Derek John Hill Wins Ferrari Challenge International Finale Much to the surprise of many more experienced, not least of whom was his father, World Champion Phil Hill, Derek John Hill beat the best Europe had to offer in the Ferrari Challenge International Finale.
The reason for the surprise is that twenty year-old Derek has only been racing for one year and that he had never seen the track at Mugello or the car he was to race in. Look to US Ferrari Challenge Wrap-Up for a write up of the final race of the US Ferrari Challenge series to see how Derek fared in his 348 ride this year on this side of the pond. After that race in Texas Derek joined his Dad on a trip to Italy. Phil Hill was going over to race Brandon Wang's 1957 TR in a historic race coincident with the Ferrari Challenge International Finale at Ferrari's Mugello race circuit so Derek went along, sans 348, to see how he could do against the Europeans.
Derek in the pits at Mugello in front of 3 of the American entries. Gerry Jackson's Nicole Miller-painted 348 is easy to identify.
A few other American 348 Challenge Drivers went over as well, and brought their cars, but neither US F355 winner Peter Sachs nor US 348 series winner George Robinson were among them. Not bringing his car could have been a blessing or a curse. Unlike the US series, in Europe lots of drivers race in F355s so the 348s are really outclassed. Additionally, the US-spec 348s are even at a disadvantage to the European 348s due to about 200 extra pounds of bumpers and doors. Fortunately, Ferrari has an F355 car that they use as a loaner and they let Derek use it for the weekend.
The American drivers contingent in Italy (left to right) - Mario Bommarito (FNA's liason for the Americans), Phil Hill, Larry Wahl, Bruce Jamison, Derek John Hill, Paul Frame, and Rick Smith. Not pictured are Gerry Jackson and Steve Earle.
The racers were grouped into four classes: Eastern, Western and Southern Europe, plus an American/Japanese class. Interestingly, because all the American and Japanese competitors had 348s, Derek was placed into the South European class. This would put young Derek right in the middle of the notoriously aggressive Italians.
Derek's number 27 loaner F355 at Mugello.
Before the actual race weekend, the American and Japanese competitors were given a chance to practice at the official Ferrari test track - Fiorano. This was where Derek would have to acclimate to his new ride. And acclimate he did. All of the technicians and drivers were skeptical of Dereks's abilities at first but after a few orientation laps to the new track and new car, he began whittling down his lap times. By the end of the session he was over 5 seconds faster than every other driver (though they were in 348s remember). Remember - this is a kid who, despite his lineage, drove his first car race less than a year ago.
His parents didn't encourage him towards racing and hoped that he'd see "what an idiotic occupation car racing is." It seemed to be working. He began driving carts less than 2 years ago and his Dad made certain that he wasn't in a competitive cart, in hopes that he'd get it all out of his system and get a real job. That was until he met Andy Evans in Monterey last year at the FCA National Meet. Andy asked him what he planned to with himself and quiet Derek answered as most teenagers do with some sort of "I dunno" answer. Andy offered him an opportunity to test drive a Kudsu/Buick World Sports Car at Phoenix and Derek wisely took him up on it. Apparently, Andy made some sort of side bet with Leigh Miller that if Derek could achieve a predetermined lap time that Leigh would give him a ride in a Porsche for the Firehawk race at Sebring. Needless to say, Derek beat the goal and got the ride - his first-ever car race, almost exactly one year ago. Despite a gremlin in the ABS computer, his showing was credible and without incident. This led to his participation in the Ferrari Challenge series, thanks to a little help from Southwest Region members Cy Yedor and Cris Vandagrif.
His Dad still doesn't believe that race car driving talent is in any way hereditary, except perhaps for "a certain amount of screwiness in your nature" that quiet and reserved Derek doesn't seem to have inherited so expectations weren't too high. Boy, was he wrong. Derek came out charging from the start and, despite a couple mechanical and logistical problems (including missing the race at Road Atlanta), Derek finished a credible second in the 348 series.
So, the stage is set for young, inexperienced Derek in an unfamiliar car to do his best at Mugello.... For those who haven't been there, Ferrari's Mugello is a first-class racing facility, worthy of hosting a Formula 1 Grand Prix if it weren't for the lack of roads in and out of the area. It is a complex 3.5 mile course with many turns - "experts" say that it takes a while to master the track. Well, John Marconi might argue with that - you'll recall that he represented the US in last year's 348 Challenge finals and finished second amongst lots of spinning and rubbing. None the less, Derek had his work cut out for him, especially since there were over 100 cars competing in the series so practice and qualifying time was severely limited.
