Phil Hill: 1927-2008

Written by Super User | Tuesday, 02 September 2008 16:18

The first of only two US F1 champions has died, aged 81 years old in Montery, California, last week. Hill suffered from Parkinson's disease and another degenerative neurological disorder, multiple systems atrophy. Hill won many trophies, most of which he achieved in Europe in European cars.

Which is probably why he wasn't loved by the public as much as other American racing heroes, not to mention the fact he never took part in the Indianapolis 500. Hill however was a driver with a lot of feeling, and thought a lot about the point of racing at these extraordinary limits, regurlarly deciding to stop racing, but coming back from the decision. As John Lamm, friend and editor of Road & Track Magazine, testified: “He never quite trusted why he did it, Lamm said. “He knew it was crazy, but he did it anyway. In those days of course motorsport was dangerous, Phill Hill however got away from 2 decades of racing with just a scratch, Lamm “The only injury he ever suffered was in the Pan-American race. He was getting out of the car and cut his hand.

Hill won the 24 hours of Le Mans 3 times (1958, 1961 and 1962) as well as the 12 hours of Sebring (1958, 1959, 1961). The start of this impressive palmares was less glamorous, Hill went to live with his aunt in earlier days as his parents were forever argueing and alcoholic. His aunt however granted him his first car. Together with a friend he learned how to corner fast on the country lanes. This wasn't Hill's first experience in the fast lane, as when he was a nine year-old in his life-long home-town Santa Monica he took his neighbour's new Oldsmobile for a spin.

This was the beginning of a life-long passion, after he dropped out of university Hill decided to take up work as a mechanic and ended up at a Jaguar dealership. Which in turn sent him to England for a maintenance study. When he got back though, his racing career really took off. Driving many privately-owned cars, including some of his own, he made a name for himself and in 1954 he had his first top result in a big race, when he finished second in a Ferrari in the Carrera Panamericana. Ferrari was impressed and in 1955 invited him to drive cars for the works team, with great success of course as he won Le Mans 4 years later.

Hill had always seen himself as a top mechanic and fairly good driver, but never thought of winning an international championship, let alone becoming a formula one champion. But he did! In 1961 Hill won just two races and clinched the championship in what was an extraordinary season. His main rival and Ferrari team-mate Wolfgang von Trips crashed died at the Italian GP which enabled Hill to take the championship by just 1 point. Hill didn't regret it in any way though, as Herald Tribune journalist Brad Spurgeon found out not long ago: "I was very upset about Von Trips. But I won the title, I deserved it and wanted it. And that's motor racing. I would NEVER have said he was the moral winner! What a load of nonsense!"

While Robert Daley recounted in the NY Times a conversation with Hill: "There are more dont's than dos in the business, he said. Trips violated a don't by trying to occupy a space already partially occupied by Clark's Lotus. It's horrible in a way. But in another way it's not so horrible. After all, everybody dies. Isn't it a fine thing that von Trips died doing something he loved, without any suffering, without any warning? I think Trips would rather be dead than not race, don't you?"

After his F1 crown Hill raced on a few more years, including in the Ford sportscar team, but finally hung up his helmet in 1967. Not quite though as he continued to appear at historic events over the years and wrote for Raod & Track Magazine. He even started up his own car restoration business which showed what a purist and passionate  he was.

Hill died being survived by his 37 year-old wife Alma Baran Hill, a daugther and his son.