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Formula 1 at Monza

How I met America's First Formula 1 Champion: Phil Hill at Monza

Fifty years ago today, at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, American Phil Hill won the Formula 1 World Driver’s Championship (WDC) in his 1.5 liter Ferrari. 1961 was a remarkable year for American F1 drivers as Dan Gurney and Richie Ginther joined Hill in the record books as they took fourth and fifth places in the final season standings. I had the good fortune to meet Phil Hill at Monza in 2003. He was a very gracious man who happily talked about the historic years of F1.

My wife, Dorri, and I arrived in Como Italy around midday on Thursday before the race after a drive up from Italy’s Aosta Valley. Our trip began with a couple of days in Nice and then a driving adventure through the Alps to Albertville and Grenoble. We drove through the Mont Blanc tunnel from France to the Aosta Valley, a very beautiful and peaceful Italian treasure.

 Phil Hill is the only naturally born American F1 champion. He died in 2008, and in tribute, I have suggested naming turn one at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas “Phil Hill.” 

We stayed the night in the valley and enjoyed the very impressive landscape, but we were ready for some racing. We continued eastward the next morning and turned north at Milano to catch up with a group of Americans who were touring with Grand Prix Tours.

We lodged at the Hotel Metropole Swisse, a lovely facility located on the main piazza directly facing Lake Como. We planned to join our tour group on Friday morning for a look at free practice, and we had Thursday night free. We decided to make things simple and dine at the hotel’s Restaurant Embarcadero.

We arrived a little early and the staff was busy preparing their stations, but each of them turned and watched a short guy in his seventies wearing a blue blazer and khaki slacks as he moved across the room to take his seat. I looked Dorri in the eye and nodded in his direction. She took a look and said, “Who is that.”

“Phil Hill,” I said, and she turned and looked at him for a few seconds and said, “And so it is.” I am constantly looking for looky-likes and pointing them out, but seldom is it the real deal.

Phil became WDC after his 1961 Monza victory. This was a very difficult victory for Hill because he won the championship title after his teammate, Wolfgang Von Tripps, was killed earlier in the race. Von Tripps needed third place points to clinch the championship, but he collided with Jim Clark’s Lotus, crashed, was ejected from the car and killed. His car also claimed the lives of more than a dozen spectators as it spun out of control and crashed into the crowd.

At dinner, Phil had been joined by a few people and their evening was winding down as was ours. We stopped off at his table, introduced ourselves, and told him that we had met his daughter at Le Mans in 2000. He was quite proud of her and happy to discuss our Le Mans experience. A pleasant conversation followed, and we then went off for a walk on Lake Como’s shores.

On Friday morning we were up early for breakfast. Afterwards we boarded the coach for a ride to the circuit. Just as the coach was preparing to leave, Phil Hill boards. Perfect: there is an empty seat directly in front of me. The other occupant on that row is a sixtyish woman who is traveling alone. Phil sees us and says, “Good morning, nice to see you again,” and sat down.

The lady next to Phil was from Marseille, France and had driven up to Como to attend the race. She had been a racing fan since she was a young girl, and attended Monza every year. She spoke English in that way that French women do, quite lovely. Their conversation continued.....

Phil said, "Every year, you come to Monza?"

"Yes,” she replied.

“When was your first Grand Prix,” he said.

“Monza 1961.”

He leaned forward in his seat, slowly turned, and looked at her. He said, “I won that race.” She said that she knew of his victory and of his championship as well. There was a long, quiet pause as they considered what they had just shared, followed by a lively conversation. I was fascinated: two people who shared a bit of F1 history but only became aware of that fact by chance 42 years later.

The tragedy at Monza was not discussed except for a single comment, and the comment was followed by a pair of somber and knowing looks passed between them.

Later in the weekend we saw her in the Ferrari paddock with Phil. We were sitting in the grandstands directly across from the Ferrari garage. Phil apparently had managed to gain her access to the Ferrari facilities. What a beautiful gesture from a great man.

Phil Hill is the only naturally born American F1 champion. He died in 2008, and in tribute, I have suggested naming turn one at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas “Phil Hill.” There is a 130 foot elevation change from the start line to the apex, and I think the hill should be named after Phil.

The 81st running of the Grand Prix of Italy will be contested this weekend at Monza. Monza is the fastest circuit on the GP schedule and is one of my favorite events. Monza has the best track food of any circuit I have visited, and the staff at the food outlets are some of the hardest working and polite people I have encountered. I suggest that you plan a trip to Monza, but if you can’t, you can always tune in to the SpeedTV broadcast, have a cappuccino and a brioche, and enjoy the race. That’s what I’ll be doing.

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