Bette Hill occupied a unique position in Formula One history, as the only wife and mother of world champion drivers. Her husband Graham won the title in 1962 for BRM and again for Lotus in 1968; son Damon did so for Williams in 1996.
Naturally, Bette, who married Graham in 1955, was a staunch supporter of both when they raced, and admitted that at times her partisan nature got the better of her.
The truth is that one could forgive her anything. Not just because she had been the “First Lady” of Formula One in the days when Graham was racing and seducing fans across the globe with his famous moustache and his outrageously witty sense of humour. But also because of her towering strength when everything went wrong on 29 November 1975.
That was the evening when Graham’s Piper Aztec crashed on Arkley Golf Course, near Barnet in north London, in foggy weather on its return from a successful test session at the Paul Ricard circuit in southern France. All six occupants perished: Hill, the pilot; Tony Brise, the young racer in whose burgeoning talent Graham finally saw the means by which he could retire gracefully and focus exclusively in running the eponymous team he had set up in 1973; designer Andy Smallman; team manager Ray Brimble; and mechanics Tony Alcock and Terry Richards.
In the terrible week that followed, this extraordinary woman attended five of the six funerals. She had lost her husband, her children’s father, and the members of his team, who were their close friends. But it was even worse than that. There were problems with the plane’s licensing, and the insurance was invalidated. Members of the other five families, perforce, were obliged to bring legal actions again the Hill estate. At a stroke, she literally lost almost everything in her life, except her children, Damon, and his sisters Brigitte and Samantha.
How she coped was a lasting tribute to her indomitable courage.
“I don’t know how I did,” she would admit readily. “You just do it. You have to. I went to five funerals and the only reason I didn’t go to six was that dear old Terry was on the same day as Graham.
“I did it for Graham. And because I had three children to look after. Peter Jopp and Jackie Stewart took me to some of the funerals. I said once to Jochen Rindt’s widow, Nina, that I didn’t know how I was going to live without Graham. But, of course, you do. But I still talk to him now, ‘Look at the mess you’ve got me into.’
“When Brigitte got married, I asked everyone to join Graham and I in a toast to the bride and groom. I could never leave him out of it. He was so much a part of my life.”
Hill had seen Grand Prix racing in the late Fifties, the Sixties and the Seventies, and then again in the Nineties, eras as different as front and rear-engined F1 cars.
“Socially it was wonderful, with all the parties. We were all pretty glamorous girls in those days, and we looked after ourselves and were made up properly to go to the races and had nice clothes to sit on pit counters and get filthy dirty, but it didn’t matter.”
They were an intrinsic part of it all, part of the team, and also a valuable support group for the bad times, and entertainers via The Doghouse Club which they formed.
But she had no rose-tinted spectacles when she looked back. Those early decades were also among the most dangerous in the sport’s history, a brutal time when wives were often called on to clear the room of a fallen brother, while trying to put their own concerns about the men they loved firmly to the back of their mind.
Back then the dark side was not something that many couples would discuss openly, for fear of tempting fate. Bette once said to Graham that she didn’t know what would happen to the family if he wasn’t around, and he told her not to worry, he had it all sorted. She smiled sadly at the memory; “But he hadn’t.”
“Don’t you worry about a thing, it’s all arranged,” she said he had told her, during an interview with Hunter Davies 13 years before the accident. “I know he prefers me not to think about it. I don’t really worry, except from time to time when something happens and you see and ambulance racing off. Then you worry who it is… But when your man’s okay, then you get back to the race and you never worry again until something else happens…”
When he set off on his own road to the world title, Damon had in mind to put his family back together again, on his terms. The cross he had to bear was that because he was a gentleman and an honourable man, he was often an easy target, for the Michael Schumachers, some team members who were less than supportive, or demanding and unforgiving journalists. In that respect he was different to his father.
“Graham would never get involved in an argument with them,” Bette said. “He said something like, ‘I refuse to get involved in a vulgar brawl,’ with somebody who once called him a coward when they were confronting him about something or other. And these people just shrunk, because he was such a gentleman and put them under the ground.”
When Graham raced as his nemesis Jim Clark’s team-mate at Lotus in 1967, and later when Damon had teammates of his own, she would work a stopwatch for all of them, even when Graham or Damon (woe betide those who pronounced it Dame-On, Damun or Damien, rather than Day-mon) had retired. It was something she felt honour-bound to do.
“Always! And the opposition. It was good for me because it gave me something to do, apart from anything else.”
Somewhere in her possessions she had a signed card from Damon’s one-time Williams partner David Coulthard, which read: “To Bette, thanks for being so impartial.”
She found it tough when it was Graham’s car which broke so often in 1967, as Clark won four races.
“Poor Graham, once again the bridesmaid! I know that hurt him. He never said very much afterwards – he would ask me a few things about the happenings in the pits because I was his spy, and I could see. Let’s face it, we all knew that Jimmy was Colin’s favourite. And Colin couldn’t help himself. Jimmy got the best. He was a brilliant driver, but then so was Graham… Jimmy was never a bad sportsman, but he did a bit of sulking. He was a complete natural, and then you think of how hard Graham worked. No one gave him anything, he worked hard for it all.”
It was a familiar lament that she had to bear not once, but twice, for her son was frequently damned by some because, like Graham against Jim Clark, he too had to work harder to achieve his results against Michael Schumacher.
“You can’t blame anyone if they are a natural and it comes easy, can you? If it’s your good fortune. But there’s nothing wrong with a strong work ethic, either.”
There were people within Williams whom she was never able to forgive for their reaction during her son’s particularly bruising but ultimately cathartic 1995 season, when they failed to give him support when he most needed it.
“One or two of the people there who should have known better and should have encouraged him, just made him feel that big,” indicating a tiny gap between finger and thumb. “Graham never felt that. He always was a much stronger character mentally than Damon. Damon became stronger mentally because he had to, but Graham already was, because he had rowed for Great Britain. You don’t get into a boat and row without being very tough up here, there are eight or four of you and you can’t let any of them down.
“That didn’t happen with Damon because he didn’t have a father, which was tragic, and he didn’t know where to go and who to talk to when he was getting started. That was very hard on him. He was surrounded by women when he needed a man.”
One of four girls born to a cricketer who also worked for The Times, and a mother who was ambitious for her children in the proper way, Bette and her sisters were achievers, and she understood the competitive imperative. One played piano, another was a champion schools swimmer, the third was also sporting, and Bette herself rowed for Britain in 1952 and 1954 and finished third in the European Championship quadruple sculls at Compiègne in 1954.
“I was angry when Murray Walker said that Michael Schumacher was a great sportsman after he ‘won’ the title in Adelaide in 1994 after crashing deliberately into Damon. Schumacher’s style that day just wasn’t in my book.
“If my sisters or I sulked because we’d lost or weren’t happy how we’d won, both my parents used to say to us, ‘If you can’t win honourably, don’t win at all’.”
It was an ethic that F1’s First Lady inculcated in both her husband and her son. Both were extremely successful at their chosen profession, but the matriarch of the Hill family was in her own way every bit as intrepid as they were.
The legend endures of two very distinctive world champion Englishmen. And one very brave Englishwoman who always had their backs.
Bette Hill (née Shubrook) born 12 June 1926, died 8 December 2017