Surtees wins the 1st Pukekohe GP
John Surtees had one of the biggest, easiest and earliest wins of his 4-wheeled motor racing career 50 years ago when he won the 1963 New Zealand Grand Prix, christening the new circuit at Pukekohe just outside Auckland, on January 5. Previous New Zealand GPs had been run on the Ardmore airfield course.
Surtees was driving a Bowmaker Lola-Climax in one of the closing competition appearances of the team before it was disbanded, but Surtees was beginning a surge of success.
He signed with Ferrari back in Europe that summer, winning the German GP on the old Nurburgring and finishing second in the British GP at Silverstone.
The following season he won at the ‘Ring again and the Italian at Monza to the delight of the Tifosi and clinched the World Championship.
The brand new £45,000 motor racing circuit, built around a horse racing track at Pukekohe, about 30 miles from Auckland, had been finished only a week before the race, but the hot-mix surface stood the heat of the day and the race well, and apart from it becoming rather glassy with rubber and oil there was few adverse comments on the circuit. It was
It was reckoned to be the fastest track in the southern hemisphere
but this was seldom mentioned
reckoned to be the fastest race track in the southern hemisphere.
Graham Hill was a little sceptical before the race. ‘Two hairpins? I should have thought one would have been ample!’ he said. The back straight was good for about 155 mph, while the two hairpins were in the 40 mph bracket. It was reckoned to be the fastest track in the southern hemisphere but this was seldom mentioned promotionally.
I was now working for Bruce McLaren as what we called a ‘secretary’ but would now be a ‘gopher’. Whatever, my name was on the letterhead as a director when Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd was launched in Britain later that year. It also meant that I went to all the races with Bruce starting, fortuitously, at Monaco in 1962 when he won for Cooper. I was covering the ‘Down Under’ races for Motor Racing magazine in the UK.
Jack Brabham thought the Kiwis had done a wonderful job getting the new track ready in time. “I was staggered that it was actually complete. The surface was a little new and slippery and probably just needed weathering. The circuit layout is reasonable but there is plenty of room for improvement; some of the corners were miles too sharp and too narrow. I think they will alter two or three for next year.”
Transport problems always give an air of urgency to this ‘colonial GP’, and this year was no exception. All the overseas drivers en route from the South African GP the Saturday before had been stranded in Karachi when they found their flight was cancelled. They were stranded again at Darwin with engine trouble, and they finally reached Auckland on the evening after the first practice. The engine and radiator for the Brabham arrived only hours before Jack, and there were some bleary-eyed pushers behind the Brabham the next morning!
Chris Amon was racing a 2.5-litre Cooper, brought out to the colonies by Bruce McLaren the previous season and famously crashed into the dunny at Warwick Farm by David McKay. Amon remembers buying the wreck less engine for 500 pounds and had Ron Frost (later to promote the international series in New Zealand) completely rebuild it.
“I thought I qualified quite well, somewhere in the top half dozen. In the morning I’d won the race for New Zealand drivers from Tony Shelly and Angus Hyslop. I’d made a good start and was ahead of Jack Brabham but on the straight he went sailing past me and I was thinking “Shit – he brakes late!” when he went straight off the end of the straight. I never saw him again for a few laps when he came by again...”
New Zealand drivers Angus Hyslop and Jimmy Palmer were second and third in the Grand Prix that saw only one ‘visitor’ reach the chequered flag.
Tony Maggs was sitting on the pit bench by the second lap, and he was joined a few laps later by Jack Brabham. Bruce McLaren gave up his lead unwillingly before half distance and joined the ranks of retired racing drivers. After persevering with the fourwheel-drive, front-engined Ferguson for 74 of the 75 laps, Graham Hill was without a doubt the ‘bad luck boy’ of the GP. He lost a certain second place when a shaft broke in the Ferguson gearbox within a mile of the flag!
