The following is taken from articles in Powerboat 85 and Powerboat 86 Yearbooks.
‘Powerboat racing was a much more physical sport when I started. We’d think nothing of slamming into each other all round the course!’ John Hill, Formula Grand Prix World Champion, was talking about his early racing days, twenty five years ago; the days of home-made boats and twenty-two horsepower motors, and an era when Hill thought the world had come to an end after running at 35 mph!
That scenario bore little resemblance to the keyed-up driver biting his nails in the pits of the 1984 Paris Six Hour race. The quietly spoken sign writer from Cheltenham was one hour away from a double victory: he was about to confirm his claim on the Formula Grand Prix World Championship, and also intended to retain the Paris title earned in 1983 with racing partner Tony Williams. Hill’s joint victory on the Paris circuit, the final event in a ten-Grand Prix World Series, was almost as much of a victory in itself for the Englishman. He has spent many years in the past just trying to finish the gruelling race. ‘People go on about how rough Bristol becomes for the monohulls,’ Hill pointed out. ‘I’ve got film of Paris with eighty V bottoms racing, and that’s a damn sight rougher!’
Hill has been racing for longer than he cares to think about. ‘I can remember everybody starting, people like Molinari – he was a slim lad in those days!’ But asking Hill about his first experiences in racing takes him even further back than that. ‘I used to race in the days when we were two in a boat, and then we raced in flat bottom single seaters and had to lean over the side when we turning to keep the balance. One of my first boats was a Bristol,’ explained Hill, ‘called Sheeza-B and I was competing against people like Ron Wolbold, Lee Merryfield, Roy Clark – he was a tough driver!’ exclaimed Hill.
Charlie Sheppard gave John his first ‘works drive’. ‘And that was before Charlie had a beard,’ pointed out Hill, ‘that’s how long ago it was!’ Sheppard gave the young driver a hull and Hill put a deck on it. He also drove for Bill Shakespeare and Norman Fletcher, both founders of large commercial boat building enterprises.
Already armed with a formidable winning reputation, the Englishman switched to catamarans the same year they began to invade the racing scene, in 1965. ‘My first one was a brand new Schultz from America, without powertrim or anything like that! Then I started racing for Norman Fletcher,’ Hill continued, ‘and he adapted powertrim for race boats. I had one of the first ones on an OI class boat he built and I took it to Holland to race. Everyone looked at the two buttons mounted on the deck and said it would never work! I had to put my hand over the side and press one of the two buttons marked ‘In’ and ‘Out’. I didn’t know how to work the damn things but I won the race and everyone wanted powertrim! ?
Other than the occasional supply of boats from manufacturers, Hill supported his racing from his own pocket. ‘Even later on when I joined OE (Formula 3) and got some sponsorship, it was never enough and I certainly never made any money out of it. I’ve had to work a lot of hours to go boat racing.’ John Hill is best known for his stint of over ten years in Formula 3. ‘When the first boats came out for OE (850 cc sports class), I knew we had a boat that was capable of going 100 mph, but a lot of people didn’t think so. I felt it was the class for me, and I think I’ve had some of my best racing in Formula 3. And it is still the best class for any driver who is serious about racing, to get some good groundwork. It takes skill to ‘propride’ an OE and keep it balanced.’
The British driver won everything there was to win, liking to quote the year when he won fourteen of fifteen Formula 3 internationals he entered. Formula 3 World Champion in 1980 and ’81, it was getting to the stage where all he could do was to go for the same trophies again. Already at an age (47) where many people had already reached or given up their goals, had the most experienced driver on the water achieved all he wanted from powerboat racing? ‘Not at all,’ grinned Hill, ‘there were two more classes above me, so I thought I’d move up a step. It was time for me to make a change anyway, for a variety of reasons, so I started in formula Grand Prix in 1982.’
Not even having time to practice before his first race, Hill took delivery of a Mercury two litre for his Burgess catamaran, bolted it on and drove to Milan, to come second behind Michael Werner. ‘It felt like old times!’ joked the driver, ‘Werner and I had been scrapping for many years in Formula 3, and he had moved on to ON the year before I did – now here we are fighting the same old battles!’ indeed, although he is quick to point out that there are many talented competitors in the class, Hill feels the only persistent competition in the past couple of years in Formula Grand Prix has been from Werner. ‘He and I have discovered that it is possible to ‘hang’ a Formula Grand Prix boat as loose as a Formula 3, to trim as high and still maintain control,’ suggested Hill, ‘and that is keeping us out in front.’
If, after ten years he had done it all in Formula 3, has John Hill not achieved all he set out to do in Formula Grand Prix in just three years? ‘I still thoroughly enjoy the racing,’ insisted Hill, ‘but there is obviously one other thing I would like to do, and that’s have a crack at Molinari and van der Velden. I’ve raced against them many times in the past in OE and ON, but it is tempting to get into Formula 1. And,’ John pointed out, ‘if a driver is not thinking that way he shouldn’t be racing. It is the obvious ultimate goal in a racing career.’
There is one fundamental problem to Hill’s ambition – money. ‘I’m not sure I’d be able to do Formula Grand Prix in 1985,’ he admitted, ‘if sponsorship doesn’t pick up.’ But this he felt was another reason to move on to Formula 1. ‘Prize money is considerably better, and if the only way I can go racing is by winning the money to plough back into the team, then Formula 1 has to be the way to go.’
Hill continued to race in Formula Grand Prix during the 1985 season. He won four Grands Prix and successfully defended his claim on the Formula Grand Prix world Championship. But the fifty-three year old Champion was not happy with his lot in powerboat racing. ‘I go out to win because that’s what racing is all about. But equally, I race to win because I need the prize money in order to get to the next race! When I won the London Grand Prix, I took home less prize money than Tony Williams did for coming sixth in Formula 1!’
Despite the shortage of funds, there is no doubt that the Gloucestershire signwriter throws his body and soul into his chosen sport. ‘I live to race. I work in order to be able to go racing, and all spare hours are used for testing and setting-up the boat. In fact I think the urge to win is even greater now than it was in my early days! I’m certainly more aggressive than I used to be.’ Hill has established a team rapport that is the envy of his competitors. Nobody can possibly work harder than his crewmen Rob Adamson and Hill’s son Steve in preparing for a race. ‘We’re probably the most dedicated and professional team on the Formula Grand Prix circuit and very little gets the better of "my boys".’ But they are as dependable in the more mundane aspects of racing. ‘We do a lot of testing at Chasewater, always trying to better our own times, and testing new set-ups as well as getting that little extra out of the motor. But it's undoubtedly my experience in setting-up a boat that gives me the edge over other drivers. Why do people insist on asking me when I’m going to retire,’ joked the oldest of all world class circuit powerboat drivers, ‘when they see I can still run rings around some of these youngsters?!’
Does he ever worry about the safety aspect? ‘It’s always at the back of my mind,’ admitted Hill. ‘I’ve seen the sport claim the lives of a lot of friends over the years. And I learned my lesson earlier on this season, when I was testing in Chasewater, going flat-out to see what a new boat could do. I touched 136 mph but I felt her lift off the water ever so slightly and it scared me. What it taught me was that it’s time for all of us to fit these safety cells they’ve introduced in Formula One. I’ll have one whatever class I’m in next year.’