You Can't Always Get What You Want: Graham Hill, and the elusive British Grand Prix

It seems ironic, even cruel, that the quintessential British racing driver, Graham Hill, should never have won the British Grand Prix. Indeed, he won just about everything else that is important to win: two world championships (1962 and '68), one Indy 500 (1966), one Le Mans Twenty-Four Race of Endurance (1972), and five Monaco Grands Prix (1963, '64, '65, '68, and '69). In his more desperate moments, I'm sure, Hill would have traded all of these victories for merely one British Grand Prix trophy. Well, maybe not all of them. The Indy 500 trophy, perhaps, or the Le Mans trophy, or, at the very least, one or two Monaco Grand Prix trophies. It meant that much to him.

Silverstone. Aintree. Brands Hatch. It didn't matter which English circuit, Hill tried mightily, but always came up short. In 17 starts, he finished second twice, third twice, fourth once, sixth once, seventh once, ninth once, and on nine other occasions he DNF'd (Did Not Finish).

The year he came closest to winning was early in his career, in 1960, at Silverstone. Driving the race of his life--characteristically with chin thrust out, and mustache bristling--from last place, he charged up through the field, passed the reigning world champion to take the lead and, with the race all but won, lost control and spun off course.

This happened before he was a noted public figure, before he was "Graham Hill", beloved hero of the British racing crowd.

In 1960, when the name "Hill" was mentioned, fans invariably thought of the self-effacing American driver, Phil Hill. At the time, Graham Hill was known as "the other Hill".

"The other Hill" switched to BRM (British Racing Motors) in 1960, hoping to get his nascent F1 racing career in gear. After two miserable seasons with Team Lotus, during which he finished just one race, BRM appeared to be a godsend. On paper, it was something of a dream team. His teammates were Joakim Bonnier, of Switzerland, and Californian Dan Gurney. It was Bonnier's spirited efforts the year before that had given BRM its first Grand Prix win ever. That same year, 1959, Gurney had earned his stripes driving for Ferrari, finishing an astonishing second place, in only his second Grand Prix start. In Bonnier, Gurney, and Hill, BRM arguably had the strongest driver line-up in Formula One.

BRM's engineering talent was equally impressive, with chief engineer Peter Berthon (chassis design), Stuart Tresilian (engine design), and Tony Rudd (engineering trouble-shooter par-excellence). Unlike the other two British teams, Lotus and Cooper, the Bourne engineering firm built the complete racecar--chassis, transmission, and engine. The BRM P25 that Bonnier drove to victory at the Dutch Grand Prix was a beautifully-proportioned car, and an engineering marvel. The four-cylinder 2.5-liter engine was second in horsepower only to Ferrari. Britain's most-successful Grand Prix driver, Stirling Moss, raced the P25 on two occasions, in 1959, and said it was the finest-handling front-engined car he had ever driven. But the beautiful BRM Formula One car was plagued with a myriad of nagging problems. The sophisticated high-revving engine had an appetite for valve springs, and the rear brakes, comprised of a single-disc/caliper unit mounted on the back of the transaxle, had a tendency to overheat and fail. That it was a design flaw, and not a defect of the manufacturer, was something BRM would not admit.

Graham Hill was aware of these problems when he signed with the team, but reasoned that with a new car in the works--the rear-engine P48--past mistakes would be eliminated. What he hadn't considered was the engineering hubris that prevailed at BRM. He learned about it early in January, at his first race for BRM, the Argentine Grand Prix. His machine was understeering, so he asked a mechanic to increase front tire pressure by two pounds.

"Well, you'd better ask Mr. Berthon," huffed the mechanic.

Huh?

"I thought this a bit strange," Hill recalled later, "but being new, I thought, okay, I'll ask Peter Berthon."

Berton refused, telling him that the car was designed to run at this exact air pressure, and that he wasn't about to authorize a change. It proved to be the first of many conflicts Hill and Berthon would have.

Hill got another surprise in Argentina. His prior team, Lotus, had a startlingly quick new machine--the Lotus 18. The Englishman had known Colin Chapman had a new rear-engine car in the works, created in an effort to keep Hill from walking out. Chapman had shown him the drawings. Though suitably impressed, Hill departed anyway, unable to forget all the team's many past failures. Now, watching his ex-teammate Innes Ireland qualify second fastest, he had to be kicking himself. On race day, Ireland jumped out to an immediate lead, spun on lap 2, recovered, and fought his way back, to lead again, only to be slowed by an engine misfire, and finished sixth. Meanwhile, having qualified a promising third fastest, Hill's BRM retired with broken valve strings.

Hill had one more surprise coming, in March, while testing BRM's new rear-engine P48. While the sleek-lined BRM P25 had been one of the most beautiful F!s ever conceived, the new BRM P48 had to be one of the ugliest. But the appearance was the least of its problems. It was spooky to drive. Said Hill: "I found that every now and then the car would suddenly take a dive and dart straight into the infield, out of control." Almost as bad, the high-revving engine still destroyed valve springs regularly, and the troublesome rear single-disc/caliber brake unit had been retained.

