MOTOR SPORT FLASHBACK
MICHAEL WINDS THE CLOCK BACK FIVE DECADES TO WHEN KIWI F 1 DRIVERS WERE A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH. HE ALSO PAYS TRIBUTE TO RACING LEGEND, DAN G URNE Y
On March 17, 1968, the latest Mclaren Formula 1 (F1) challenger debuted in the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch. Designated the ‘M7A’, it was the third purpose-built Grand Prix (GP) car from the still-young team. The first — the M2B — had run, unsuccessfully, in 1966, while its successor was powered by the V12 British Racing Motors (BRM) car that was so late in arriving that Bruce spent the early part of 1967 running an adapted Formula 2 (F2) car that used a 2.1-litre BRM V8 — which was never going to be a contender against 3.0-litre opposition. Despite the reliability and lightness of the RepcoBrabhams powering Denny Hulme to the 1967 World Championship, it was clear that Cosworth’s Ford-financed DFV was the future. Lotus had exclusive use of the V8 in 1967 but, for 1968, additional supply was available to two teams, and Mclaren was selected, along with Matra, a French missile manufacturer. Matra would have Jackie Stewart, but Bruce was being joined by Denny.
The opening round of the new championship was on New Year’s Day in South Africa, and marked Jim Clark’s record-breaking 25th GP victory for Lotus, but Stewart indicated that he would be a force once Matra was sorted. Mclaren sent the M5A for Denny — the new champion racing a V12 F1 car for the only time — after a coat of papaya orange, a first for the F1 team. Denny was fifth but knew that the Cosworth-powered car was being readied back in England. He could hardly wait …
Two M7AS were ready for the Race of Champions, and Bruce put his on pole, while compatriots Hulme and Chris Amon were on the second row with identical times. This was at a time when non-championship races formed part of a F1 calendar, most notably the early season Daily Mail Race of Champions at Brands Hatch in March, and the Daily Express International Trophy at Silverstone in April. For the fledgling Mclaren F1 team, the Race of Champions was a chance to determine if its new Cosworth-powered device would be on the pace. The M7A was, as founding Mclaren mechanic Walter Willmott recalled, “a pretty straightforward and simple car — more along the lines of the F2 M4A than the overly complicated BRM car”. Simple was also effective, as Bruce planted the Mclaren on pole. Willmott: “He was pretty pumped. Bruce always went better when he was pumped, and the occasion of having his car with a real chance would have been part of it”. Mike Spence’s V12 BRM and Jackie Stewart’s Matra made up the balance of the front row, while right behind was an all-kiwi affair, with Chris Amon’s V12 Ferrari and Hulme recording identical times.
With Jim Clark in tax exile, Graham Hill had the sole Lotus sixth fastest, ahead of Pedro Rodriguez in the second BRM and Jacky Ickx in the No. 2 Ferrari. Autocar magazine noted that the Mclarens were “a credit to the team, being beautifully prepared, well made and exciting to look at. Since Hulme had driven the car only once before, it was to be expected that Mclaren himself would be the quicker of the two.” Over 40,000 spectators were scattered around the picturesque Kent circuit on a sunny-but-cool day. Among them was a ‘ fresh-off-the-boat’ 19-year-old Kiwi motor racing fanatic — Peter Buckleigh would, in the following decade, become hugely instrumental in the career of Brett Riley, but now found himself gazing at the famous Brands Hatch that was “just a couple of metres away — between us and the track was an earth barrier lined with railway sleepers. Given the basically flat tracks I had been to in New Zealand, I was quite stunned at the drop down and climb back up to Druids — and the speed they took it at.”
Mclaren made the best start from Spence and Hulme, and it was this trio that led past the pits on lap one, but where was Amon? The Ferrari had bogged at the start, and the Kiwi was down in eighth. The pace was frenetic, and Hulme was soon past Spence’s BRM, but the Englishman wasn’t giving up and passed not one but two orange cars to take the lead. A BRM in the lead really got the crowd excited, while team-mate Rodriguez was shadowing the Mclarens with the two Ferraris close behind Hill. A stone smashed one of Hulme’s goggle glasses, and although the pain was intense, Denny soldiered on, despite dropping to seventh. Before long, he was monstering Amon. The first sign of trouble for BRM came when Rodriguez dropped out with a mechanical problem, and although Spence looked fantastic out front, Mclaren went past on lap 11 of 52. Hill was now second and closing on Mclaren before dropping out, and, soon after, Hulme was past Amon, who’d completely put team-mate Ickx in the shade. Despite the pain to his eye, the
The M7A was, as founding Mclaren mechanic Walter Willmott recalled, “a pretty straightforward and simple car — more along the lines of the F2 M4A than the overly complicated BRM”
irrepressible reigning world champion was now third and closing on Spence before really getting the bit between his teeth and taking second, then the lead, from his boss. Spence was not to be defeated and also passed Mclaren, closing to within four seconds of Hulme, but, to the massive disappointment of the patriotic crowd, it all came to an end on lap 40, with another broken BRM. For the young Kiwi in the crowd, it was a dream result — Buckleigh: “The papaya orange was genius, and gave the Mclarens a very distinct and cool image.”
So Bruce won on the debut of his new combination, with Denny in third. It was, near as dammit, 10 years to the day since Bruce had left New Zealand for the first time to take up his Driver to Europe award — and even across half a century, I am struggling to think of any other motor racing figure who achieved so much in an initial decade of arriving on the world stage.
