Monday, December 12, 2011

America’s First Formula One World Champion – A Half Century ago

September 10, 1961
Italian GP – Monza, Italy

Whilst scribblin’ my Nostalgia earlier this season – recollecting upon some of my fleeting memories of the Portland Hystericals, Err Historics, it hit me like a “Two Ton Heavy Thing!” That not only was it some ‘Ol Coot known as ‘SuperTex, aka A.J. foyt’s 50th Anniversary of his debutant Indy 500 victory; it was also fifty years ago that Phil Hill won the F1 Drivers World Championship, albeit under tragic conditions... Becoming America’s first ever World Champion, a rarefied feat that has only occurred twice in the past half century...

Can it really already be three years since Messer Hill’s untimely passing – occurring during his treasured Monterey Historics weekend, which reputedly he was a Concurs de Elegance Judge for 40-years! As the transplanted Floridian continued his passion for vintage automobiles after he’d hung up his driving helmet, forming the vintage automotive restoring house of Hill & Vaughn.

Thus, on that ultimately sweet ‘N sad day of September 10th, Phil Hill would become America’s first ever Formula 1 World Champion - as history denotes; Hill’s teammate and title competitor Count Wolfgang Von Trips was killed after colliding with Jimmy Clark and his errant Ferrari ultimately caused the deaths of 14-spectators...

Interestingly, Ferrari ran four “Works” chassis that day, with Hill, Von Trips, Richie Ginther and Ricardo Rodriguez; while a fifth Ferrari was chauffeured by Giancarlo Baghetti.

And not only did Von Trips start the race on Pole, but the German too held a 5-point advantage in the Drivers title fight: 38-33 vs. arch rival Hill; with Lotus’s Stirling Moss having a mathematical, albeit slim chance of clinching the Drivers crown over the two Ferrarista’s.

And although two of the four remaining Ferrari’s retired from the race, Phil Hill ran away and won the event ahead of Dan Gurney in a Porsche and Bruce McLaren in a Cooper-Climax on Monza’s notoriously bumpy Oval-Road course combination; which reputedly ‘Ol ‘Hobbo, aka David Hobbs won the last event on this circuit configuration in one of the overly potent JWA Gulf Ford GT 40’s...

And speaking of those magnificent GT 40’s, how many people recall that Messer Hill was part of ‘Ol Shel’s (Carroll Shelby) original crew ‘O merry-men chosen to drive the untested chassis at Circuit de la Sarthe in 1964, as I’d liken to think it was due to the results of drivers such as Hill, Dan Gurney, Ken Miles and others development skills which honed the GT 40 into such a BAD ARSE racecar!

Recall that Hill was a gifted Sports Car driver of his era, ultimately winning le 24 Heurs du Mans three times for la Scuderia (Ferrari) in those ‘Uber-dominant 250 GT’s - all three wins coming with Belgian Co-driver Olivier Gendebien, (1958, 1961-62) becoming the first ever American born winner of LeMans in the process.

Yet having grown tired of “Il Commendatore’s” (Enzo Ferrari) Machiavellian dealings with his drivers, Phil had the ‘Kuhoona’s to walk out on enzo, albeit to an outfit that’s Grand Prix exploits were a total disaster. As I still recall reading of Hill’s later exploits driving for Jim Hall and those narly Igloo-white Chaparral’s. With Phil’s last major victory coming aboard a Chaparral 2F at the 1000km of Brands Hatch; but I liken to remember Philip Toll Hill, Jr., in a different light, having previously mentioned that I met the man twice; first in 1992 at Portland International Raceway before spending a week-plus with Messer Hill in Italy in 1999 where amongst other things, he was my amiable Co-Tour guide at the Ferrari Factory!

Yet my fondest memory of Phil is the ’94 Monterey Historics where I witnessed Hill throwing a bright blue Bugatti T-37 around masterfully, albeit giving the car a tiring workout as its tyres howled in protest each lap past my vantage point towards the bottom of the hill after the famous Corkscrew corner...