MR MONACO – A PROFILE OF GRAHAM HILL
Graham Hill will always be remembered for his dapper Gentleman Racer persona he so effortlessly presented both at the track an also in the media. However, under that amiable exterior was the heart of a true swashbuckling racer who to this day is the only motor racing driver to achieve the Triple Crown of Motorsport by winning the Formula 1 World Championship/Monaco Grand Prix, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the Indianapolis 500.
The son of a Stockbroker, Graham Hill was born in Hampstead, London on 15th February 1929. He attended Hendon Technical College and joined Smiths Instruments as an apprentice engineer and later served in the Royal Navy rising to the rank of petty officer.
He was also a keen oarsman and met his future wife Bette whilst rowing for Auriol Rowing Club. After leaving the Navy he rejoined Smiths Instruments later also joining the London Rowing Club in 1952 where he successfully represented them at Henley, and the club colours of which he would later use on his racing helmet.
He would later remark, “I really enjoyed my rowing. It really taught me a lot about myself, and I also think it is a great character-building sport. The self-discipline required for rowing and the ‘never say die’ attitude obviously helped me through the difficult years that lay ahead.”
Graham Hill was a late starter behind the wheel, not passing his driving test until the age of 24. He had however tried his hand on the track with a racing school at Brands Hatch. After those initial 4 laps in a Cooper 500 F3 car he was hooked! Without money to fund his driving he exchanged laps in the car for working as a mechanic and he would soon be winning races as well as teaching other drivers at the school.
Off the track, Graham and Bette were married in 1955 and had two daughters, Brigitte and Samantha, and a son, Damon.
By this time Hill’s ambition kicked in and he was on the lookout for a full-time racing drive. Following one race meet he hitched a lift home with one of the other entrants, Colin Chapman. Chapman was already an established team owner with Lotus and Hill talked him into giving him a job as a mechanic. Chapman was not convinced of Hill’s driving credentials and it took a while for Chapman to relent. Once he had given Hill the chance it was clear that it was the right decision and Chapman elevated Hill to full-time driver status giving him his F1 debut in 1958 at Monaco, the circuit that he would go on to make his own.
Following regular mechanical failures, he became frustrated at Lotus and in 1960 left for the BRM team. This proved to be the turning point for Graham who earned a reputation for his race preparation taking it upon himself to set the car up personally. The BRM was not only reliable, it was also fast, and in his hands, he won his first Formula 1 race at Zandvoort and went on to win the Formula 1 World Championship in 1962 from Jim Clark, winning four of the nine races, and second in two others.
His achievement being only the second time a British driver had lifted the title, Mike Hawthorn being the first in 1958.
The 60’s was an era when drivers regularly raced in many different formulae and Graham was no different not only racing in F1, but also sports cars and British saloons. It was during these excursions into different racing series that he entered the 1966 Indianapolis 500 in a Lola. Having survived a first lap pile-up claiming 11 cars, he followed a series of leaders including Mario Andretti, Jim Clark, and Jackie Stewart before taking the lead 10 laps from home and taking the chequered flag as a Rookie winner.
The Indy win cemented Hill as one of the best drivers of his generation, and completed the second rung of the Triple Crown Ladder, having already won the world title in 1962 and the Monaco Grand Prix three times (1963, 64, 65).
In 1967 he returned to Lotus to drive for his old boss Chapman in the revolutionary Lotus 49. Testing of the car began in early 1967 and Hill led the test-driving duties. “It’s got some poke!” he commented on his first run out in the car. The car proved to be a world beater and would go on to race competitively until 1971.
Following team leader Jim Clark’s death at Hockenheim in 1968, Hill took on the lead driver duties and went on to win the second of his Formula 1 World Drivers Championships that year.
Chapman’s cars, while fast, had earned a reputation for fragility and unpredictable handling especially with the emerging use of wings and aerofoils on the cars. Whilst it was never considered directly attributable to his accident, Hill and his then teammate Jochen Rindt both suffered crashes at the 1969 Spanish Grand Prix, and Hill was put out of action for almost a year at Watkins Glen when he broke both his legs in the US Grand Prix the same year.
Following his return to the cockpit in 1970, Graham Hill raced for Rob Walker in a Lotus 72 and scored some points without really ever regaining the same form he had enjoyed before his crash at Watkins Glen.
Hill moved to Brabham for the 1971 season and managed a win at Silverstone. This win on its own was unremarkable but it would later be defined as Hill’s F1 swansong, being the last of his Formula 1 career.
During the summer of 1972 he entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans with with Henri Pescarolo as part of a six-car strong Matra team. Over the course of the race and changing conditions the Matra’s had mixed fortunes, but on the Sunday morning through the rain, Hill and Pescarola emerged in the lead, building an eleven-lap gap to take the chequered flag.
This victory completed the Triple Crown of Motorsport for Hill and ensured his name listing in the motorsport history books as the only driver to win the Formula 1 WorldTitle/Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500, and Le Mans.
A year later with the arrival of Bernie Ecclestone he left Brabham to start his own team named Embassy with money provided by Imperial Tobacco. After failing to qualify the Embassy Lola at the 1975 Monaco Grand Prix Hill retired from racing in Formula 1 to focus on managing the team.
The team would prove to live on only for a few months as tragedy struck.
Graham Hill died on 29 November 1975 while flying his own twin-engine light aircraft. In thick fog and pitch darkness the plane crashed on its approach to Elstree Airfield. On board with him were five other members of the Embassy team who all died: manager Ray Brimble, mechanics Tony Alcock and Terry Richards, driver Tony Brise, and designer Andy Smallman. The group was returning from a testing session at the Paul Ricard Circuit in southern France. The cause of the crash was never conclusive but its thought that it was most likely due to pilot error.
Graham Hill defined the true sentiment behind the Triple Crown of Motorsport himself. In winning the Formula 1 World Championship twice, the Monaco Grand Prix five times, the Indianapolis 500, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans he remains the only driver in the history of the sport to achieve it.
Unlike the glory days of the 60’s when drivers raced in many formulae, the likelihood of any driver repeating the feat becomes increasing unlikely.
Fernando Alonso is the only one of the current crop who could do it but with his return to Formula 1 with Renault in 2021, its unlikely, for now at least. So, for the time being Graham Hill, “Mr Monaco”, stands on that pedestal on his own.