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Graham Hill

The last of the racing drivers to embody the spirit of the Fighter Pilots of WW2. No Sponsorship. No wind tunnels. No Armco Barriers. No special Tyres. No computers. Just big cojones and a burning desire to win.
Mr. Monaco Graham Hill Biography
Biography of Graham Hill written by Tonio.

I’m still at it! Still trotting out the forbidden ‘When I was a gel.....’. I always promised myself I wouldn’t. There’s nothing more infuriating than a smug, ‘In my day.’ But I’m at it. Music; it was better when I was a teenager, had something to say. Clothes: much more glamourous! Men: more manly. And on and on it goes. Take cars for instance. ‘In my day’ they were put together better, were more individual. Can’t tell one from the other now. And racing drivers? ‘In my day’ they were still all individuals You could actually get to them. Now it’s all hermetically sealed. The nearest you get to them is a vapid, unfocussed wave as they saunter from the luxury of their motor home to their security guarded pit. None of them seem to have any personality. The huge sums of money they earn at the top level has cocooned them in a wrapping of PR men and women, personal trainers, medical staff, psychologists, gurus and goffers. It weren’t loike that in the days before the dreaded sponsor with his financial agenda arrived on the scene. ‘Black’ Jack Brabham would glower at you from a comfortable seat on a pile of tyres. If you got in the way of Denny ‘The Bear’ Hulme on one of his better days you might get a snarl. Showing the right amount of enthusiasm and wearing a mini-skirt could get you a close, but brief, relationship with Mike ‘The Bike’ Hailwood. Piers ‘Porridge’ Courage flitted about the scene in a flutter of pre-race tension but was never known to be short with a punter or refuse an autograph. Peter ‘The Rabbit’ Gethin was a man with a mission and he never appeared in public without at least one glamourous pit-pony on a rein. Jackie Stewart wasn’t the easiest man on the grid to get pally with unless you were waving a cheque book - but he was there. John ‘Sooty’ Surtees was so wrapped up in his car that you could have stood naked beside him for hours while he fumbled with the entrails and he wouldn’t notice you. Carlos ‘Lole’ Reutemann was another who was totally absorbed in the business. I was having a break with him and his wife Mimicha in Cannes, the week before driving down to Monza for the Italian Grand Prix. Lole had been sitting on the beach staring moodily out to sea. Suddenly he got up, strode into the sea and swam towards the breakwater. Mimicha and I looked at each other in surprise. The breakwater was a favourite site for nude bathers. Was Lole being distracted? We followed him to see. We found him sitting in the midst of all the naked , bronze mammary glands, staring out to sea. Considering his gear ratios, no doubt. And then there was James ‘The Shunt’ Hunt. A man in the blond Viking mould who could out drink, out smoke, out womanise the rest and still win a world championship.

Graham Hill at Indianapolis
Graham shows what he thinks of the stewards who were trying to rob him of his win at Indianapolis.

But probably the most heroic, the man who worked hardest at being the life and turbo booster of any situation, was Graham ‘Dastardly’ Hill. When Graham came into motor racing the sport was the preserve of well-heeled young gents who could afford to foot the bills to put their car together after the inevitable crash at Goodwood. Graham’s background was less exotic. He was an apprentice at Smith’s Alarm Clocks before being conscripted into the Navy shortly after the war. Demobbed he went back to Smith’s but he hated the predictability of the day to day drudgery. His Road to Damascus moment came at Brands Hatch in Kent. He had gone there to watch the cars with a mate. It was a good place to pull ‘crumpet’, he had been told. What he hadn’t been told was the goodies were only interested in the drivers. It wouldn’t have made a lot of difference. Graham sat at the side of the track enthralled. After the race his friend left without him. Graham wandered around looking at the cars being loaded onto trailers and generally enjoying the atmosphere of post race euphoria. He saw a couple of blokes struggling to load a car onto a trailer and offered a hand. There should at least have been a crash of thunder and a lightning strike. This was a seminal meeting and one that would change the face of motor racing in the years to come. The proud owner of the racing car offered Graham a drive back across London. Graham whiled the journey away with an embroidered narrative of his accomplishments to date. Somehow he conveyed the impression that he was a wizard at tuning engines and generally designing and building cars. By the time the two parted Graham had been offered a job as a mechanic and occasional driver. A small problem was that Hill hadn’t bothered to acquire a licence at this time and had never driven a car in anger. It was the start of a friendship, fractious at times, between Colin ‘Chunkie’ Chapman and Graham Hill. Chapman would go on to become the greatest innovative race car designer in the business and Hill twice World Champion, winner of Le Mans 24 Hours, Indianapolis 500, five times champion at Monaco and sire of world champion Damon.

