Norman Graham Hill (15 February 1929 – 29 November 1975) was a British racing driver and team owner from England, who was the Formula One World Champion twice. He is the only driver ever to win the Triple Crown of Motorsport the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix. He also appeared on TV in the 1970s on a variety of non-sporting programmes including panel games. He liked painting in his spare time.
Hill and his son Damon were the first father and son pair to win Formula One World Championships. Hill’s grandson Josh, Damon’s son, also raced his way through the ranks until he retired from Formula Three in 2013 at the age of 22.
Hill and five other members of the Embassy Hill team died in 1975 when the aeroplane he was piloting from France crashed in fog at night on Arkley golf course while attempting to land at Elstree Airfield in north London.
Born in Hampstead, London, Hill attended Hendon Technical College and joined Smiths Instruments as an apprentice engineer. He was conscripted into the Royal Navy and served as an Engine Room Artificer (ERA) on the light cruiser HMS Swiftsure, rising to the rank of petty officer. After leaving the Navy he rejoined Smiths Instruments.
Hill did not pass his driving test until he was 24 years old, and he himself described his first car as “A wreck. A budding racing driver should own such a car, as it teaches delicacy, poise and anticipation, mostly the latter I think!” He had been interested in motorcycles but in 1954 he saw an advertisement for the Universal Motor Racing Club at Brands Hatch offering laps for 5 shillings. He made his debut in a Cooper 500 Formula 3 car and was committed to racing thereafter. Hill joined Team Lotus as a mechanic soon after but quickly talked his way into the cockpit. The Lotus presence in Formula One allowed him to make his debut at the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix, retiring with a halfshaft failure.
In 1960, Hill joined BRM,he won also in that year on 8 May 1960 the Targa Florio in the class Sports 1600 together with a German driver Edgar Barth in a Porsche 718,and won the world championship with BRM in 1962. Hill was also part of the so-called ‘British invasion’ of drivers and cars in the Indianapolis 500 during the mid-1960s, triumphing there in 1966 in a Lola-Ford.
In 1967, back at Lotus, Hill helped to develop the Lotus 49 with the new Cosworth-V8 engine. After teammates Jim Clark and Mike Spence were killed in early 1968, Hill led the team, and won his second world championship in 1968. The Lotus had a reputation of being very fragile and dangerous at that time, especially with the new aerodynamic aids which caused similar crashes of Hill and Jochen Rindt at the 1969 Spanish Grand Prix. A crash at the 1969 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen broke both his legs and interrupted his career. Typically, when asked soon after the crash if he wanted to pass on a message to his wife, Hill replied “Just tell her that I won’t be dancing for two weeks.”
Upon recovery Hill continued to race in F1 for several more years, but never again with the same level of success. Colin Chapman, believing Hill was a spent force, placed him in Rob Walker’s team for 1970, sweetening the deal with one of the brand-new Lotus 72 cars. Although Hill scored points in 1970 he started the season far from fully fit and the 72 was not fully developed until late in the season. Hill moved to Brabham for 1971-2; his last win in Formula One was in the non-Championship International Trophy at Silverstone in 1971 with the “lobster claw” Brabham. The team was in flux after the retirements of Sir Jack Brabham and then Ron Tauranac’s sale to Bernie Ecclestone; Hill did not settle there.
Hill was known during the latter part of his career for his wit and became a popular personality – he was a regular guest on television and wrote a notably frank and witty autobiography, Life at the Limit, when recovering from his 1969 accident. Hill was also irreverently immortalized on a Monty Python episode (“It’s the Arts (or: Intermission)” sketch called “Historical Impersonations”), in which a Gumby appears asking to “see John the Baptist’s impersonation of Graham Hill.” The head of St. John the Baptist appears (with a stuck-on moustache in Hill’s style) on a silver platter, which runs around the floor making putt-putt noises of a race car engine.
Hill at the 1971 Race of Champions
Hill was involved with four films between 1966 and 1974, including appearances in Grand Prix and Caravan to Vaccars, in which he appeared as a helicopter pilot.
Although Hill had concentrated on F1 he also maintained a presence in sports car racing throughout his career (including two runs in the Rover-BRM gas turbine car at Le Mans). As his F1 career drew to a close he became part of the Matra sports car team, taking a victory in the 1972 24 Hours of Le Mans with Henri Pescarolo. This victory completed the so-called Triple Crown of Motorsport which is alternatively defined as winning either:
- the Indianapolis 500 (won by Hill in 1966), the 24 Hours of Le Mans (1972) and the Monaco Grand Prix (1963-65, 1968, 1969), or
- the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Formula One World Championship (1962, 1968).
