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Taffy Revels in the Rain--The 1961 British Grand Prix

The sky over northeast England matched Phil Hill's mood perfectly--dark and foreboding.

Two days earlier, Hill had departed Reims in a blue funk, knowing he'd blown a sure shot at winning the French Grand Prix. Hill was so unhappy with himself, he decided not to return with the Ferrari team to Modena, but instead drove directly to northeast England, to see where the next Grand Prix was being held. It was at a circuit totally new to him, called Aintree.

Located outside industrial Liverpool, Aintree was better known for horses than F-1 cars, being the home of the world famous Grand National Steeplechase. Newly laid out in 1954, the three-mile Grand Prix circuit roughly paralleled the grassy horse track. When Hill arrived, he discovered a relatively flat circuit, comprised of only eight corners. He'd hoped to learn the circuit by driving his Volkswagen beetle around the track, but was told that was not permitted. So he walked around the circuit on foot instead. While trekking down the back straight, he made note of an abrupt right-left esse bend, where the road racing circuit crossed over the horse track, and passed through two wooden gates, each framed by a pair of stout wooden posts. This was called Melling Crossing. Hill realized this tricky esse bend was probably the most demanding and dangerous section of the circuit.

Returning to his hotel, he was handed a telegram from Enzo Ferrari. The Ferrari chief wanted to know why Hill had not returned to the factory to test cars. Ferrari threatened not to send a car for Hill to race in the British Grand Prix.

"Ferrari pressured Peter Collins like this just before Peter was killed," lamented Hill. "Now it's happening to me."

On Thursday, when the Ferrari transporter arrived in the paddock, Hill was relieved to see his car was among the four being unloaded.

Hill wasted little time, and was among the first to circle the track during Thursday's first practice session. Right away, Hill got down to serious business, and recorded a lap time of 1 min 58.0 sec, for fastest time of the morning. Second fastest was his teammate, fellow American, Richie Ginther, followed by the bearded Swede, Jo Bonnier, in the factory-entered Porsche 787. Fourth fastest was Hill's rival and teammate, Wolfgang von Trips. Fifth fastest, and a favorite with the English crowd, was Stirling Moss, in a privately entered, year-old Lotus-Climax, owned by Scottish sportsman, Rob Walker, of the Johnny Walker Whiskey family

Something of a fussbudget, on Thursday afternoon, Hill asked the Ferrari mechanics to adjust the brake ratio more onto the front brakes, hoping it would give him a slight edge over his competitors in Friday's practice. It was a decision the American would soon regret.

It rained all day Friday, so drivers could not improve their lap times, thus "freezing"what would become the starting grid, with Hill on pole.

It rained on race day as well, only much harder. An hour before the start, Hill arrived at the circuit with his teammate, Wolfgang von Trips, whom everyone called "Taffy", due to his brown-blonde hair. Judging by their friendly banter, few would have guessed that the two were in fierce combat for the '61 drivers' world championship. At this, the mid-point of the season, each had won one race, and were about even in championship points. This was the reasons why Hill was so upset with having blown the French Grand Prix. It was a race he was leading and about to win, and thereby increase his points-lead over Trips, when he spun at Reims' notorious Thillois Hairpin. As awful as this was, he then stalled his engine, which cost him more precious time, and resulted in an eleventh-place finish, well out of the points.


Hill and Trips were both in their early thirties, about the same height and build, and both had suffered through unhappy childhoods, which had fostered in them a love of fast cars, and the life in motor racing they both now enjoyed. After that, the similarities ended. Trips was a happy, outgoing sort who laughed easily, and enjoyed life. Hill, on the other hand, was an introvert, moody, solitary, difficult to know, and a worrier. Both were gifted drivers who were usually among the front runners, but it was Hill who had won the most races, including having twice won the prestigious 24-Hours of Le Mans, while Trips had a reputation for crashing, so much so, that he had earned a second nickname--"Count von Crash".

As the starting time neared, Hill and Trips slipped on their helmets, adjusted their rain visors, and, to keep from getting thoroughly drenched in the heavy downpour, stepped lively out to their waiting racing machines.

The first two rows of the starting grid looked like this:

Hill Ginther Bonnier

Ferrari Ferrari Porsche

Trips Moss

Ferrari Lotus-Climas

At the drop of the flag, Hill jumped ahead of the field, to lead the first lap. Behind him, Trips moved ahead of Ginther, to take over second place. Behind them, Moss had passed Bonnier to move up to fourth, and, despite the blinding rain, was threatening to overtake Ginther.

For five laps, Hill led Trips in the torrential downpour, but on lap six, setting up for Melling Crossing, Hill lost control, and found himself skidding sideways, headed directly for one of the stout wooden gateposts.

"I could see the big post coming right at me," Hill recalled later, "but then, I just barely managed to get pointed in the proper direction again and, using all my power and what traction I still had, shot through the gate and on down the road. I remember thinking: 'They can have the damn championship!'--and I slowed down, figuring my life was worth more than the world title."

Despite the blinding rain, Trips had little difficulty passing Hill, to take over first place. Behind them, Stirling Moss, known to British fans as "The Rain Master"--for his coolness, and uncanny car control racing in the rain--overtook both Ginther and Hill, and began to challenge Trips for the lead. For several laps it appeared the heavy rainfall, coupled with several puddles that had formed at various parts of the circuit, would either cause the German to crash, or to falter under pressure, and, either way, Moss would take over the race, and win before the home crowd. And most impressively, beat the faster Ferraris yet again, as he had at Monaco. However, at Reims, Moss too, had spun, but his spin was due to faulty brakes, a problem his mechanics thought they had rectified by race time, but apparently hadn't, because on lap 20, Moss too lost control while braking for Melling Crossing. He spun completely around, recovered, and a few laps later pitted, complaining about his still-faulty brakes.

Still shaken from his near miss earlier at Melling Cross, Hill slowed even more, and was passed by Ginther, to fall back to third place, where he might have finished, had not the Ferrari pit signaled Ginther to slow down and allow Hill to repass him, thus allowing Hill to finish second to Trips, and thereby add to his store of championship points.

The irony of the race, was that Trips, a.k.a. "Count von Crash", drove flawlessly in the rain, kept his head, did not falter under pressure from Moss, and won the race in convincing fashion, while Hill, the more careful of the two, was the one to have erred in judgement, spun, and lost the race. Much to Hill's chagrin, those in the British press, now referred to Trips as "The New Rain Master."

Indeed, on this day (July 15, 1961), on this circuit, in a blinding rainstorm, "Taffy" Wolfgang von Trips showed the world that he was best racing driver in the business.

After the race, as he was wont to do, Hill blamed himself. "It was my fault. I'd requested the change to the braking ratio during practice when the course had been dry, putting more on the front, and on the wet road it was bad, since you don't get so much weight transfer forward. When I hit the brakes the front wheels skated out from under me. That was a frightening moment, and it affected my entire performance during the remainder of the race."

Had Stirling Moss won the British Grand Prix, coupled with his win the following month in the German Grand Prix, he would have had won three races, and put himself in strong contention to win the drivers' world championship. As it turned out, Trips won the race, thus making him--the one whom everyone referred to as "Count von Crash"--not just "The New Rain Master", but, suddenly (and ironically) as the clear favorite to win the 1961 driver's world championship.

- END -

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