The first American to become World Champion had a love/hate relationship with the sport. Profoundly intelligent and deeply sensitive, he was also remarkably candid about personal demons that caused inner turmoil and made his racing life a bittersweet experience. He was always fearful and throughout his career he struggled to find a balance between the perils and pleasures of his profession. Yet driving became a way of expressing himself and racing took him on a journey to places he never expected to go.
Philip Toll Hill, Jr was born into a prominent family in Miami, Florida, on April 20, 1927. Not particularly close to his parents, he became an introverted child with an inferiority complex and few friends. Not good at sports, he feared failure and ridicule and was consumed by feelings of inadequacy. Music became an outlet and he learned to play the piano, then became fascinated by cars. When he was 12 his favourite aunt bought him a Model T Ford, which he took apart many times to understand how it worked, and his aunt's chauffeur taught him how to drive. His burgeoning automotive skills gave him increasing self-confidence, though he still felt aimless and socially awkward.
Bored after two years of business administration studies at the University of Southern California he dropped out to become a mechanic's helper in a Los Angeles garage, whose proprietor was an amateur racer. In 1947 Phil acquired an MG-TC two-seater, which he modified himself and began racing. In 1951, after both his parents died and left him money, he bought a 2.6-litre Ferrari and raced it with increasing success. Though he was a regular winner he was still so full of self-doubt that he always credited the car. His constant worry about the dangers of racing led to stomach ulcers so severe that he had to stop racing for ten months. With the help of heavy doses of tranquilisers he resumed racing and winning in a succession of Ferraris entered by wealthy owners, and by the mid 1950s he had become America's best sportscar racer.
In 1955 he was invited to join Ferrari's endurance racing roster at Le Mans, where the death of over 80 people in motorsport's worst disaster was deeply troubling for the sensitive Californian. He would eventually win Le Mans three times (all with Olivier Gendebien) but despite his speed in sportscars Hill's goal of Formula One racing was slow to come because Enzo Ferrari thought him temperamentally unsuited for single seaters. In 1958, after both Luigi Musso and Peter Collins were killed, Hill was promoted to Ferrari's Formula One team where he helped Mike Hawthorn to win the 1958 drivers’ title. Two years later Hill won his first Formula One championship race, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
As a Formula One driver Hill left his inferiority complex behind, but his tendency for deep introspection continued to cause him inner turmoil. Racing had become a means of self-expression but he wasn't sure he liked what he saw. "Racing brings out the worst in me," he said. "Without it, I don't know what kind of person I might have become. But I'm not sure I like the person I am now. Racing makes me selfish, irritable, defensive. If I could get out of this sport with any ego left I would."
He also worried about getting out alive - "I became hypersensitive to the danger and wasn't sure that I wasn't going to kill myself." - and was especially nervous and apprehensive before a race. On the starting grid he paced to and fro, endlessly polishing his goggles, chain-smoking cigarettes or feverishly chewing a wad of gum.
At the start he immediately relaxed and began racing with notable composure. He was a careful driver, mechanically sympathetic and easy on his cars, in which, given his admitted phobias, he was remarkably courageous. Indeed, he drove best on the worst circuits, particularly distinguishing himself at Spa and the Nurburgring, and in the worst conditions. "I always felt secure in the rain," he said, "even as a little boy looking out the window."
Though at ease speaking publicly about his insecurities, he remained a loner in Europe. He stayed near the Ferrari factory in a hotel, where he played records of his favourite composers Beethoven and Vivaldi. He learned to speak competent Italian and became an opera buff, attending performances at La Scala in Milan. He was careful about his diet and kept fit by cycling and hiking, often on exploration trips to ancient monuments and ruined castles. In the off-season when he returned to California he busied himself restoring vintage automobiles and antique player pianos. Yet these distractions did not lay his mind at rest. "The strain of inactivity was worse than the strain of driving," he said. "I was compelled to race again."
In 1961, when the new 1.5-litre formula began, the V6 'sharknose' Ferrari 156s were the cars to beat and by the end of the season the championship had boiled down to a battle between Hill and his aristocratic German team mate Count Wolfgang von Trips. Their title showdown took place in an ill-fated Italian Grand Prix at Monza. On the second lap the von Trips Ferrari touched wheels with the Lotus of Jim Clark and cartwheeled into the crowd, killing von Trips and 14 spectators. Hill won the race, and the Championship by a single point over his dead team mate. But there was no joy for the sad victor, who was a pallbearer at von Trips' funeral. Hill: "I never in my life experienced anything so profoundly mournful."
Thereafter Hill's Formula One career went progressively downhill. After another season at Ferrari he moved to ATS, then Cooper, before retiring from single seaters in 1964. He continued racing sportscars for a while, then retired to California, where his car restoration hobby became a lucrative business and Hill happily settled into a life of quiet domesticity. In 1971 he married his long-time girlfriend Alma and began raising a new family. And the first American champion had no regrets.
"In retrospect it was worth it," Phil Hill said. "I had a very exciting life and learned an awful lot about myself and others that I might never have learned. Racing sort of forced a confrontation with reality. Lots of people spend their lives in a state that is never really destined to go anywhere."
Struck down by Parkinson's disease later in life, Hill died from complications relating to the condition in 2008, aged 81.
Text - Gerald Donaldson