Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hill's Mechanical Skills An Advantage At Ferrari?

Phil Hill (shown at right) had an acute connection with the car: Like a mother who intuits a child’s sickness, Hill knew if a car was ailing, and what misalignment of spring or sprocket might be to blame. He could recall his tach readings from any point of a practice run. He lapsed into long brooding silences over some subtle issue.

His years as a mechanic in the dirty pits of midget racing and the repair shop at International Motors served him well. As did his musical ear. Just as he could hear if his player piano was faulty or misfiring, he could he could gauge the car’s health by listening to its arpeggios and fortissimos. For him, the car was an extension of his self, just as a violin is an appendage of the musician.

On days leading up to a race he took his car out for ten or so laps at a time, then pulled into the pits to report an uneven shock or faulty toe-in. He was obsessive about these problems, however small they might be, and he could not understand the mechanics quitting for the day without addressing fixing them.

The mechanics were unaccustomed to working with a driver who knew as much as them about the car’s workings, and cared about every detail with obsessive intensity. They welcomed his feedback, but only up to a point. Like Italian tailors, the mechanics were prideful craftsmen. They saw it as trespassing when Hill diagnosed a problem for them and told them how to fix it.

The language barrier complicated Hill’s relationship to the mechanics, sometimes in his favor. The mechanics would speak only Italian. By 1958 Hill was fairly fluent, but he hid his proficiency from so that he could eavesdrop as the mechanics talked about him and the politics of the team.

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