Triumph of the Antihero -- The 1961 Italian Grand Prix

It seems like a bad dream to Phil Hill, coming to Monza as the underdog to win the the 1961 drivers' world championship. What had promised to be Hill's dream season, had turned into Hill's nightmare season. And yet, it's perfect. High strung and temperamental, Hill is never cooler, never quicker than when the odds are stacked against him. And, as practice begins for the 1961 Italian Grand Prix, the odds definitely are stacked against him.

How could it have gone so wrong? When the season began, it was clear 1961 was going to be Hill's year. He had out-lived, or outlasted, a dozen Ferrari teammates, and, in Ferrari sports cars, had won everything there was to win; he was the ranking--and fastest--Ferrari driver, and in the new Tipo 156 "Sharknose" Ferrari, he had a Formula One machine capable of winning the world championship.

Still, signs of trouble were evident. The mercurial team owner, Enzo Ferrari, had failed to name Hill as the team's number-one driver, saying, "I prefer to see my drivers fight it out for the championship."

The formula had changed in 1961, reducing engine size from 2.5-liters, to 1.5-liters, but in three key preliminary non-points F-1 races, Ferrari had entered no car for the American to drive, thus depriving Hill of valuable racing experience under the new rules. Among his teammates, American Richie Ginther, had been assigned most of the test driving of the new car over the winter months.

Hill's other teammate, Wolfgang von Trips, had raced the new Ferrari (in Formula 2 trim) in three races the previous summer, winning two of them. In May, the Grand Prix season began, and Hill arrived in Monaco having yet to race an F-1 under the new rules.

As usual, Hill took it in stride, having been with Scuderia Ferrari for several years, where the unexpected was routine, where Enzo Ferrari was known to throw an occasional curve at his drivers, to keep them from becoming complacent, or so he said. Hill had learned to cope well in the Ferrari pressure-cooker, and on occasion had surprised Il Commendatore with brilliant performances, such as at Le Mans in 1958, where in impossibly heavy rain he drove spectacularly to victory; and, also in 1958, in his first two Grand Prix races, he was quicker than his more experienced teammate, Mike Hawthorne, who would go on to win that year's drivers' world championship.

Phil Hill was an introvert, who, as a youth found solace in automobiles. His wealthy parents sent him to the University of Southern California, hoping he would find his calling in academia. He did not. Within a year, he dropped out of college, and pursued a career repairing cars in a Hollywood foreign car dealership. He might have kept working on cars indefinitely, had he not become involved with racing sports cars on weekends. To his surprise, he discovered something he could do better than anyone else: drive fast and win races.

It wasn't long and a number of wealthy sportsman in Southern California, were asking him to race their exotic foreign sports cars. Winning up and down the state of California, soon attracted the attention of an East Coast Ferrari importer, named Luigi Chinetti. After watching Hill win an important race at Pebble Beach, Chinetti arranged for Hill to compete in the Le Mans Twenty-Four Hour Race of Endurance, driving a factory Ferrari.

The year was 1955. Teamed with Umberto Maglioli, Hill was running as high as third when he was forced to pit with mechanical woes. The race was marred by the brutal crash of Pierre Levegh's Mercedes Benz into a crowd of spectators, that took his life and that of 82 racing fans. After that, many of the races in Europe were cancelled, and Hill returned home to America. However, having been introduced to European motor racing, where star drivers were treated with the respect and adulation of American baseball players, Hill was determined to return and continue his racing career overseas, hopefully with Ferrari.

In early 1956, he met with Enzo Ferrari at the Ferrari factory in Modena, where he was offered a contract for the coming season. For Hill, it was a dream come true. He signed, and took a room at the Alberge Reale Hotel (Ferrari's defacto dormitory for team drivers). While Ferrari offered him a contract, Hill was too cautious, too cerebral, to be Ferrari's kind of driver. Ferrari preferred the daring, heroic types who risked their lives for the sake of Ferrari's glory. Sure, Hill enjoyed racing fast cars and winning races, but he had other interests as well: attending the opera, listening to classical music on his concertone, visiting art museums, and admiring Italian architecture. Hill was an enigma to Ferrari, a loner who happened to win races, while at the same time, not seeking or even wanting adulation. According to New York Times journalist, Robert Daley, who knew him well, Hill once faced an excited group of German boys clamoring for his autograph, outside a restaurant near the Nurburgring (a Grand Prix circuit in West Germany).

"I'm nobody," said Hill, defensively.

"You're Phil Hill," the boys shouted back.

"No, I'm not," replied Hill, as he stepped into his car and drove off into the night.

Ferrari loved to light a fire under drivers, to make them take risks they otherwise would avoid. Hill was averse to taking unnecessary risks, and shunned at being a hero. If anything Hill was an antihero, determined to maintain his integrity, in a world that did not honor integrity, only results.

