Races

We turn the spotlight upon a Ferrari driver who won Le Mans three times, and became America’s first-ever F1 world champion
Words – Gavin Green

Phil Hill was the first American to win the Formula 1 World Championship.

His success promoted F1 to a previously sceptical American public and to other US racing drivers.
A few other Americans had tried, post-war (the first US F1 driver was Harry Schell, who briefly drove for Ferrari in 1955). But none enjoyed the success of Hill nor the publicity that accompanied his high-profile wins: three Grand Prix victories including becoming the first American F1 GP winner, three 24 Hour of Le Mans wins, plus that famous and fateful 1961 world title.

Phil Hill (right) celebrates with teammate Peter Collins after the pair won the 1958 12 Hours of Sebring in a Ferrari 250 TR. Collins would be killed later that year at the German Grand Prix, held at the Nürburgring

Hill was renowned for his modesty and frequently commented that he felt uncomfortable with the life of a racing driver. He was not a competitive man, he insisted. Unlike some drivers, he feared dying, and would say so. His anxiety led to stomach ulcers early in his career. He fidgeted nervously before a race, chain smoking cigarettes and chewing gum.

He was regarded as a ‘safe’ driver, rarely making errors. Yet he was fearless and successful in the wet, despite his upbringing in the dry climate of southern California. He liked the rain, famously demonstrated by a masterful display to win his first Le Mans in 1958, in horrendous conditions at night, at the wheel of a Ferrari 250 TR (Testa Rossa).

This year sees the 60th anniversary of his second 24 Hours of Le Mans victory, driving the latest version of Ferrari’s famous 250 TR and leading home a 1-2-3 finish for the Prancing Horse. His third and final win at Le Mans came a year later, in 1962, again heading a podium lock-out for Ferrari. Other high-profile sports cars wins for Ferrari included three at the 12 Hours of Sebring, plus victories in the Nürburgring 1000 km, and at Daytona.

Hill and teammate Olivier Gendebien (right) at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1962. The pair would lead home a Ferrari 1-2-3 finish

Hill was born in Miami and raised in Santa Monica in California. He dropped out of university to work as a mechanic and started racing on local tracks. In 1949 he left for Europe and in 1955 was recruited by Ferrari as a sports car driver.

He stayed with Ferrari for most of his career, making the leap to Formula 1 in 1958. He replaced Luigi Musso, who died in the French GP after running into a ditch and somersaulting. Hill’s first F1 race for Ferrari, on the notoriously dangerous Nürburgring circuit, also saw tragedy. His new teammate Peter Collins was killed in an almost identical accident to Musso’s. In that single season, Ferrari lost two of its top drivers. It also won the world championship when Mike Hawthorn became the UK’s first World Champion.

Yet Hawthorn was so disturbed by his friend Collins’ death that he retired at the end of that season. That left Hill and the English ‘racing dentist’ Tony Brooks to spearhead Ferrari’s 1959 challenge. In 1960, Hill scored his first GP win, appropriately at Monza. For 1961, he led a strong Ferrari F1 challenge that included the German driver Wolfgang von Trips.

Pictured during testing at Monza ahead of the Italian Grand Prix in 1961, Hill (left) sits with fellow teammate Richie Ginther. The pair would qualify fourth and third respectively, with Ferrari locking out the front two rows

Going into the penultimate race of the season, the Italian GP, Hill narrowly trailed von Trips in the Driver’s Championship. On the second lap, the German’s Ferrari 156 tangled with Jim Clark’s Lotus and flew off the circuit. Von Trips was killed along with 15 spectators. Hill won the race and was crowned World Champion. There was no joy in his victory.

Hill never won another GP, leaving Ferrari at the end of 1962. After retiring from racing in 1967, he returned to Santa Monica. There, he built a successful classic car restoration business, married his long-term girlfriend, started a family and enjoyed the quiet domestic life that he’d long sought. He died in 2008 aged 81, a lucky man, he insisted, who had no regrets.