The inclusion of Graham Hill on my list of the ten greatest drivers is probably the most controversial. It is easy to underestimate someone who has come from so humble a beginning. Hill came late to motor racing, in fact he had not even driven a car until he was 24. His early years marked by a profound lack of money and one of the first passenger cars that Hill owned was a 1929 Austin. The car was a wreck which is just about what you would expect for 70 dollars. Soon loosing its brakes Hill would have to scrub the car’s tires against the curb in order to stop. He would later remark that all budding race car drivers should own such a car.
“The chief qualities of a racing driver are concentration, determination and anticipation”, he said “A 1929 Austin without brakes develops all three – anticipation rather more than the first two, perhaps.”
Hill was born in Hampstead, London the son of a stock broaker and after leaving school he attended Hendon Technical College and joined Smiths Instruments as an apprentice engineer. He then joined the Royal Navy in which he served as an engine room artificer on the light cruiser HMS Swiftsure and attained the rank of petty officer. After leaving the Navy he re-joined Smiths Instruments.
“It’s difficult to say why he was so special, but he had such a charisma, you know, with his cap, his moustache and his sense of humour. He would sit in the sun, enjoying a beer and when the fans came he would listen to them all and have a joke with everybody. Even the French were charmed by him, and you know sometimes we are not so good with humour.” Rosie Bernard, proprietor of the legendary Rosie’s Bar, Monaco
During this time he had taken up rowing and met his future wife Bette. One day he saw an advertisement in a magazine for a new racing school which said that anyone interested could drive a racing car at Brands Hatch for five shillings a lap. Hill went down and raced four laps and as he would later remark “everything changed.” The school was called the Universal Motor Racing Club where he suggested to the owner that he was willing to exchange his labor as a mechanic in exchange for letting him drive one of the race cars. Unfortunately he was taken advantage of and the owner soon left without Hill ever getting close to driving a race car. Hill would not give up on his dream and soon entered into a similar arrangement with another person he had only just met. This time he actually did race one of the cars and soon this new school, taking advantage of Hill’s limited success, had its first group of students. Hill being the veteran of a handful of races and besides the owner the only other employee, would be their instructor!
Hill was now ready for bigger and better opportunities and at one race he hitched a ride back to London with one of the other entrants, a man by the name of Colin Chapman. He started at Lotus working for Colin Chapman as a mechanic and was paid one pound a day. Unable to convince Chapman for a chance to race one of his cars he actually quit Lotus temporarily before finally convincing Chapman. After much cajoling he was elevated to full-time driving and in 1958 he made his debut in Formula 1. That could only happen today if he had a couple extra million in his back pocket! After limited success and too many mechanical failures for his tastes, Hill left for BRM in 1960. In 1962 He won his first race at Zandvoort and went on to claim the World Championship. The next two years he continued to battle for the title but his remaining years at BRM was marked by mechanical failure. In 1967 he returned to Lotus and formed a “super team” with double World Champion Jimmy Clark. After Clark’s tragic death at Hockenheim, Graham Hill scored victories in the next two Grand Prix races and was crowned World Champion. The next year was not a good year for Hill and was marked by his last win at Monaco.
This was his fifth win on this difficult circuit; a record that was not surpassed until Ayrton Senna captured his sixth victory in 1993. At Watkins Glen he was injured in a terrible accident that saw him confined to a wheelchair. After he recovered from his injuries he continued racing but without any further success, eventually starting his own team. In 1975 Graham Hill was killed when the plane he was piloting went down after getting lost in the fog. The world would never again see the famous helmet with the rowing stripes. But in 1993 his son Damon Hill resurrected that famous icon in Formula 1.