Using either definition, Hill is still the only person ever to have accomplished this feat.
Hill set up his own team in 1973: Embassy Hill with sponsorship from Imperial Tobacco. The team used chassis from Shadow and Lola before evolving the Lola into its own design in 1975. After failing to qualify for the 1975 Monaco Grand Prix, where he had won five times, Hill retired from driving to concentrate on running the team and supporting his protege Tony Brise.
Hill’s record of 176 Grand Prix starts remained in place for over a decade until being equalled by Jacques Laffite.
Hill married Bette in 1955; because Hill had spent all his money on his racing career, she paid for the wedding. They had two daughters, Brigitte and Samantha, and a son, Damon, who himself later became Formula One World Champion the first son of a former world champion to emulate his father.
Hill at the 1974 Race of Champions
Before taking up motor racing, Hill spent several years actively involved in rowing. Initially, he rowed at Southsea Rowing Club, while stationed in Portsmouth with the Royal Navy and at Auriol Rowing Club in Hammersmith. He met his future wife Bette at a Boxing Day party at Auriol and, while courting her, he also coached her clubmates at Stuart Ladies’ Rowing Club on the River Lea.
In 1952 he joined London Rowing Club, then as now one of the largest and most successful clubs in Great Britain. From 1952 to 1954, Hill rowed in twenty finals with London, usually as stroke of the crew, eight of which resulted in wins. He also stroked the London eight in the highly prestigious Grand Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta, losing a semi-final to Union Sportif Metropolitaine des Transports, France by a length.
Through his racing career he continued to support rowing and London. In 1968 when the club began a financial appeal to modernise its clubhouse, Hill launched proceedings by driving an old Morris Oxford, which had been obtained for 5, head-on into a boundary wall. Hill made three runs to reduce the wall to rubble, and the car was subsequently sold for 15.
Hill felt that the experience gained in rowing helped him in his motor-racing. He wrote in his autobiography:
“I really enjoyed my rowing. It really taught me a lot about myself, and I also think it is a great character-building sport…The self discipline required for rowing and the ‘never say die’ attitude obviously helped me through the difficult years that lay ahead.”
Hill adopted the colours and cap design of London Rowing Club for his racing helmet – dark blue with white oar-shaped tabs. His son Damon and grandson Josh later adopted the same colours with permission from the club.
Hill died on 29 November 1975 at the controls of his Piper PA-23 Aztec twin-engine light aircraft when it crashed near Arkley, Hertfordshire, while on a night approach to Elstree Airfield in thick fog. On board with him were five other members of the Embassy Hill team who all died: manager Ray Brimble, mechanics Tony Alcock and Terry Richards, driver Tony Brise, and designer Andy Smallman. The party was returning from a car-testing session at the Paul Ricard Circuit in southern France.
The subsequent investigation revealed that Hill’s aircraft, originally registered in the US as N6645Y, had been removed from the FAA register and at the time of the accident was “unregistered and stateless”, despite still displaying its original markings. Furthermore, Hill’s American FAA pilot certification had expired, as had his instrument rating. His UK IMC rating, which would have permitted him to fly in the weather conditions that prevailed at the time, was also out of date and invalid. Hill was effectively uninsured. The investigation into the crash was ultimately inconclusive, but pilot error was deemed the most likely explanation.
Hill’s funeral was held at St Albans Abbey, and he is buried at St Botolph’s graveyard, Shenleybury in Shenley, Hertfordshire.
After his death, Silverstone village, home to the track of the same name, named a road, Graham Hill, after him and there is a “Graham Hill Road” on The Shires estate in nearby Towcester. Graham Hill Bend at Brands Hatch is also named in his honour. A blue plaque commemorates Hill at 32 Parkside, in Mill Hill, London NW7. In Bourne, Lincolnshire, where Hill’s former team BRM is based, a road called Graham Hill Way is named in his honour. Also a nursery school in Lusevera, Italy, was named in his honour.
Hill’s easy wit and charm helped him become a television personality, notably on the BBC show Call My Bluff with Patrick Campbell and Frank Muir. For a number of years in the early 1970s he appeared as one half of a double act, with Jackie Stewart, as an insert within the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show. In June 1975 he appeared alongside his son, Damon Hill, on the popular television programme Jim’ll Fix It. His appearance was later rebroadcast as part of the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the programme in January 1995, with Damon presenting a new segment at the end.
In 1990, Hill was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
A one-off BBC Four documentary called Graham Hill: Driven was first broadcast on 26 May 2008.