Graham Hill began racing in 1954, just a year after passing his driving test at the age of 24. Over the following two decades, he put together one of the most impressive track records in the history of motorsport.
Hill’s career, however, did not really take off until the 1960s when he won the first of his two Formula One world titles (1962), scored his first three Monaco Grand Prix victories (1963–65) and triumphed in the Indianapolis 500 (1966).
After attending Le Mans as a mechanic and reserve driver for Lotus in 1957, Hill raced the 24 Hours every year from 1958 to 1966, competing in a Lotus (1958-59), Porsche (1960), Ferrari (1961 and 1964), Aston Martin (1962) and Ford (1966). He was particularly quick off the mark in 1962 when he led the field after the first lap.
One of the cars driven by Hill at Le Mans was a gas turbine prototype built by the British manufacturer Rover who had invested heavily in the technology. Rover entered the car in the 1963 race in partnership with BRM, the team with which Hill had won the 1962 Formula One title. When he first took the wheel of the car, Hill remarked that the whistling turbine made the car sound like a Boeing 707 airliner. Due to the turbine’s response time, to accelerate out of Mulsanne, the British driver and his American teammate Richie Ginther had to step on the gas some 100 yards before reaching the corner!
As an experimental car, the gas turbine-powered Rover sported the number 00 in the 1963 race and was not officially classified. It was in many ways the pioneer of the Garage 56 entries created by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest in 2012. It did, however, manage to complete this 40th anniversary edition of the race as Hill took the Le Mans chequered flag for the very first time.
Two years later, Hill returned to Rover-BRM with a new teammate, the future three-time world champion Jackie Stewart. Despite overheating caused by a problem on the turbine fins, they placed tenth overall – officially this time as the Rover-BRM had been allowed to compete in the 2-litre class.
In the intervening year of 1964, Hill achieved his first Le Mans podium with a runner-up spot alongside Swedish partner Jo Bonnier, at the wheel of a Ferrari 330 P entered by Maranello Concessionaires, the team run by British Ferrari importer Ronnie Hoare. Hill had only joined the team when Rover-BRM withdrew following their transporter’s accident on the way back from preliminary testing for the race.
In 1966, following his win in the 50th Indianapolis 500, Hill teamed up with Australian Brian Muir for his ninth 24 Hours of Le Mans, this time in a Ford GT40. Unfortunately, he had to pull up just before midnight due to a suspension problem.
After a six-year hiatus, Hill returned to Le Mans in 1972, a year that would see the British ace enter racing legend – as you can find out in the second part of this trilogy.
Photo (ACO archives): Graham Hill at the wheel of the Lotus 15 in which he made his first two 24 Hours of Le Mans appearances, in 1958 (pictured) and 1959.