At the next race, a non-points event at Goodwood, Bonnier, the team's senior driver, elected to forego driving the new P48, and instead chose the familiar P25 , while Hill and Gurney, the new boys, were stuck with the spooky P48. During the race, a photographer snapped an image of Hill rounding Woodcote, "bicycling" precariously on two wheels. And wouldn't you know it, Ireland, in the Lotus 18, won the race.

Testing continued, and Hill discovered an ally in engineer Tony Rudd. While Peter Berthon was chief engineer, and protector of BRM's lofty engineering ideals, it was the unflappable problem solver, Tony Rudd, who made things work. Back in 1957, when it was apparent to one and all, that the latest BRM, was a magnificent flop, Rudd was brought in to make it right. He redesigned the chassis, suspension, and bodywork. In effect, he designed a brand new car. This was the machine Bonnier drove to victory in the '59 Dutch Grand Prix.

At the next non-points race, at Silverstone, the P48 was much improved, thanks to considerable testing. Ireland won again in the Lotus 18, but Hill managed a respectable third. Two weeks later, at the Monaco Grand Prix, the car was better still, and Bonnier led early, until slowed by failing brakes. He finished fifth. Hill, meanwhile, got as high as fourth, but while overtaking a slower car, spun and crashed. Stirling Moss, in a Lotus 18, won the race.

One week later, at Zandvoort, it all came undone for BRM. In the race, both Bonnier and Gurney crashed; Bonnier by spinning on his own oil (after the engine blew up), and Gurney flying off-course with failed brakes. The American was fortunate to have walked away with a cracked wrist, bruises and cuts. A spectator, who was in an unauthorized area, was not so lucky, and died from being struck by Gurney's errant car.

Something needed to be done. After the race, Hill, who finished in third place, called a high-level meeting, with all the principals: team owners Ernest and Sir Alfred Owen, racing directory Raymond Mays, engineers Peter Berton and Tony Rudd, and drivers Bonnier and Gurney. If BRM is to win races, Hill said, Rudd must be put in charge of racing and development, and Berthon relegated to chassis design only.

"This did not make me frightfully popular," Hill said later. "I had been with the team five months, and here I was telling them how to organize themselves. But I felt it had to be said."

All well and good, but nothing of substance had changed. Berthon was still chief engineer, and still very much the final authority on all matters of engineering. A new method of heat-treating valve springs was tried with limited success, but the rear-mounted single disc-brake unit had been retained. At the Belgian Grand Prix in June, all three cars dropped out with blown engines. At the French Grand Prix in July, Hill qualified third fastest--for his first-ever front-row starting position--only to be eliminated in a freak starting grid mishap. Meanwhile, both Bonnier and Gurney, having qualified well, dropped out again, with blown engines.

The next race was the British Grand Prix, at Silverstone, where BRM did most of its testing. As a result the P48s were impressively quick. Hill again put his machine on the front row, by qualifying second fastest. Bonnier and Gurney, were not far off Hill's pace, having qualified fourth and sixth fastest, respectively.

After two disappointing seasons with Lotus, and half-a-year of mechanical woes with BRM, things appeared to have been turned around for Graham Hill. The testing that had been going on in the intervening six months, the improvements that had been made, were beginning to pay off. BRM was peaking, on the verge of winning. And at what better time than for the British Grand Prix?

And at what better circuit than at Silverstone?

When one considers all the great, storied circuits of Europe, Silverstone does not come readily to mind. Located on an open plane, about an hour's drive northeast of London, Silverstone does not have the great natural beauty, and elevation changes, of the Nurburgring, or possess the atmosphere and glamor of Monaco, nor is it comprised of scenic country roads, such as Spa-Francorchamps, or laid out through the wooded dells of a Royal park, such as Monza. Silverstone is comprised of the perimeter road of an ex-World War Two airfield: flat, featureless, isolated. Driving through the English countryside, faced with endless miles of hedgerows, and vast acres of farmland, you have to want to find the circuit, because it won't find you. The weather is unpredictable, often cold and rainy, even in July. With only eight curves, Silverstone appears to be easy, but it isn't. The curves are wide, and the fastest line is not obvious. Drivers must put in hundreds laps to learn where all the bumps and undulations are, trying various lines, determining which way is smoothest and therefor fastest. Silverstone is difficult to fathom, and therefore uniquely British.

THE 1960 BRITISH GRAND PRIX

During qualifications, the canny Australian, and defending World Champion, Jack Brabham is fastest. Second fastest is a newly-inspired Graham Hill. The first two rows looked like this:

Bonnier McLaren G. Hill Brabham

BRM Cooper-Climax BRM Cooper-Climax

Von Trips Gurney Ireland

Ferrari BRM Lotus-Climax

Race day dawns sunny, warm and dry. Hill arrives with his game-face on, but before the start smiles at some sly witticism Jack Brabham has uttered. As Hill walks out to the starting gird, the smile soon vanishes, and once again he is all business. On this afternoon, the BRM P48 is not so ugly after all, Hill decides, merely efficient-looking. He dons his helmet and settles inside the cockpit. At the signal, he fires up the engine, and waits for a signal from the race starter. The final seconds tick off, while all around him a chorus of engines rise. The Union Jack is waved, and, like some novice, Hill stalls his engine.