THE 1961 GRAND PRIX SEASON

By 1961, Hill had lasted longer than any previous driver at Ferrari, precisely because he could not be manipulated, and because he did not need the limelight. Such longevity and loyalty should have been rewarded, but it was not. Ferrari had the car to beat in 1961, but instead of naming Hill as the team leader, Enzo Ferrari decided to let his drivers fight it out on the circuit, thus inducing an atmosphere of distrust and unrelenting tension, that made the season difficult and nearly unbearable for Hill and his teammates.

His biggest rival was his teammate, Wolfgang von Trips, a well-bred German Count, who was nearly as fast as Hill, but not nearly as safe. Unlike Hill, Trips crashed a lot. Indeed, earlier in his career, he was nicknamed "Count Von Crash". As a result, Hill feared racing against him. With more experience in the new 156 Ferrari "Sharknose" (so named for its blunt nose and twin air intakes), Trips held a slight edge over Hill, and in the space of the first four races won two Grands Prix to Hill's one. Coming to the final European race, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Trips led Hill in points, 33 to 29. With the scheduled final race in doubt--the U.S Grand Prix--Hill and von Trips were both keenly aware that the championship would likely be decided in Italy.

Like all the old great, storied Grand Prix circuits, the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza, dated from the 1920s. Coursing through the woods of a one-time royal park north of Milan, Monza was an artificial circuit, created solely for the purpose of motor racing. Once paved in cobblestones, the original track had become somewhat obscured over the years, and a section of it was now buried beneath a massive, cement, banked oval that was built in 1955. Drivers loathed the banked oval because it had nothing to do with road racing--finding it to be a mere test of maximum speed and nothing more.


Il Commendatore, Enzo Ferrari, who hadn't attended the races in many years, arrived at Monza to watch Friday's and Saturday's practice sessions. As with all the fast GP circuits in 1961, the Italian Grand Prix promised to be another Ferrari benefit. Not one to miss an opportunity to really rub it in to his British competition, Ferrari entered five cars, rather than the usual three: one each of the newer, lighter, faster 156 Ferraris, for Hill, Trips, and Ginther, plus two of the older, heavier models: for Italian Giancarlo Baghetti, and--starting his first F1 race--Mexican Ricardo Rodriguez.

Ricardo Rodriguez was a mere 19-year-old, but well-seasoned in sports cars, and absolutely fearless. He took to Monza's fast curves and high bankings immediately, and despite driving the older, less-powerful 65-degree V-6 Ferrari, was fastest in Friday's morning session. In the afternoon session, driving the newer, more powerful 120-degree V-6 Ferrari, Trips bettered his time--barely--by 0.1 of a second.

Hill, meanwhile, struggled to find speed. All day Friday and most of Saturday, he was fully two seconds off the pace of Trips and Rodriguez. He complained that his engine was losing power, and demanded that they change it, but no one in the Ferrari pit believed him. The American had a reputation for always complaining about something, and, even in the best of circumstance, was seldom happy. Enzo Ferrari added his opinion, by chiding Hill for letting the rookie Ricardo Rodriguez beat his time. Late in Saturday afternoon, feeling the pressure, Hill recorded 2:47.2, for fourth fastest. "That's it," he said, climbing from his car. "That's the best I can do." For the first time, since Monaco, Hill would not be starting from pole. Unable to hide his anger, the American again demanded they change his engine. Shrugging at this display of "temperment", Il Commendatore relented, and ordered his crew to replace Hill's engine. Examining the engine closely the following morning, the mechanics discovered two broken valve springs.

The morning of the race, Hill arrived at the circuit tense, irritable, a bundle of nerves, deeply worried the engine swap had not gone well. To be sure, he drove his race car out of the pits, through the gate, and onto the public roads outside the circuit (due to many preliminary races, the circuit was unavailable to him). After about thirty minutes of driving back and forth on the road, Hill returned to the pits, and examined every oil line fitting, and water connection for leaks, as well as every nut, bolt and fastener for tightness. The remainder of the time Hill avoided speaking to anyone, and paced the paddock like some caged animal.

Trips, meanwhile, was Trips, a very likable man, approachable and relaxed. Handsome, urbane, fluent in three languages, besides his own, many thought he would make a popular world champion. A number of reporters questioned him. Yes, he is a real Count, heir to his family's Rhineland estate near Cologne, and yes, he possesses a university degree, in agriculture. Does he have a wife? "I am married to one of these," he says, gesturing toward his waiting Ferrari. Yes, he has been nicknamed "Count von Crash" due to the many crashes earlier in his career. In fact, two of them occurred here at Monza: the first in 1956, when he was trying out for Ferrari, and the second in 1958, on the first lap of the Italian Grand Prix. Is he a better driver now? "No, only luckier," he replies. "The line between winning and crashing is so thin, so thin." Abruptly, he adds, "It could happen tomorrow. That's the thing about this business. You never know."

