London has given the world many sporting heroes and champions over the years, though one who carried London’s colours around the world remains the first and only to achieve a very special triple crown in motor racing. Formula One and Indycar enthusiasts will know of global superstar Fernando Alonso, who last weekend secured victory at the 2018 Le Mans 24 Hour race. The two time Formula One world champion is on a mission to equal the feat of one of London’s favourite sons and Mr Monaco himself, Graham Hill.
The triple crown of motorsport is an unofficial accolade. There isn’t even a clear consensus as to what precisely what constitutes it. The three most iconic races in motor sport are Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix, the Le Mans 24 Hour sportscar race and the Indianapolis 500. Some argue that the Formula One World Championship can be considered an appropriate tick in the box rather than victory in the principality of Monte Carlo. Graham Hill won them all.
Alonso now like him has two Formula One World Championships, the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix and Le Mans, after competing at the sharp end of the action in the 2017 Indianapolis 500 before gremlins in his Honda engine brought his rookie attempt at victory to a premature end. The attraction of Triple Crown is very simple, as achieving it demonstrates that a driver is amongst the most complete in history as it requires mastery of three very different specialisms from the twisting streets of Monte Carlo to super fast American ovals and the punishing attrition rate of racing through the night in the endurance challenge of Le Mans.
Graham Hill’s story started in the leafy suburbs of London’s Hampstead on the 15th February 1929 and before embarking on his career in motor racing, initially as a mechanic, he joined the London Rowing Club with whom between 1952 and 1954 he would win eight out of twenty finals. It would be their colours of dark blue with white rowing blades that he would later he and his son, 1996 F1 World Champion Damon, would carry to victory as their helmet design.
Hill once said of this formative experience that, “”I really enjoyed my rowing. It really taught me a lot about myself, and I also think it is a great character-building sport…The self discipline required for rowing and the ‘never say die’ attitude obviously helped me through the difficult years that lay ahead.”
After saving for the 1950’s equivalent of a track day at Brands Hatch, Hill began the pursuit of a motor racing career initially working as a mechanic and developing a deep understanding of how to improve performance through technical preparation. Nearly unheard of today, Hill joined Team Lotus (from The London Storyteller’s home neighbourhood of Crouch End) as a mechanic and then negotiated his way into securing a seat as a driver with debut in Formula One at the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix.
A remarkable career ensued during the most dangerous era in motor racing history and against some of its finest competitors including Jim Clark and Sir Jackie Stewart. Hill secured his first Formula One World Championship for BRM in 1962 with his first victory at Monaco in 1963 followed by a hat trick and two further wins there by back-to-back wins in 1968 & 1969. His mastery of the principality’s streets and the sports most glamorous event earned him the name of Mr Monaco.
In 1966 Hill claimed victory on his first outing at the Indianapolis 500 driving for Team Lotus starting from the fifth row in race against American greats like Mario Andretti, A.J Foyt, Dan Gurney and Parnelli Jones. He would compete in two further Indianapolis 500 including an attempt in 1968 in the innovative Pratt-Whitney turbine engined Lotus 56.
At this stage in his career and even after his second Formula One World Championship title in 1968, Hill was still living in London at 23 Parkside, Mill Hill in the London Borough of Barnet. The house today has a blue plaque awarded by English Heritage to mark it famous former resident and during Hill’s 1960s heyday was the scene of many parties bringing together the great racing drivers of the day often to the sound of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass Band.
Following a life threatening accident at Watkins Glen in the United States Grand Prix on 1969 in which he broke both of his legs and already aged 40, a return to the sharp end of motor racing was in doubt for all except the man himself who began an intensive recovery programme to overcome his injuries.
In 1972, he completed the triple crown of motorsport with victory in the Le Mans 24 Hour race returning after an absence of six years alongside the initially dubious Henri Pescarolo driving a Matra sportscar in race that would also claim the life of his team mate from the 1964 event, Jo Bonnier.
That in the nearly fifty years since Hill achieved this benchmark no other driver has equaled his achievement is a measure of the outstanding nature of the endeavour involved. Hill conquered the triple crown at a time when motor racing was far more dangerous than it is today and in machinery with a much greater tendency to break and when such misfortune could all to often threaten to end a driver’s life.
And so to Fernando Alonso, already considered as one of the great racing drivers of his era, he is now just one step away from matching Hill’s achievement at a time where current Formula One drivers rarely get the opportunity to compete in other disciplines. He like London’s great racing champion carries on his helmet the colours of his home with the light blue of the Asturias and like Graham Hill has become a racing champion on a global stage; in the meantime The London Storyteller will be putting a Herb Alpert record on, grooming a dastardly looking moustache and growing an excellent set of sideburns in tribute to one of London’s finest champions.