Monaco is special. It is the street race of all street races, once memorably compared by Nelson Piquet to “riding a bicycle around your living room”, but it is more than just the race itself. Monaco, and its capital Monte Carlo, are synonyms for glamour, wealth, extravagance and gambling. In many ways Monaco is the natural home of Formula One and as a result it is every driver’s home race, because it is the sport’s home race; everyone wants to win at Monaco. The race is so special that it is considered to be part of motorsport’s Triple Crown – the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Only one driver has ever achieved this during his career, a driver who was so dominant at Monaco during the 1960s that he became known as Mister Monaco: Graham Hill.
Norman Graham Hill was born in Hampstead in London on February 15th 1929 and as a teenager attended Hendon Technical College, before starting an apprenticeship at Smith’s Instruments. This aptitude for mechanical engineering might have seemed a surprise to his father, as Hill senior had never driven a car in his life and was described by his son as ‘most unmechanical’: however Hill’s mother had been the proud owner of a Triumph 250cc motorcycle when she was seventeen and he had obviously inherited some of her genes. Hill did his national service as a regular in the Royal Navy, serving in the engine room as a mechanical engineer, or artificer, on the cruiser HMS Swiftsure. He reached the rank of Petty Officer, but showed a distinct antipathy towards the navy afterwards – his famous moustache was grown when he left the service in 1952 partly to provoke the officers in charge of the reserve training he still had to attend for three weeks a year, as naval regulations allowed sailors to be either clean shaven or to have a full beard.
After leaving the navy Hill returned to his apprenticeship and brought a motorcycle for the commute to work. On one of these commutes he rode into a broken down car, abandoned in the fog with no lights, breaking his left femur, which led to him having a slightly bow-legged gait and back problems for the rest of his life. In 1953 an advert in a motoring magazine caught his eye, offering laps of Brands Hatch in a Formula 3 car for five shillings a lap. He spent a pound on four laps of the circuit and was smitten with the racing bug. He left Smith’s Instruments to work with a man called Weller at his farm in Kent, who was setting up a racing drivers’ school. He worked there repairing the cars for no pay, just the promise of a chance to drive them, signing on to the dole to finance his commute there every day.
At a race meeting at Brands Hatch, Hill got chatting to a couple of people in the paddock who turned out to be Colin Chapman and Mike Costin of Lotus Racing. They also agreed to give the impoverished Hill a lift back to London in the team transporter, each of them assuming the brash young man was a friend of the other. The upshot of the journey was that Hill joined Lotus as a mechanic in 1954. Soon he was driving for the team in Formula 3 and in 1958 he made his F1 debut at Monaco, in the race that was to come to define him, although on that occasion he did not finish, as a result of driveshaft problems.After two unsatisfactory seasons at Lotus, Hill left to join the British Racing Motors team where, after two similarly unsuccessful seasons, things began to come together for Hill and the team and, in 1962, he won four out of the nine races and finished second in another two to lift his first world championship. The next three seasons saw him finish second in the championship each time, but also saw the beginning of his run of victories in Monte Carlo, as he won the ’63, ’64 and ’65 Monaco Grands Prix.
The 1966 season was less successful for both Hill and BRM, and for the following season he and Colin Chapman put aside their differences and he returned to Lotus to partner Jim Clark. He stayed at Lotus until the end of the 1969 season, playing a valuable role in holding the team together after Clark’s death. During his second spell at Lotus he won his second world championship in 1968, as well as his fourth and fifth victories at Monaco in ’68 and ’69.
By the end of the decade Chapman believed Hill to be a spent force as a driver and let him go. Hill drove for Rob Walker’s team for a year and then spent two at Brabham, where he failed to settle, before setting up his own team, Embassy Hill, in 1973. The final straw for Hill’s career as a driver came in 1975 at the circuit he had made his own, where he failed to qualify for the Monaco GP.
He retired from driving with immediate effect and began to concentrate his efforts on team ownership and management. Unfortunately this was cut short on 29th November that year when Hill, a keen amateur pilot, was flying five members of his team back from testing at Circuit Paul Ricard in France. He was attempting to land his Piper PA-23 in foggy conditions, when he crashed on Arkley golf course in Barnet, North London, killing everyone on board. Hill was not insured for the deaths of his passengers and legal action by their families effectively bankrupted his family. His son Damon famously went on to follow in his father’s footsteps and became the first, and so far only, son of a world champion to become a world champion himself.
Hill’s record of five wins at Monaco was unbeaten, until 1993 when Ayrton Senna achieved his sixth victory there. Michael Schumacher also managed to equal, but not beat, Hill’s record in the Principality in 2001.Today, Graham Hill is often remembered as being the father of Damon, a double world champion, and for his distinctive crash helmet, which bore the colours of the London Rowing Club, his other great sporting love. He is also recalled fondly for his roguish moustache and twinkle in his eye, which made him such a popular figure in the media throughout the 1960s and early 1970s – but perhaps we should look beyond these and remember him as the man who dominated one of the most legendary and difficult circuits in Formula One: Graham Hill, Mister Monaco.