendebien. Phil Hill tried the Hawthorn car but did not make a good time with it as he could not get used to the disc brakes; nevertheless with his own drum-braked car he put himself on the second row. At the start of the race Phil Hill set out after Moss trying to get him to blow up the Vanwall. The Ferrari got by on the straight but on braking the Vanwall was by again.
This game continued until Hill finally went up the escape road trying to outbrake Moss; Hill was quickly back on the road and repassed Hawthorn in his quest to try to steal the point for fastest lap from Moss. Towards the end of the race, Hill was given a signal from the pits to let Hawthorn by into 2nd, although he was almost 40 seconds behind him. The Vanwall won but Hawthorn was secure in 2nd and took the World Championship, a title that, even today, continues to irritate many people and in any case was a title that showed how unfair a points scoring system can be.
In 1959 Phil Hill found his feet in Formula 1, but Tony Brooks was the Italian team's star that season and anyway the cool Englishman was faster in a Formula 1 car, although not in a sportscar. Into 1960 the front-engined V6 Formula 1 Ferraris became obsolescent but Phil was always aggressive and fast. He won the Italian Grand Prix in the absence of top-line British team entries and therefore became the first American winner of a Grande Epreuve since Jimmy Murphy won with Duesenberg in 1921.
But then, as we know, the formula changed for 1961, and 1.5-litre cars replaced the old 2.5-litre class. Ferrari had long been developing petrol-burning 1500cc V6s through Formula 2, and its new, rear-engined "Sharknose" cars for 1961 simply out-powered all opposition. To win in these cars was no joke, however, as their chassis were primitive and suspension geometries "challenging", in Phil Hill's own words. Maranello drivers Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips and Richie Ginther (Phil's old Panamericana riding mechanic turned Ferrari test driver-cum-racer) had to fight all the way against Moss' Rob Walker Team Lotus 18. They also found themselves fighting off the promising new Team Lotus Type 21 cars driven by Innes Ireland and young Jim Clark.
Both Phil Hill and Von Trips came to fight out the Drivers' World Championship between them. Phil loved high-speed circuits and won largely at Spa, but Von Trips won at Zandvoort and Aintree. The title lay between these two in a dramatic deciding race: the Italian Grand Prix on Ferrari's home ground at Monza. Von Trips started that race on 33 points to Hill's 29. But on race day Phil led all the way, while Von Trips collided fatally with Clark's Lotus on the second lap, and his crashing car killed 14 unfortunate spectators standing simply in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Phil Hill became a grief-stricken World Champion, but America's first World Champion nonetheless.
Hill recalls Von Trips: "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 didn't think it was the driver's place to do anything else! All year long, it was him or me for the championship, and if we'd been really close friends, it would have been a hell of a lot harder to be sufficiently competitive with him. Face it, it's not a normal situation race drivers are in: you try to beat the other guys all day, and then at night you're supposed to forget all that."
Hill's sportscar record, meanwhile, was sublime. He would win three Le Mans 24-hour races in works Ferraris shared with Olivier Gendebien, in 1958, 1961 and 1962. And he won three Sebring 12-hour events in the process - 1958, '59 and '61 - and three other 1000kms classics.
During 1962, however, the British multi-cylindered opposition simply routed Ferrari's suddenly outmoded, agricultural V6s, and a brilliant and fighting drive into second place at Monaco was Phil's sole highlight of that season. He left Ferrari at the end of that year to join former Ferrari chief engineer Carlo Chiti's new ATS team. That was a catastrophic decision, which effectively wrecked the later years of Phil's career. He drove sportscars for Porsche and GTs for Aston Martin, and in 1964 joined Cooper in an unfulfilled and unfulfilling Formula 1 combination. He also became a pioneer of the Ford GT programme.
In Formula 1 nothing seemed to go right for him anymore but with Ford his initial technical input was great. In 1965 he forged a good relationship with Jim Hall's Chaparral team and then shared the radical Chaparral 2D coupe with Jo Bonnier in Europe, winning the Nürburgring 1000kms.
He won a CanAm sportscar round in the winged 2E and then returned to Europe in 1967 with the magnificent winged 2F coupe. He co-drove it with Mike Spence to win the BOAC Six Hours at Brands Hatch on July 30, and with this great victory to his name retired at the top with fine-timing and typically good grace. So yes, it seems like true that the legend that started with the win in 1948 at the San Fernando Valley would end his career with another win. And so it was.
In retirement he built a fine classic car restoration business, Hill & Vaughn. He also worked as a television commentator for ABC's Wide World of Sports and is a contributing editor for Road & Track magazine, writing retrospective articles and conducting the tests for the very popular "World's Fastest Cars" feature.
Through his sixties and into his seventies he remained a fine and immensely capable driver, and even as the Goodwood circuit reopened for historic racing in September 1998, Phil Hill was there, battling with the best of them in a Shelby Daytona coupe. He had married late in life, to Alma, and has one son and two daughters. His son, Derek, followed him into the motor racing world: it's with satisfaction that "Feel Heel" watches the promising progress of Derek John Hill in the junior formulae.