Phil gives Derek some pointers during testing.
The format was practice and qualifying Saturday morning, with each of the four classes getting one race on Saturday afternoon and one on Sunday morning, with the best finishers from those races moving on the grand finale Sunday afternoon. Practice was divided into "even and odd" cars so there were about 50 cars at a time trying to qualify. On top of that, qualifying sessions were limited to only 30 minutes, so with a 3.5 mile course competitors would only get about 10 laps in each of the two qualifying sessions.
Derek adapted to the new course quickly and was in sixth position at the end of the first qualifying session. But the best was yet to come. On the last lap of the last session, Derek turned a 3:04.87 - the only driver to break under 3:05. This not only gave him pole position, it was also a new F355 course record at Mugello!
Still, Derek had a long way to go because the European races begin from a standing start, unlike the rolling start US races, and Derek had no experience with that format. Not to mention that the Italians have a reputation for rough driving that a novice like Derek might be intimidated by - it's one thing to drive fast in qualifying, it's a whole other ball game to do it with someone on your tail or along side.
At the start of the first South European class race, Derek got off to a good start but wasn't quite as fast as the other car on the front row so he was beat into turn one. The mass of Italians were right behind him, bumping and grinding their way into position. Cars were flying off the track but Derek showed talent beyond his years when he faked to the left coming into turn one on the end of the second lap and then ducked to the right and out-braked the leading car to take the lead. He began to slowly pull away but one of the cars behind him had flown of the track so far that it was stuck in a dangerous spot and the officials brought out the safety car.
Derek leads the agressive Italians through the bends of Mugello. Not much they can do if they can't catch you.
Groans emit from Derek's pits as they realize that his lead is going to vaporize as everyone gets to bunch up behind him and the safety car. Derek again finds himself in a new situation that he has no experience with. Fortunately, he's watched lots of races on TV and he's able to accordion the cars behind him and get on the gas just as the lights go off on the safety car, maintaining his position. From there it was a straight-forward drive to the finish, with all the drama happening behind him. The American underdog, Derek John Hill wins the first South European final!
On Sunday, the grid for the second race is determined by finishing position in the first so Derek again finds himself on the pole. Some of the Italians have the gall to ask him to start from the back so as not to mess up their final race but with a little bit of help it is explained to them that Derek is just as serious about winning as they are so he keeps his pole position. This time Derek gets a better start (he's obviously a quick study) and he keeps his number one spot. In fact, he keeps it all the way to the finish! Chalk up another first place finish for the young American. He took all Italy had to offer and won by over 7 seconds.
Derek and Phil enjoying the spoils of victory. Think Dad's proud?
Now, the real test. The creme-de-la-creme from each class is selected to move into the final race of the series - the Ferrari Challenge International Finale. The grid is determined by qualifying time Saturday so Derek John Hill has pole position. He again gets off to a good start and maintains his position into turn one but competition is much stiffer in this race and the top few cars are only about 1/2 second behind him for the first laps. Derek keeps his composure and drives his own race as several of the front runners begin flying off the track. After about six laps Derek has a 5 to 6 second lead and he keeps it all ????????? r the ceremony when Phil Hill handed over the keys to the first US F50 to Andy Evans. All of us in the Southwest Region are proud to have Phil and Derek as members of our club and congratulate them on their successes. We also want to thank Derek's Prime Sponsor, Brandon Wang's Fitti AHP, without whom none of this would have been possible.
A photo to make the racer in all of us green with envy.
What does the future hold for Derek? This season he's racing in the Barber/Dodge 2.0 liter series, driving one of the little neon-powered open wheel cars. He has already won his first two races of the season at Sears Point so the season looks promising. Derek hopes to also participate in the Barber Pro Series with the 3.5 liter cars if he can gather up some sponsorship.
Finally, while in Italy, Derek talked with Ferrari President, Luca Di Montezemolo who, noticing his fine driving, said "We must go on to bigger and better things. See me when you come to Maranello again."
Derek John Hill shows Ferrari President Luca Di Montezemola just how important America is to the Ferrari market.