It is often said, by those who want to make a point, that Graham was not a ‘natural’ driver. That he had to work hard to win. On the other hand they say that Michael Schumacher is ‘probably the greatest natural talent’ Which seems to presuppose that the German doesn’t have to work at it. In reality if Hill had been required to put in the test hours that Schumacher does it would have brought on a terminal migraine. He was the last of the playboy drivers who had a phenomenal lust for life and challenged their mortality each weekend in a foreign clime. His first World Championship in 1962 was won in a BRM after an acrimonious spate with Chapman at Lotus. Hill was employed as a mechanic with a chance to race whenever. The ‘whenevers’ were not coming frequently enough to feed Grahams ambition to become a racer. He gave Chapman an ultimatum. More rides or else.... Chapman typically took him up on the ‘or else’ and that was how Hill was driving a BRM when he hit the big time. He patched up the quarrel with Chunkie and, after Clark was killed, rallied the team to secure his second championship in a Lotus in 1968. Although Graham loved the glory of battling wheel to wheel at speeds sometimes reaching more than 200 mph he also loved to let off steam in the way that his generation of hot-shots had made their own. I remember a weekend in Albi. After practice we all went back for dinner at the Hostellerie de St. Antoine. Graham had a speciality act. Not a pretty sight but amusing. He would order a creme caramel and then slurp it directly off the plate - messily. I’d seen it before. I had a quiet word with the chef. When Graham called for the pudding the waiter brought in a mound of custard that had been fashioned in a pudding basin. He didn’t blink. I think he had the last laugh. After a lot of groaning, slushing and gasping he made a show of licking the plate clean. He didn’t even make an attempt to clean off the mess decorating his shirt front. Later we decided to go for a walk. Bette didn’t fancy it so it was just Graham, my husband Tonio the Team Manager, Robin Widdows another driver, actor Keith Smith and me. Somehow we found ourselves in the upstairs room of an auberge. Ex-OAS soldiers from Algeria were having a reunion. Lots of maudlin songs and toasts. Carelessly left around the room were the uniform Kepis that the drunken men had tossed aside. In a dip in the nostalgia Robin picked up one of the hats, put it on and strolled majestically to the centre of the room. When he was sure he had everyone’s attention he said in an excruciating French accent, “Apres moi le deluge”. There was what I think is usually referred to as a pregnant pause. The rest of us shuffled stealthily towards the exit. Robin just stood where he was, in a particularly Gallic pose, and milked the moment for all it was worth. We were all relieved when the hard looking Frenchmen suddenly burst into laughter and started throwing beer over him. It all turned out happily. There was an anxious moment when we were walking back to the hotel. Robin pulled a kepi from under his coat and put it on! Luckily the celebrators were too sloshed by this time to miss it or do anything about it if they had.

Graham Hill in BRM
Graham's first race winning car, the BRM, after his falling out with Lotus boss, Colin Chapman.

Next day Graham was at the circuit early. I was feeling the worse for wear but he abused my pickled brain by firing up his engine and putting in some laps of the circuit. He had a hard race and finished up on the podium. And then he wanted to play golf. I left the lads to it and went and had a good lie down. An unassociated moment from that hectic weekend which stays in my memory is that it was the last weekend that a criminal was guillotined in France - I think.

Hill always courted controversy. In the 1966 Indianapolis 500, rookie Hill, in his little English racing car, wasn’t given a chance. The race was marred shortly after the start by an horrendous crash. Hill battled on but in the confusion the timekeepers had problems sorting out the cars’ places on the track. When the chequered flag dropped Hill was announced the winner. But Chunkie Chapman, who had entered Jimmy Clark for the race but not Hill, rushed to the organisers and claimed they had got it wrong. A messenger was sent to the podium to warn Hill that there had been an objection. Hill held an empty milk glass above his head and famously said. “Forget it. I’ve drunk the milk”. The Milk had been provided by one of the sponsors and it was traditional that the winner quaffed a quart of milk on the podium. Graham’s win had the American designers looking at their cars with renewed interest. The following year the cars which appeared on the grid were clones of the funny English car. Strangely Graham didn’t claim the winning of the race his greatest triumph at Indianapolis. Not being a public school boy he was not happy with the booths in the toilets not having doors. Before the race he managed to get doors put on the loos to preserve his modesty. That was really something.

Graham Hill in Gold Leaf Lotus
Graham took his second World Championship in the Gold Leaf Lotus.

Another Hill moment occurred at the Grand Prix in the Osterreichring, Knittelfeld, Austria. The night before the race everyone was invited to a ‘Reception” in the hills behind the circuit at an out-of-season ski resort. Everything was going well until Graham started chatting up one to the be-dirndled frauleins who were accompanying the leather knickerbocker clad locals doing a log dance. Don’t ask. The fraulein that Graham had zeroed in on happened to be the frau of the biggest and ugliest knee slapper in the forest and he took exception to Hill doing his Dastardly Donald impersonation and went for him. It was getting decidedly lethal so there was a general exodus. It was a long walk down the mountain to Knittlefeld. Somehow Graham managed to placate the lederhosen-ed swain and spend the rest of the evening with the beer swilling mob.

