Graham Hill, AKA ‘Mr. Motor Racing’ and ‘Mr. Monaco’, twice winner of the Formula One World Driver’s Championship (1962 and 1968), winner of the Indy 500 at his first attempt (1966), five-time winner of the Monaco Grand Prix (1963, 1964, 1965, 1968, 1969), winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours (1972) and the only driver in racing history to have won the ‘Triple Crown of Motorsport’ (F1 championship, Indy 500 and Le Mans). A hero to racing enthusiasts and petrolheads everywhere.
His win at Le Mans in 1972 sealed the Triple Crown and did so amid increasing opinion from racing journalists and fans that he was past, over the hill, washed up. He’d been racing professionally since 1958, was 44 years old and, despite his previous glittering career, was increasingly regarded as yesterday’s man. To many, the old lion had lost his bite and should have already retired. He hadn’t won a Grand Prix since Monaco in 1969, had been crippled by a horrendous shunt at the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen that year and, many thought, shouldn’t really be be racing any more. Team bosses were regularly overlooking him when choosing new drivers, he hadn’t had a big-name team employ him for a couple of years and his Grand Prix record since Watkins Glen consisted of a series of low-placed finishes and retirements. Things couldn’t really have looked any bleaker than they were.
But, while he was older than most drivers, still suffered to some extent after his Watkins Glen shunt and was regarded increasingly as a relic of a bygone age, the old lion still had one last roar left in him. He would prove his critics wrong where every serious driver longs to (on the track) and by winning a prestigious race (the Le Mans 24 Hours) when nobody really thought he had a chance in hell of winning and probably wouldn’t even finish.
Le Mans in 1972 was his last hurrah. He was sharing a Matra-Simca 670 V12 with French veteran Henri Pescarolo. Le Mans 1972 would be the first of three consecutive outright wins for Matra (1972, 1973, 1974), Pescarolo’s first of four outright wins (1972, 1973, 1974, 1984), the first outright Le Mans win for a French team since 1950 (Talbot-Lago) and, of course, made Graham Hill the winner of racing’s only Triple Crown. Things had changed a little for the track since the 1971 race. The dangerously-fast Maison Blanche section had been removed and replaced by the Porsche Curves and Ford Chicane. The entry rules for Le Mans had changed. Out were the big 5-litre monsters like the Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 and in were 3-litre cars, many using the Ford-Cosworth DFV engines that were dominating F1 at the time. The big opposition to Matra were Alfa-Romeo, fielding 3 of their TT3 cars. Less serious opposition came from a plethora of Lolas and a single outdated, underpowered Porsche 908/L prepared by legendary Le Mans bigwig Reinhold Joest. Ferrari weren’t really interested in Le Mans that year, preferring to stick to the 1000-kilometre races that formed most of the ‘World Championship for Makes’ and didn’t field a factory team.
As the hours dragged by, day turned into night into day again and cars began dropping out through accidents and sheer attrition, Hill and Pescarolo took the lead. The Alfa challenge disappeared relatively early with mechanical breakdowns and the Porsche 908/L was never really in contention. Another 1950’s alumni, Jo Bonnier, set fastest lap with his Lola T290, lapping the Circuit de La Sarthe in 3:46.90 at an average speed of 134.532mph. By a truly bitter Irony Bonnier, one of Sir Jackie Stewart’s staunch allies in his campaign to improve racing safety, was killed in an accident involving Florian Vetsch and his privately-entered Ferrari GTB4 just before Indianapolis corner. Bonnier’s Lola somersaulted over the crash barriers into the trees and caught fire. Bonnier died instantly.
Pescarolo and Hill inherited the lead shortly after midnight. Their Matra 670 V12 ‘short tail’ proved reliable, durable and fast enough to be competitive while faster cars dropped out with breakdowns. When Matra team-mate David Hobbs and Jean-Pierre Jabouille dropped out with mechanical trouble it began to look as though the dream might become a reality. Could Hill really do it? It’s a long race and there were still nearly 16 hours left to run. But, they were leading and if they could simply hold on then history was about to be made. But would it be..?
It would. At the finish the Hill/Pescarolo Matra was still out in front. Hill, ever the gentleman although he must have been burning to win his Triple Crown while at the wheel, was gracious enough to forgo this joy in favour of having Pescarolo, a French driver in a French car, provide the first outright win for a French team since father-and-son Louis and Jean-Louis Rosier took the chequered flag in their Talbot-Lago T26 GS in 1950. Hill and Pescarolo had survived 344 laps, covering 4691.343 kilometres at an average speed per lap of 195.472 kilometres an hour. Matra had their win, the Franch had their long-awaited glory and Hill had his Triple Crown. About the only people not popping copious amounts of champagne bottles were all those scribblers and talking heads who’d said he was past it and whom the old lion had just bitten soundly on their rumps. Even Lola, perennial also-rans in sportscar and endurance racing, had something to celebrate when their T290 entered by Kodak Pathe France became the first Lola to actually finish at Le Mans.
I’ve always admired Graham Hill. He was a great driver with a stellar record. He held Team Lotus together after the death of Jim Clark at Hockenheim in April, 1968. He drove some of the finest cars ever to grace road or racetrack. He’s the only Triple-Crown winner in racing history. But, most of all, I admire him for Le mans 1972, when he showed the world that he wasn’t completely finished, did so at the toughest of races and, for anybody who dislikes journalists in general, put his media doubters firmly (and unanswerably) in their place.
Rest In Peace.