This was something Hill would never admit. All too well, he knew of motor racing's dangers, having seen many deaths over the years, many whom were his friends, and teammates. Hill took every reasonable precaution to be certain it didn't happen to him. He once admitted, "How I would love to get out of this business unbent."

At three o'clock, with the preliminary races over, the Formula Ones were pushed out of the pits and lined up on the starting grid.


The first four rows look like this:

Trips Rodriguez

Ferrari Ferrari

2:46.3 2:46.4

Ginther P. Hill

Ferrari Ferrari

2:46.8 2:47.2

G.Hill Baghetti

BRM-Climax Ferrari

2:48.7 2:49.0

Jim Clark Jo Bonnier

Lotus-Climax Porsche

2:49.2 2:49.6

Amidst the tense, excited atmosphere before the start, Hill becomes unusually cool. Events had cast him in the role of underdog, a role he surely never wanted, but it's a role that brings out the best in him. Unlike Trips, he has a history of success at Monza, breaking the lap record each of the previous three years, while finishing third in 1958, second in 1959, and first in 1960.

Calmly, Hill inserts a pair of rubber plugs into his ears, dones his trademark white helmet, adjustes it for maximum comfort, slipes on a pair of soft leather gloves, and steps into his Italian machine. He's ready.

Moments before the green flag is waved, a photographer captures an image of Trips waving back at him, while all around him, drivers stare straight ahead. At the flag, Trips' Ferrari hesitate and gets away slowly, while Hill bolts straight into the lead.

Upshifting, feeling his engine thrusting him forward, Hill checks his mirrors and sees Ginther's Ferrari glued to his tail, followed by Rodriguez, Clark, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, and Trips. Ahead, the Curve Grande, sweeps broadly to the right, beckoning him on. Hill taps his brakes gently, and rounds it in fifth gear, while easing back on the throttle. Exiting onto a straight, the forest canopy closes in around him. Sunlight flashes down through the treetops, and dances like strobelights on the Ferrari's bright red finish. In his mirror the field strings out far behind him.

In a clearing ahead, Curva di Lesmo appears, a tongue of asphalt bearing hard right. Hill eases on the brakes, bring his speed down quickly and smoothly, downshifts directly to third, and turns in, feeding in throttle as he goes. Coming out, he upshifts to fourth, increases throttle, and rounds the second Lesmo Curve, smooth and fast. Exiting, he accelerates onto a straight, picking up speed quickly. He glances in his mirror, surprised to see not Ginther's red Ferrari on his tail, but Clark's green Lotus, using the faster Ferrari's slipstream quite effectively. Having battled Clark at a race earlier in the season, Hill knows Clark can be tough to shake. But he will try.

Hill upshifts into fifth gear, takes the dip beneath the North Curve banking at 140 mph, rolls through the Vialone left-hander flat-out, speeds past the backside of the paddock, and sets up for the Parabolica, a slow, looping right-hander, that will take him back around to the front straight and on past the pits.

What's this? Under braking, Clark dips inside and passes him into the curve--and leads at the exit. With 40 more horsepower, Hill retakes him on the North Curve banking. From here, on around the South Curve, and over the start-finish line, Hill's Ferrari leads Clark's Lotus easily, while in his mirror, first Ginther, then Rodriguez, passes Clark. After that, Clark's Lotus disappears into a long line of cars. Somewhere back there, Trips is on the move, driving hard to make up lost ground. Hill doesn't give Trips much thought; he's through worrying.

The American leads strongly at the end of lap two. Midway around lap three, approaching the Parabolica right-hander, Hill is confronted with several track marshalls frantically waving the yellow flag. There's been an accident. Further on, he sees a badly crumpled Ferrari and a damaged Lotus, at the edge of the tracke. He recognizes both cars, and knows who the drivers are: Trips and Clark. He's seen several bad accidents this year, and in each case the drivers miraculously walked away.

Hill assumes the same is true today, and motors on without letup--rounding the road circuit every minute and forty seconds, and the banked oval every sixty-five seconds. Ginther, Rodriguez, and Baghetti--all driving Ferraris--are the only cars in the race able to keep pace with him. With Trips no longer in the hunt, and Hill today's winner, the American will have a considerable point lead going into the season's finale: the U. S. Grand Prix--if the race is not cancelled. If it is cancelled, Hill will be the next world champion. But first, he must finish today's race.