The next outing for F1 was another non-championship race, this time at Silverstone. The result was not only another win for the new Mclaren M7A — with Denny getting the victory garland — but a one-two, because Bruce was second. To cap off a memorable Anzac Day, Chris was third for Ferrari. Buckleigh was there too — “The spectacle at Silverstone was a little less as we were pushed a lot further from the track.”
The M7A Mclarens had a solid season in 1968, with Denny winning two races late in the year to have an outside shot at the title, but the first championship win was, appropriately, with Bruce at the wheel in Belgium. In taking that victory, Bruce became the only man to win
Grand Epreuves in the 2.5-litre, 1.5-litre, and 3.0-litre versions of F1.
Dan Gurney’s biggest month in racing was June 1967 — over the weekend of June 10 and 11, he’d anchored the winning 7.0-litre Ford MKIV, co-driven by AJ Foyt, at Le Mans (and, at the end of 24 hours, sprayed champagne, the first time it was sprayed on a rostrum) and then the following weekend won the Belgian GP at Spa in the gorgeous Eagle-weslake — a car that was as much his creation as the Mclarens were Bruce’s, or the Brabhams Jack’s. The son of a famous opera singer with the New York Metropolitan, he grew up in Southern California just as sports car racing was about to explode. After serving in Korea with the US Army, he soon showed himself to be a fast and smooth operator — drives were offered, and when he starred in a Ferrari, Enzo noticed. He shone immediately — he was runner-up at the Nürburgring, no less, in only his second GP.
At Monza, he was fourth, and second in a front-engined car — the tifosi were convinced that the next Ferrari world champion had been found; however, Gurney wasn’t interested in Enzo’s politics and took up BRM’S offer. It was a bad choice, and when the rules changed for 1961, it looked as if his new team — Porsche — would be a strong contender as, in an attempt to slow the cars down, the rule-makers brought in the 1.5-litre formula — unblown. For Dan, the impact of these new low-powered cars was way more significant than for anyone else — he’d arrived in Europe at almost the worst time for a man of his size to run in F1.
Dan was circa 1.9m tall at a time when the next tallest F1 driver would have been Graham Hill, at about 1.8m. Jim Clark, Bruce Mclaren, John Surtees, Chris Amon, and many others almost universally fell into a range of 1.72–1.75m. Jack Brabham, and, later, Denny Hulme, were a tad taller, Jackie Stewart shorter, but none of this would have mattered as much had F1’s rules not led to the lowest-powered cars ever — even a slim and athletic 1.9m guy is going to be heavier than a slim and athletic 1.75m driver, and when there is only about 150kw available, that really counts. Plus, of course, there was so much more of Dan sticking up in the airstream than anyone else.
Yet, three of his four F1-championship wins came in those 1.5-litre cars — the first for Porsche on the daunting French Rouen circuit in 1962, and then two in
Brabhams — at Rouen again in 1964 and at that season’s finale in Mexico. His boss, Jack Brabham, had hired the American not just for his driving ability but also as an engineer — the Australian was famously hard to impress, but he believed Gurney to be special. So special, in fact, that Jack was already planning his exit — anticipating that his drivers for the new ‘return-to-power’ 3.0-litre F1 of 1966 would be Gurney and Denny Hulme. Despite the two wins, Dan was desperate to do his own thing, and his All/anglo American Racers (AAR) produced an F1 car of exquisite beauty — the Eagle. With its deep monocoque, ‘beak’ nose, snazzy V12, and dark blue livery, it is on most shortlists of the best-looking GP cars ever.
In 1966, the V12 Weslake wasn’t ready initially, and Dan ran with a four-cylinder 2.7-litre Climax, perhaps privately cursing that the car he had left behind at Brabham was doing most of the winning. A win in an early non-championship race in 1967 showed promise, but his victory at Spa in June hinted at a breakthrough — sadly for Dan, the V12’s reliability cost the project dearly, and the navy blue Eagle flew for the last time at Monza in 1968.
He was also competing in Can-am with Ford funding, plus building Eagles for Indy racing, in which he was also competitive — he won at Riverside in 1967 and finished second in ’68 at Indy to Bobby Unser — both in Eagles. As his North American efforts took up increasing amounts of time, he stepped away from F1 in 1969, when he was runner-up at Indy again. He’d always been close to Bruce and the Mclaren team, and when the great Kiwi was killed in June 1970, Dan answered the call for both the F1 and Can-am operations. He won two of the three rounds that he drove for the works team in Can-am, and, soon after that, he retired from driving duties to concentrate on running his team and building race cars.
Even aside from Indy, Nascar, Trans-am, the low-slung Alligator motorcycle he had been developing, Toyota IMSA (International Motor Sports Association), and other engineering stuff, his time in F1 and sports cars alone makes him a legend — all the other stuff simply puts him on a level of diversity even Mario Andretti can’t match! He remained completely modest about his many achievements: he was indisputably a great bloke, together with being both a hero and an inspiration to many fans across the planet. Dan Gurney passed away on January 14 this year. He was 86.
He remained completely modest about his many achievements: he was indisputably a great bloke, together with being both a hero and an inspiration to many fans across the planet
Official motor racing programme for the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, March 17, 1968
Above: Dan Gurney ready to be taken for a ride at Goodwood Revival 2017 - Photo: Jacqui Madelin
Below: From the AAR website — Dan leaning on one of the hugely successful Toyota IMSA cars