Remembering Bette Hill: Motor racing's 'First Lady'

The life of a remarkable woman was fondly recalled on Friday when the motor racing world said goodbye to Bette Hill, wife of one world champion and mother to another.

In many ways, Bette Hill was the 'First Lady' of motor racing thanks to her staunch support for husband Graham and selfless work helping other wives in an era when tragedy would intrude, almost on a weekly basis.

On November 29, 1975, Bette became a sufferer herself when Graham's Piper Aztec crashed in fog while returning from a test session at Paul Ricard, killing the double world champion, Tony Brise (a brilliantly talented 23-year-old protégé of Hill following his retirement from the cockpit that summer) and four members of his eponymous F1 team.

As F1 journalist David Tremayne recalled during one of the many moving tributes on Friday, Bette attended five funerals in one terrible week (the sixth was on the same day as Graham's service at St Albans Abbey).

The loss of her beloved husband and the task of bringing up Damon and his two younger sisters received a stinging blow from left field when it was discovered that paperwork associated with the aircraft was invalid, leaving members of the other five families with no option but to bring legal action against the Hill estate.

Bette's life changed in every direction, the hectic social whirl of parties and personalities stopping overnight as the Hill family was forced to somehow regroup under severely reduced circumstances.

Damon's mother was not only a tower of strength but she also had to deal with a son who had chosen to race motorbikes. Bette's only intervention was engineering a switch to cars, a move that, as Damon wryly recalled on Friday, turned out rather well.

Along the way, Mrs Hill was the custodian of her boy's reputation, which usually resulted in a forcibly written message on a post card landing on the desk of any journalist daring to offer a critical comment in print. This moved onto a higher level in November 1994, as she had reminded Tremayne in a subsequent interview.

"I was angry," said Bette, "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 struck a chord with more than 150 mourners from all walks of motor sport and stands as a fitting epitaph to a brave and resolute lady representing an era far removed from this one.