Finishing becomes questionable, as one-by-one the Ferrari contingent is sidelined with blown engines. Rodriguez and Baghetti are the first to go, on lap 14, followed by Ginther on lap 24. Now, Hill wonders if his engine will fail too. He reduces speed, and checks his mirror frequently for any telltale signs of smoke. Laps grind on and on. Stirling Moss, who, earlier in the season, won magnificently at Monaco, and later at the "Green Hell" Nurburgring, and today has a mathematical chance of winning the world championship, pits on lap 37, with wheel bearing failure. Far behind, thanks to attrition, Dan Gurney, in the anemic Porsche 787, is now alone in second place, where he will finish today. Hill slows even more, wondering if the race will ever end.

Finally, on Lap 41, the white flag is waved. Hill can taste it, he's going to win. A lap later he's given the checkered flag, relieved and happy, knowing he couldn't drive any better, and thankful he insisted on having his engine changed. Surely, those broken two valve strings would have destroyed his chance of winning the race.

Pulling into the pits, the smiles of the Ferrari crew are guarded. Hill senses something is wrong, but what? Trips injured? Has to be, but how bad? He removes his helmet and steps from his car, hot, sweaty, exhausted. He's handed a bottle of mineral water, which he gulps down greedily. A wreath is placed over his shoulders, a trophy is handed to him. He's congratulated by his team manager, and given the word--his teammate, competitor, and friend, Wolfgang von Trips, is dead. As devastating as this news is, Hill is emotionally prepared for it, having heard similar bad news many times before. Nonetheless, he's stunned, because of how much was riding on the race, how much emotion was invested, and of how abruptly it all changed.

It no longer matters if there is a United States Grand Prix or not. It's over, all of it, the waiting, the worrying, the drama. Phil Hill is world champion. It will be several days before winning the race, and the coveted world championship--and Trips' death--will sink in.

Within 18 months, a book about Hill's life will appear, entitled: "Phil Hill: Yankee Champion", by fellow Californian William F. Nolan There will be talk of a movie; but nothing comes of it.

Hill begins the following season strongly, winning Le Mans for the third time, as well as being a key performer in winning the sports car championship for Scuderia Ferrari. However, in Formula One, the English teams (Cooper, Lotus, and BRM) have not only caught up but surpassed Ferrari, with more powerful V-8 engines, and superior, better-handling F-1 cars. Hill tries hard, but finishes the F-1 season without a win, for a disappointing sixth place in the championship standings (his worst finish in four years). At the end of the season, Ferrari releases Hill for lack of performance.

After that, victories are few, and all in sports cars. His F-1 career takes a disastrous turn in 1964, driving for Cooper Cars. Midway through the season, at the Austrian Grand Prix, he crashes twice (once in practice, and once in the race, both due to chassis failure) and is fired.

In 1966, filmmaker John Frankenheimer hires Hill to be a technical consultant and to drive a camera car in several races. The movie is the story of American Pete Aron, a down-on-his luck driver who's fired for crashing, and who is the underdog in the fight for the world championship, that is decided at Monza, with the death of his friend and rival. It's Hill's story, lifted from the 1961 and 1964 seasons, retooled for the silver screen.

Of all the world champions, Phil Hill is perhaps the most underrated. He didn't start in Formula One, until relatively late in his career, when he was 31, and because he stayed with Ferrari for so long, his success was pretty much tied to Ferrari's success, which was spotty, except for 1961, the year Hill triumphed. What can't be overlooked is that in 1961, when finally he had the hot car, Hill scored five consecutive pole-positions, two fastest laps, and led all but three races in which he competed. Also, on the most daunting and difficult circuits of his day--Spa-Francorchamps, and the serpentine Nurburgring--he excelled, winning at Spa, and becoming the first driver ever to break the nine-minute barrier at the Ring. He's also the only driver to win both the world championship and Le Mans in the same year.

In sports cars, Hill's record speaks for itself: three-time winner of the Le Mans 24 Hour; three-time winner of the Sebring 12-Hour, two-time winner of the Nurburgring 1000 Kilometer; two-time winner of the Argentine 1000 Kilometer, plus international wins in Nassau, Sicily, Venezuela, on two California circuits: Riverside and Laguna Seca; in Canada, Sweden, Daytona Beach, Florida, and, in his final professional race in 1967--the Brands Hatch 1000 Kilometer. Hill finishes as he started--a winner.

Final note: Hill competed during motor racing's most dangerous period (1953 to 1967), and retired without so much as having received a scratch on his body.

About his retirement, Hill told his biographer: "In looking back, I see clearly now that I had this desperate need to prove that I could race successfully and stay alive. I kept telling myself, for many years, that I couldn't be killed in a racing car, that sure, it happens to other drivers, but it can't happen to me. Part of it was that I had this extra sense of perception that always warned me that something was going wrong before 'something' reached the critical stage. That was my 'edge of safety'. But, in 1967, I had a premonition that if I kept racing I was ultimately going to kill myself. So leaving the sport was obviously the right thing to do."

- END -

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