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Race Driver Profiles the Late Phil Hill

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Few American racing drivers compete in the World Formula 1 championships most prefer to drive in the homegrown NASCAR type races. There are a few notable exceptions such as Dan Gurney and Phil Hill. The first American driver to win the world championship and the only American born in America was Phil Hill. The only other American to claim victory in the Formula 1 series, Mario Andretti, was born in Italy.

Philip Toll Hill Jr. was born on April 10 1927 in Miami, Florida and raised in Santa Monica, California. His interest in motor racing led him to drop out of his University degree in business administration at USC to become a racecar mechanic in 1947. In 1948, he entered his first race when he drove his own car, a MG TC, at the Carrell Speedway, San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles.

In 1949, Phil left America to go to Great Britain to study engineering with Jaguar/Rolls Royce. At the end of the course, he returned to America with a Jaguar XK120, which he raced to win his first road race victory at Pebble Beach, Monterey Peninsula.

To pay for his racing Phil worked as a mechanic in return for some drives. As his experience grew he competed in many long endurance races such as the Panamericana, the 12 hours at Sebring, 1000 kilometers of Buenos Aires and the 24 hours at Le Mans. His performance in these races bought him to the attention of Ferrari who, in 1955, offered him a drive at Le Mans in a Ferrari 118LM.

In 1956, Ferrari recruited Phil into the works team based in Italy. Still driving Sportscars, he raced for Ferrari in all the major endurance races worldwide over the next few years. In these races, he partnered with Ferrari’s top drivers Peter Collins, Luigi Musso and Olivier Gendebien. In 1958, partnered with Olivier Gendebien Hill became the first American to win the 24 hours at Le Mans. They repeated this win in 1961 and 1962. He also won the 12 hours at Sebring three times for Ferrari in 1958, 1959 and 1961.

Phil wanted to take part in F1 races but Ferrari was reluctant to place him in a race as they had three of the top drivers already racing for them. In 1958, these three, Mike Hawthorn, Peter Collins and Luigi Musso, were engaged in a fierce competition for the world championship with Stirling Moss in the Vanwall cars. He entered the 1958 French Grand Prix at Reims, in a Maserati, finishing seventh.

Then Phil got his chance to take the wheel of a Ferrari single seater F1 car but not in the way he would have wished. Luigi Musso died in a crash at the French Grand Prix. In the German Grand Prix at Nurburgring Phil drove the F2 Ferrari Dino into ninth position. The German race yielded another tragedy for the Ferrari team, when Peter Collins had his fatal crash.

With two of their top drivers killed in such a short time Ferrari ordered the support drivers of Phil Hill, Olivier Gendebien and Wolfgang Von Trips to support Mike Hawthorn’s pursuit of the world championship in the Italian and Morocco meetings that were at the end of the season. Phil Hill finished well in both these races coming third in both. He could easily have come in second in the final race at Casablanca but allowed Hawthorn to overtake him so as to secure the world championship just beating Stirling Moss on points to become Britain’s first world champion.

Hawthorn retired at the end of the season and the field was clear for the other drivers to make their attempt at the world championship. In 1959, Tony Brooks a new driver with Ferrari outclassed Phil to finish second in the world championship with Phil finishing in fourth place.

The Ferraris were less competitive in 1960 but, owing to the absence of the competitive British teams at the Italy, Phil succeeded in taking his first top of the podium race. He finished the season in fifth place in the championship.

The following year, with a change from 2.5-liter to 1.5-liter engines Ferrari outclassed their opposition. The two Ferrari drivers, Phil Hill and Wolfgang Von Trips, went head-to-head for the world championship. Phil won the Belgium Grand Prix and had four other podium finishes to reach 29 points just behind Von Trips on 33 points with two races to go. At the penultimate meeting of the season at Monza, Von Trips crashed on the second lap killing himself and fourteen spectators. This tragic accident left the field clear for Hill who won the race and the world championship at that meeting. Ferrari decided not to compete in the final meeting of the year. This meant that Phil was unable to drive in front of his fellow citizens at the final Grand Prix of the season held at Watkins Glen.

By the start of 1962, Ferrari was once again struggling against the British teams and Hill only managed three podium places and finished sixth in the championship with 11 points. He decided to leave Ferrari at the end of the season.

Unfortunately, the team he joined Automobili Turismo e Sport (ATS) was even less competitive than Ferrari and he finished the season without a single point. The next year, 1964, was no better he joined the Cooper Car Company and only managed to gain one point throughout the whole year and he finished nineteenth in the championship.

Phil left the world of F1 racing in 1965, although he did enter one race driving an Eagle T1G for Anglo American Racers in the 1966 Italian Grand Prix but he failed to qualify.

Between 1965 and 1967, Hill returned to driving Sportscars winning the 1000 kilometers at Nurburgring in a Chaparral 2D coupe co-driven with Jo Bonnier in 1965. His final race took place on July 10 1967 when he won the six hours at Brands Hatch before retiring from competitive motorsport.

Returning to America Hill opened a business restoring classic cars. He also commentated on motor racing for ABCs Wide World of Sports and wrote articles for Road & Track magazine. His interest in classic cars led him to drive at the Goodwood revival meeting in September 1998 at the age of 71. He maintained an interest in cars regularly judging classic cars at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. His last time as a judge was in 2007. Phil Hill died from complications of Parkinson’s disease on August 28 2008.

More about this author: Alison Bowler

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