Wednesday, May 28, 2008

I Am An Artist, The Track Is My Canvas And The Car Is My Brush

Hill's distinctive helmet, decked out in his rowing colours.

I was stumbling around the BBC iPlayer site last night when I found yet another BBC 3 documentary that I'd never have seen otherwise. 'Graham Hill: Driven', details the life and times of Graham Hill, a racing driver who won two world championships, five Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours. A record that few will ever match again. Hill was a complex character. Close, yet authoritarian with his mechanics and family, a wit and raconteur, a party animal, 'lady's man'..................... An absurd sense of humour seemed to never be far from the surface, yet he turned into a demanding perfectionist the moment he got near a racing car.

The film is a fascinating insight into how he was able to compartmentalise his life and juggle the various demands of family, sport and business. Many colleagues recalled the hedonism and fun involved in being anywhere near the man, yet others, his son included, recalled a demanding, intensely focussed individual who suffered no fool gladly.

What also makes this programme fascinating is the way it looks into a world that has long gone. A world in which motor racing was something people just 'tried their hand at', a world in which you could be racing at the very top level within a few years if you were good enough, a world in which drivers generally lived like normal human beings, often had lives before they went racing.............. He was a late starter in the sport, even by the standards of his day. Modern drivers have, by the time they reach F1, somewhere in the region of 15-20 years behind them in the sport, having raced throughout their childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. When Graham Hill finally retired in 1975, in his forties, he had been driving for roughly the same length of time. His was a fairly lucky career for the time, only having one serious accident. Many were maimed or killed before they could realise their potential and even those blessed with greatness couldn't bank on making it out the other end alive. As Hill stated in 1968, if a genius like Jim Clark could die at the wheel of a racing car, anyone could.........

Hill had retired from driving in 1975 to concentrate on managing his own team. One foggy night, returning in his private plane from the south of France, he mis-judged the tree line on the approach to the air strip and he and the rest of his team were killed in the accident. As something of a footnote, probably the saddest thing about Graham Hill's death was the effect it had on his family. His wife Bette was sued by the families of the others who died in the crash, due to the fact that Graham wasn't insured. Much of the wealth the family had evaporated in settlements. Whilst they weren't exactly out on the streets, the comedown from the heady days of the late sixties must have been crushing.

So, go watch. It's good! You don't even need to like car racing, it's about that, but not, if you see what I mean. One of the first true stars of the sport, in the sense that the general public knew who he was, and a man who whilst embodying all the virtues of the gentleman racer of old, had the savvy and personality to deal with the burgeoning press and media interest in the sport and pave the way for others. Sadly, nowadays this means sullen young Finns, arrogant Germans, boring Brazilians and a British contender who looks like he should be presenting Blue Peter, giving us one more reason to flip channels when the car racing comes on the telly.

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