One of Formula One racings first media stars, Graham Hill was known for his iron-willed determination and courage, qualities which saw him beat all odds as he won against more naturally talented drivers. His quick wit and extrovert nature gained Hill a loyal fan following, which remained true to him even when he raced too long into his prime.
Growing up in north London during wartime shaped Hill’s character to quite an extent, who claimed that he had inherited his determination from his mother, and his sense of humor from his father, who was a stock broker. After attending a technical school, at the age of 16 Hill became an apprentice for the Smith instrument company. He soon bought a motorcycle, which was followed by an unfortunate crash in to the back of a stopped car, resulting in the permanent shortening of his left leg. In the year 1952, Hill joined the London Rowing Club and was immensely successful at the sport, he even wore the club’s insignia, eight vertical stripes representing oars, on his racing helmet. Before he began racing, he had to join the Royal Navy for compulsory nautical service, a period he resented. Hill expressed his discontent by contravening naval regulations by growing a moustache, which would later become his trademark.
In the year 1953, Hill tried a few laps around Brands Hatch in a F3 car, on a whim. He was “immediately bitten by the racing bug”, though two hurdles stood in the way. One, he could hardly drive even a road car and two, he could not afford to fund his racing desires. But his determination shone through and Hill bought himself a rattletrap 1934 Morris and taught himself how to drive and obtained a license to drive on public roads. Following this remarkable achievement Hill quit his job at Smith’s and soon became a mechanic at a racing school, moving up to instructor in no time. During this period he competed in a couple of races, and during one of these he met Colin Chapman, who at that time was in the early stages of developing his Lotus cars. Hill managed to persuade Chapman to hire him for a part time job, earning one pound a day, and eventually became a full time Lotus employee, who was rewarded a race occasionally.
In 1958, Team Lotus made it Formula One debut with Graham Hill as their driver. The debut was disappointing with the Lotus proving to be both unreliable and slow, and in 1959 little seemed to have changed. In 1960 Hill switched to BRM, which was seen as a bad move, as the British Racing Motors efforts at the Formula One tracks had been lackluster so far.Hill turned around the team with his infectious enthusiasm, and by 1962 he had several wins, including at Italy, Germany, South Africa and Holland, and eventually earning the World Champion title.
His life off the course after the win was as famous as his skill behind the wheel, with Hill becoming known for his antics such as dancing on table tops, enlivening parties with striptease acts and even streaking naked around a pool. He was an incorrigible flirt, and soon bought himself a plane, titled it ‘Hilarious Airways’ and which he flew quite carelessly.Soon circumstances changed with BRM falling off the pace, which resulted in Hill becoming prone to moodiness and verbal outbursts. Even his win at America’s Indianapolis 500, in 1966 did not turn around his Formula One fortunes, and he eventually rejoined Team Lotus in 1967.
Being headed by Jim Clark during that period, Hill soon found himself running the show after the Scot was killed, followed by the tragic death of Mike Spence at Indianapolis. Hill’s determination to beat all odds impressed many people and his handling of the fragile Lotus cars further reflected positively on his talents. Hill went on to win in Monaco, Spain and Mexico and soon won his second driving title. Keeping up his brilliant form, Hill went on to win Monaco for the fifth time in 1969, and was titled ‘Mr. Monaco’.
This victory was followed by a major accident in the last race of the season, the US Grand Prix, during which his Lotus spun and stalled, causing Hill to get out and push start it. When he got back in, he forgot to wear his seat belts and suddenly a tyre deflated and the Lotus pitched into a bank, the force of which caused Hill to be thrown out. He broke his right knee and seriously dislocated his left knee, and though he recovered from these injuries he was never able to match his performance before the accident.
Following the accident a season with Rob Walker, and a further two years with Brabham went by without anything noteworthy. In 1972, there was a victory in a Matra with Henri Pescarolo, in the Le Mans race, which made Hill the only driver to win the motorsport’s Triple Crown, Monaco, Le Mans and Indy 500. Though this would have been the perfect time to retire from the sport, Hill’s pride pushed him on and he eventually began his own Formula One team in 1973, Embassy Hill Racing. Both the team and it’s illustrious driver proved to be completely off pace, so much so that the team did not even qualify for the 1975 Monaco Grand Prix. This was probably the last blow for Hill as he soon after announced his retirement as a driver, though he continued to support and run his team with his talented new discovery, Tony Brise as the driver. Though his driver’s talent would be largely unexplored when on November 29, 1975, while returning from a test session in France, Hill was trying to land his plane in dense fog, at the Elstree airfield in London. His twin-engine plane, carrying Hill, Brise and four other team members, crashed to the ground and burned, leaving no survivors.