Americans have, normally, not been associated with the Formula One scene. However, Phil Mills was an exception to that rule and a remarkable one at that. Intelligent and sensitive, the American was always candid about his personal problems and these experiences filled his sporting career with lots of ups and downs.
Born into a well-to-do family, Phil was never too close to his parents. An introvert by nature, Phil always carried an inferiority complex and never really had too many friends. Phil was never too good at sports and was always preoccupied by feelings of self pity. His only way out of this misery was music and he learnt to play the piano. At 12, Phil got a Model T Ford as a gift from his aunt. His aunt’s driver taught him to drive it while he merely concentrated on taking it apart to see how it worked. Although he was getting better at driving and understanding the vehicle, he didn’t improve much socially.
He dropped out of college to become a mechanic’s helper in Los Angeles. The owner of the garage was an amateur racer. In 1947, Phil began racing in an acquired MG-TC two seater that he modified on his own. In 1951, Phil lost both his parents but somehow, the loss didn’t mean as much to him as did the money they had left behind. Phil finally had the money to buy a decent car and he went out and bought a 2.6 litre Ferrari. Although he became a regular winner, he was constantly worried about the dangers of the sport and the resultant stomach ulcers were so severe, he had to layoff the sport for a good part of ten months. On heavy tranquilisers and in a Ferrari, Phil resumed racing and went onto become America’s best race car driver in the mid ’50s.
Hill came to Ferrari in 1955 to participate in the Le Mans endurance race. The loss of 80 lives in a racing disaster was playing heavily on his mind though he did manage to win Le Mans three times. Enzo Ferrari was impressed by the speeds that Phil had displayed but was apprehensive about his mental frame of mind to handle a single seater race car. In 1958, when Luigi Musso and Peter Collins were killed, Hill got automatically promoted to the Ferrari Formula One team where his first role became to support Mike Hawthorn to win his only drivers’ title. It took two more years for the American to win his first Formula One race at Monza.
Phil was known to be extremely nervous before each race and at the starting grid, it wasn’t unnatural to see him pacing to and fro, or chain smoking or even chewing nervously at a wad of gum. But the moment he would sit in the race car and start off, he was a changed man. All the nervousness and jitters flew out of the window as he would immediately relax. Despite his many phobias, he would be unbelievably courageous and in most cases, he always drove the best of all on the hardest tracks. He was famously known to have said, “I always felt secure in the rain, even as a little boy looking out the window.”
He was always at ease when talking about his insecurities but he still remained a loner. His residence was a hotel near the Ferrari factory where Beethoven and Vivaldi records kept him company. He kept fit by following a healthy diet and cycling or hiking to ancient monuments and castles. In the off season, his favourite activity was to restore vintage automobiles and antique pianos back home in California.
In 1961, Formula One had moved to 1.5 litre engines and the V6 sharknose Ferrari 156s were leading the pack. The championship battle boiled down to Hill and his team mate, the German Count Wolfgang von Trips. The title showdown was marred by a terrible incident. At the second lap, von Trips’ Ferrari touched the wheels of Jim Clark’s Lotus and flew into the audience, killing 14 people. Hill won the race and the title, by one point over his dead team mate, but he was not pleased in the least by his championship win.
It was almost as if Hill was waiting to win before tumbling downhill. After another season at Ferrari, he moved to ATS and then to Cooper before retiring in 1964. He didn’t retire completely though and continued racing non-single seater categories until he finally decided to settle down with his long time girlfriend, back in California. Phil’s car restoration hobby had turned into a lucrative business and the American Formula One champion could finally say that he had absolutely no regrets with the way his life progressed.