Graham wasn’t always the happiest person to be with. In a black mood he could be positively vile. His great asset was fealty. Many drivers were always on the lookout for a conquest in a networking opportunity. If they found someone who they considered of more worth to the advancement of their career they would drop who they were with and make overtures to their new friend. Not so Graham. If you went somewhere with him he made sure you went home with him - or he made sure you weren’t sidelined. A particular incident happened in Kyalami the night before the 1972 South African Grand Prix. Hill was invited to a dinner at the prestigious Afrikaner Wanderers Club. He took Bernie Ecclestone and Tonio along. Bernie wasn’t the big cheese he is now so the red carpet was only wide enough for Graham. Bernie and Tonio stood around like spare Prima Donnas at a Rock and Roll convention. Finally they were conducted to a table for two which was, literally, behind the kitchen door. Graham was being feted on a raised top table in the middle of the room. He remembered he hadn’t been alone when he arrived. When he found out where the other two had been seated he called for another chair and joined them. There were a lot of ultra-red Afrikaner faces around the empty chair on the top table.

Graham Hill Lifting Trophy in Monaco
Graham lifts another cup in his field of excellence - Monaco

The dark times began for Graham at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix circuit in upper New York State in 1969. After an embarrassing unscheduled stop at the side of the track which required him to undo his safety harness, get out of the car and push it back on the tarmac, he found it impossible in the confined cockpit to secure his seat belt. Seat belts hadn’t long been an official requirement at this time and a lot of the drivers still saw them as an unnecessary encumbrance. Hill didn’t want to waste time calling into the pits so decided to play it by the seat of his pants. Unfortunately he had picked up a puncture and as he powered into a corner at close to 150mph the rubber surrendered to the pressure. The Lotus cartwheeled and Graham was ejected from the cockpit. His knees were only designed to bend backwards but the configuration of the car demanded a forward bend. His legs were shattered. For a while he lay in Elmira Hospital before being transported back to London. The press were out in force. Incautiously Graham declared from the stretcher taking him from plane to ambulance that he would be fit for first Grand Prix of the coming season, in South Africa. Whether he believed it or not I don’t know but he had made a commitment and he was going to do his best to honour it. His surgeon tried to prepare him for the possibility that he would never walk again. And the chance that he would ever be able to control the power of a formula one car with the precision needed to hurtle around the circuit with any degree of certainty was, to say the least, a very long odd against. But not to Graham. In his darkest hour he had a visitor who banished any doubts he might have had hovering in the dark recesses of his mind. Group Caption Duggie Bader, World War 2 fighter ace came acalling. He lost both legs before the war in a flying accident but had never let that interfere with what he wanted to do. When Graham told him how hard it was to get back on his feet, Duggie scathingly told him to stop feeling sorry for himself. He had never had the opportunity to get back on his feet,

1974 John Player Motorsport Yearbook
1974 John Player Motorsport Yearbook

Hill was as good as his word to the press. But it wasn’t easy. Not only did he have to overcome his physical handicap but Chapman had terminated his contract with Lotus. He didn’t want to see his old friend humiliate himself or get killed in one of his cars. Chapman’s protegee Jim Clarks had died at the wheel of a Lotus the year before at Hockenheim and Mike Spence had been killed practising for the Indianapolis 500. The crowd were murmuring rhubard and Chapman didn’t want to get accused again of building his cars without regard for driver safety. Graham hauled his crippled legs around the other manufacturers without getting a nibble. Then veteran Le Mans driver and ex- Stirling Moss entrant, Rob Walker, offered him a ride in a year old, non-works, Lotus. What Graham didn’t know was that Chapman hated to see him hawking his talent around without success and had come to an agreement with Walker that the factory would look after the car, through the flowerpot, if he ran the team. Graham jumped at the chance to fulfil his boast to be on the grid for the first race of the new season. In spite of appalling pain he not only competed in the Grand Prix at Kyalami but finished in an incredible sixth place. The rest of the year was a bit of an anticlimax.

Graham knew that he couldn’t rely on philanthropic old pals providing him with racing hardware so decided to go it alone. He approached tobacco manufacturers, WD & HO. Wills in 1973 and sold them on the idea of fielding a race team in their Embassy livery. Graham had long been mooted as an Ambassador of motor racing. Now was the time to acquire an Embassy. Graham worked hard at making it work. He couldn’t believe that he would never recapture the heady days when he was world champion. He was still as popular as ever. He had made a singularly wooden appearance in the 1966 blockbuster GRAND PRIX but had learned a thing or two along the way and when he was offered a small part in CARAVAN TO VACCARES (1974) he thought he might have a future in entertainment. He was now practically a fixture on TV shows and had become a bit of a premiere junkie. Everyone wanted a piece of him. But he wasn’t happy. In spite of his outside interests there was really only one place he wanted to be. In a racing car at the head of the field. Sadly it never happened for him and at Silverstone in 1975 he withdrew from the race and announced his retirement. It would give him the chance to really get down to producing a race-winning car with another driver. On November 29th 1975, returning from testing in Paul Ricard in the plane that had been part of his winnings at Indianapolis, he crashed into Arkley Golf Course just short of the landing strip at Elstree. Graham and his whole team were wiped out in an instant.

Somehow it seemed a fitting end. It was often said that if Graham had been a few years older he would have been a fighter pilot in the war. At least he went out with a bang and scribed a bold line under THE END.

MM June 2003

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