Frustrated, he watches helplessly as all those cars behind him roar past. Hill's engine won't restart, so he waits for his mechanics to run out and push-start him. At last, he gets away, 30 seconds behind the leader.

Within a lap, he's passing back markers. By lap three, he's running in 14th place, and still moving up. By lap eight he catches and passes the Ferrari tandem of Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips, in ninth and tenth. By lap 20, he's up to sixth, and feeling much better. Now it gets tough, with the fastest cars up ahead. On lap 22, he passes Brabham's teammate, Bruce McLaren, to take over fifth place. On lap 31, he passes the two Team Lotus drivers, John Surtees and Jim Clark. On lap 37, he passes his ex-Lotus teammate, Innes Ireland. Up to second place now (where he started the race), his pit informs that he trails the leader, Jack Brabham, by eleven seconds.

Having recovered from his botched start, few believe Hill can catch Brabham. During the practice sessions, the Aussie was consistently a full second faster than Hill. Not only that, he's the reigning world champion, a dogged competitor, and clearly controls the race.

Only now, Hill is undeterred, and has the bit between his teeth. Earlier he was angered with himself for having blown the start. Never one to dwell on past mistakes, Hill has focused his anger on catching the leader. A man on a mission, he keeps gaining ground. Brabham is aware Hill is catching him, but, try as might, he cannot do anything about it. By lap 50, Hill has cut the Aussies' lead to 1.7 seconds. By lap 51, it's 1.3 seconds. Lap 52, it's 0.5 seconds. By lap 53, he's glued to Brabham's tailpipe. On the next lap he passes Brabham under braking for Copse Corner.

With five laps remaining, Hill notices his over-worked brakes are beginning to fade. He knows exactly what the problem is--the single disc brake/caliper unit mounted in back, is overheating, causing the brake fluid inside the caliper to seep past the seal. If the brake pedal drops much lower, the brake bias will be solely on the front brakes, which means they'll lock up under severe pressure; the very problem that sent Gurney flying off course at Zandvoort.

Approaching Copse Corner, Hill is confronted with two cars in his way. "I had to make a decision," Hill wrote later in his autobiography, LIFE AT THE LIMIT. "Jack (Brabham) behind me, was only a second away. Either I could go by the two cars and get into the corner before they did, or else I could sit behind them, Indian file, and lose time--perhaps sufficient for Jack to pass me before the corner. I decided to overtake them under braking, thinking that if they were between Jack and myself it might hold him off a bit. But I arrived just a bit too quickly and the brakes weren't up to it; I spun, went off into a ditch and that was that."

It's over. Brabham goes on to win the race, giving him four wins-in-a-row. In another month he will be crowned world champion for the second time.

Hill steps from his machine, deeply dejected. Walking back to the pits, a roar erupts form the stands. The Englishman drove a truly inspired race today, and for 17 glorious laps led the British Grand Prix, and the crowd loves him for it. Hill smiles self-consciously, and waves back to the adoring crowd. Nothing like this has ever happened to him before. The roar continues unabated as he walks on. Cheered, his smile broadens, and he waves back heartily.

Back in the pits, Hill doesn't blame the car's faulty brakes, or blame anyone, but tells reporters that it was his fault, that he made a mistake. Berthon, Rudd, and the mechanics know better, and can't help but admire Hill's class and selflessness, at what must be a terribly painful disappointment for him.

The following day, the newspapers report Hill's admission, but write glowingly of the Englishman's epic drive to the front.

The British Grand Prix proves to be the high point of 1960 for Hill and BRM. When the season ends, Jack Brabham is again crowned world champion, with five wins, and 43 points. Hill, Bonnier, and Gurney, with a plethora of DNFs, earned a combined total of eight points.

Both Bonnier and Gurney depart at season's end, and sign with Porsche for 1961, but Hill stays on, determined to stick it out. BRM suffers through another fruitless season, before finally heeding Hill's advice and making Tony Rudd team manager. As a result, Hill wins four Grands Prix and the 1962 world championship and, in the years ahead with BRM wins another six GPs, including three Monaco Grands Prix.

POST SCRIPT

Graham Hill lost the 1960 British Grand Prix, perhaps the one race he wanted to win more than any other; nonetheless, he went on to win so much more: Indy in 1966, Le Mans in 1972, and a second world championship, in 1968.

In the coming years, Hill would emerge as one of motor racing's great ambassadors, respected and adored everywhere he went, as well as a true gentleman, and a much in demand, after-dinner speaker.

As the words of the Rolling Stones' classic song puts it, "You Can't Always Get What You Want . . . But If You Try Sometime, You'll Find You Get What You Need."

- END -

Recent Posts

See All