There are many great drivers in the world but not all can make it to Formula 1. You need to have the right connections and then your talent will – hopefully – do the rest. Sons of famous racing fathers have an advantage in this respect, although they are always greeted with scepticism until they prove themselves. Others come from wealthy backgrounds and their money eases their way through the sport. But some drivers have neither connections nor money – and have to make things happen…
Philip Toll Hill Jr was not by nature a combative character. He was born in Miami, his father then being a Mack Truck salesman and his mother a farm girl with musical ambitions. In 1926, soon after his mother discovered she was pregnant, Miami was hit by what has become known as the Great Miami Hurricane. Several hundred people were killed and 43,000 people were made homeless. There was looting and martial law was declared. The Hills waited until the baby came and then packed up their belongings and drove across the country to Los Angeles, where they settled in the pleasant seaside resort of Santa Monica, not far from Hollywood, the film-making capital of the world. Hill was an entrepreneur and soon became a prominent local Democrat and by 1935 had been appointed the Postmaster of the city. His wife wrote hymns. Both drank a lot and Phil’s childhood was not a happy one, except that his Aunt Helen, his mother’s sister, doted on him and his brother and sister.
Helen Grasselli had previously been married to the owner of Cleveland’s Grasselli Chemical Company (later to become part of the DuPont empire), who had no children of her own – and no shortage of money. Phil was a sickly child, clumsy and not good at sport. The only thing he was good at was identifying cars, and this would lead to a passion for all things automotive. He was sent to school in the Hollywood Military Academy, in nearby Brentwood, where his friends included a young George Hearst Jr, one of the grandchildren of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. They shared an interest in cars and when Aunt Helen bought young Phil an old Model T Ford he and George, who owned a Model A Ford, would race the cars on the estate roads on the Hearst ranch in Santa Monica Canyon, which included a quarter mile dirt oval (for horses), which the boys used as a racetrack. He learned the mechanics of cars from Aunt Helen’s chauffeur Louis.
He was turned down by the US Army because of sinus troubles, but worked in the nearby Douglas Aircraft factory, assembling nose-guns for a while, before enrolling to study business at UCLA. It was not what he wanted and he dropped out and went to work for the recently-estabished International Motors on Wilshire Boulevard in Hollywood, where many film stars went to buy imported sports cars. In the evenings he worked with a midget racing team and indulged in a fair amount of street racing, which was prevalent at the time. He took part in his first rally in 1948 and then the midget driver with whom he worked broke his leg and so the team owner told Hill to race instead. This was not a great success, but Hill’s passion was undimmed.
He convinced the owner of International Motors to send him to Britain to learn about the cars he was selling and in the autumn of 1949 Phil sailed from Boston to Southampton to spend the winter months on secondment with Jaguar, Rolls Royce and MG. On Saturday May 13, 1950, he went to Silverstone to watch the British Grand Prix, the first ever round of the new FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Four days later he sailed from Southampton, bound for New York on the RMS Queen Mary, taking with him a Jaguar XK120 sports car, which he had bought. He drove the car 700 miles from New York to Indianapolis and watched the Indy 500 on May 30, becoming probably the only spectator to see both of the first two World Championship events. And then he motored the 2,000 miles from there home to California.
Later in the year, with a pit crew consisting of a gawky 20-year-old car enthusiast called Richie Ginther and George Hearst Jr, Phil won the Pebble Beach Cup, driving from the back of the field to victory. His victory put him on the racing map.
His parents both died early in 1951, which was a relief for Hill – and he spent his inheritance buying a Ferrari from Luigi Chinetti. This led to a Ferrari drive on the 1952 Carrera Panamerica. The constant deaths in racing in that era weighed heavily on Hill and he quit racing for a while and worked as a mechanic again before being drawn back into the sport when working on a Darryl Zanuck movie called The Racers in 1954, starring Kirk Douglas. He prepared the cars involved and did some of the stunt driving and started racing again when the film was finished. In 1955 he finished second in the Sebring 12 Hours, with Carroll Shelby, prompting Chinetti to offer him a Ferrari factory drive at Le Mans, alongside Umberto Maglioli. He joined Ferrari as a factory sports car driver in 1956 and began a successful career which included Le Mans victories for the company in 1958, 1961 and 1962.
In 1958, frustrated at not being given a chance in Formula 1, he decided to rent Jo Bonnier’s Maserati 250F for the French GP, where Ferrari driver Luigi Musso was killed. Hill finished seventh. A month later he joined Ferrari for the German GP, the race in which Peter Collins was killed. He then became a fulltime Ferrari F1 driver. He scored his first podiums with third that year at Monza and in Morocco. There were three more podiums in 1959 and in 1960 he was joined in the team by Ginther, his former mechanic. That year Phil won his first F1 victory at Monza. And in 1961 he won the title…