In 2000, the Formula Palmer Audi graduate followed his father's Italian footsteps, racing in Italian F3000. In his Da Vinci (formerly Martello) Lola T96/50 Derek had a tough debut season, two eighths at Imola and Donington his best results in a season dominated by Arden's Warren Hughes and Draco's Ricardo Sperafico. Having run out of funds Da Vinci (what's in a name?) have withdrawn for the last two events so it's with interest that we will follow the further advances of Derek's career. Based on the form he showed in 1997, completely dominating the Barber Dodge championship, Derek Hill has what it takes, but with his career faltering in International F3000 in 2001, there remains a question mark over whether he could be the second Hill Jr to follow his father to Grand Prix glory.
The first American and the first Hill to take the F1 World Championship, Phil Hill set off a relationship between GP racing and the US that has been on hold for the almost the entire nineties but hopefully will start to grow again now that last week's US GP at Indianapolis saw such a huge attendance. Strikingly, the statistics say that the World Championship had more American drivers participating than any other nationality. Admittedly, this figure includes the Indy racers of the fifties. Would we deduct these from the balance, we still have some 40-odd US racers that went GP racing, leaving the USA the No.5 Grand Prix driver supplier behind only the UK (151 drivers), Italy (92), France (64) and Germany (44).
With Mario Andretti, Phil Hill has been their most valiant ambassador. In Doug Nye's words, "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." We couldn't agree more.
Reader's Why by David Fox
Florida born Phil Hill's F1 Ferrari debut and the first of two races in 1958 where, obeying, team orders, he pulled over to enable Hawthorn to gain points in his bid for the World Championship.
1958 was a tough and brutal year for the Scuderia Ferrari - the green Vanwalls from Acton were now to regularly beating the red cars from Maranello. It was a brutal year too -the French Grand Prix at the super fast Reims Geux circuits saw Luigi Musso crash fatally whilst desperately trying to keep up with team leader Hawthorn. (With Musso passed the last of the Italian hopefuls and not until Lorenzo Bandini's emergence in the mid 60s was Italy to see a driver capable of challenging for victory.)
More tragedy was to come at the German GP at the Nürburgring. Peter Collins, Hawthorn's "Mon Ami mate" crashed fatally whilst trying to keep up with the flying Vanwall of Tony Brooks. Ferrari were short of drivers so they turned to the American Sports car ace Phil Hill.
A racer of MGs in the early 50s Hill shot to prominence in the Carrera Pan America road races - finishing 2nd in the 1954 race. This brought him to the attention of Enzo Ferrari and he gained rides in the Scuderia's sportscar team from 1956. His major win came in the very wet 1958 Le Mans 24 hour race where he shared the winning Ferrari Testa Rossa with Belgian Olivier Gendebien.
Anxious to prove his prowess at the wheel of an F1 car he rented a drive in Jo Bonnier's Maserati 250 F at the French GP at Reims that year - he finished a creditable 7th. (Ironically also in the field and having their GP debuts - also in 250F Maserati - were fellow Americans Carroll Shelby and Indy 500 winner Troy Ruttman.) Hill drove an F2 Ferrari 156 in the German GP and then was elevated to full F1 status for Monza. He actually led - as our picture shows - for the first 4 laps until loosing a tread and then battled back up to 3rd and last classified runnner in this race of attrition.
At the next, and final GP of the year - the GP du Maroc, at Casablanca, Hill tried to take the battle to Moss' winning Vanwall, but was obliged to back off to let Hawthorn through to 2nd and enable the "Farnham Flyer" to win the 1958 Championship despite winning only 1 race that year - the tragic French GP.
Hill stuck with Ferrari over the next two years - winning the World Championship in 1961, then his career took a real nose dive with drives in a variety of dreadful cars such as the ATS…he bowed out of full time competition in 1967 with a magnificent victory at Brands Hatch BOAC 6 Hour race in the wonderful Chaparral Chevrolet.
1958 was Stirling Moss year…after the promise of the Vanwall had been fulfilled in 1957 especially with the magnificent Moss/ Brooks victory at the British GP at Aintree, Stirling was really favourite for the title.
However, despite a sensational victory in Rob Walker's Cooper at the Argentine GP, and Vanwall victories at Zandvoort, Oporto and Casablanca and a second at Reims it was just not enough to beat Hawthorn's 6 second places and a string of fastest laps. Much has been written about Moss defending Hawthorn over a push start, following a spin, against the race direction at the Portuguese GP. Without Stirling's own intervention, enabling Hawthorn to keep his 2nd place, Moss would have been champion….these days Stirling seems quite content that he wasn't champion and is now remembered as one of the all time greats.
History's view of Hawthorn is mixed - on his day he was magnificent - perhaps his finest hour was his tremendous wheel-to-wheel battle with Fangio to win the 1953 French GP. His lowest spot had to be the horrific 1955 Le Mans race and his alleged part in the catastrophic accident that took so many lives. He drove carefully and steadily to the '58 title, but the toll of lives - Lewis Evans died as a result of burns at the Casablanca race - and the crushing blow of the death of his best friend Collins was enough. He announced his retirement at the end of the season, only to die in car crash on the Guilford by pass one rainy January day in 1959.
1958 was indeed a pivotal year, British Racing Green was to the fore and various changes to regulation ushered in the new rear engined era, with Cooper well to the fore.. Vanwall pulled out saddened by the passing of Lewis Evans and Tony Vandervell's ill health, Ferrari had to re-group and try to get to grips with the engine at the rear.