MCLAREN WAS THE ODDS-ON
favourite for the GP on his doorstep, and he underlined his potential by taking pole position, 1.4 seconds faster than Surtees in the Lola. McLaren’s Cooper was the 1962 water-and-oilthrough-the-tubes chassis, with a 2.7 Climax engine, which he had driven to win the Australian GP in November. Bowmaker had a couple of Lolas, one a 1962 V8 chassis strengthened here and there, and fitted with a 2.7 Climax, for Surtees, while Tony Maggs was using the older four-cylinder chassis, which Surtees shunted during the Lavant Cup at Goodwood the previous season. His engine was a 2.7 Climax, stretched from a 2.6, while Surtees’ power unit had been built up from a four-cylinder 1,500 cc block in the Bowmaker workshops.
During practice Graham Hill wasn’t feeling very world championish with the Ferguson. It seemed disinclined to either go or stop, and the front-engined car in the semi-tropical heat was, to quote Graham, ‘like driving a stove’.
The Lolas had never been tested in their 2.7 Formula Libre guise, and the Bowmaker boys had to cram a testing session as well as two days practice into the Friday periods.
Both cars were hopelessly undergeared, but Surtees started flying with the right cog in the back, and managed a lap at 1 minute 28.2 seconds before the car started overheating. The head was lifted, and a new head gasket fitted overnight.
The Brabham was in brake bothers, as the majority of the anchorage was on the front wheels, which was causing Jack some embarrassment while he was setting third fastest practice time to put himself on the front row of the grid alongside the Cooper and the Lola.
Hill and Maggs were on the second row, and Tony Shelly (2.5 Lotus) and Chris Amon (2.5 Cooper) were a full second slower, but they were fastest New Zealanders, with laps at 1 minute 29.8 second. Angus Hyslop’s best was 1 minute 30.7 seconds in his 2.5 Cooper.
Jimmy Palmer was a young New Zealander who seemed to have been ‘up and coming’ for the past three or four years, but has been restricting his driving to FJ Lotuses with engines of various sizes. Reg Parnell had brought out a spare 2.7 Cooper, which he was prepared to fit around a New Zealand driver, and Palmer tried his luck. Those who said he wouldn’t be able to drive it were wrong. He could, and did, and was placed third!
Surtees stole the start, McLaren lagged a little with too much wheelspin, with Brabham and 19-year-old Amon in
Surtees stole the start, and was away in a very precise manner when the flag dropped. McLaren lagged a little with too much wheelspin, and followed the Lola under the India Bridge, with Brabham and 19-year-old Amon in hot pursuit.
The practice session the previous day was the first time Maggs had driven a Lola, and also the first time he had experienced the extra urge of the 2.7 Climax. His experience wasn’t increased a great deal in the race, either, for it was all over in two laps! The Lola had jumped out of first gear on the line, and the resulting sky-high revs had bent a few valves. On the first lap Maggs was smoking round in a handy fourth place, but realising what was amiss, the South African pulled into the pits next time round and took his helmet off.
Brabham was also smoking badly, but after losing a fair amount of ground in the opening lap with another braking adventure (as described half a century later by young Mr Amon!), he was working his way up quickly. He had climbed up to fourth, behind Surtees, McLaren and Hill, before the temperature gauge went into the red, and he pulled in with a blown head gasket. Exit Brabham.
Up front, McLaren was trying to wrest the lead from Surtees, and in doing so he set the fastest lap of the race at 1 minute 29.5 seconds, but he also clipped a kerb on one of the hairpins with a fuel tank, which developed a leak.
Unaware of this, and unable to do anything about it if he was, McLaren pressed on past Surtees, and began drawing away at a second a lap.
McLaren’s race pace was drawing the two leading cars away from the field at a great rate of knots, so that by lap 16 they were 30 seconds ahead of Graham Hill in the Ferguson.
An engine miss set the McLaren pit worrying, and his lead over Surtees dropped off rapidly. On lap 19 he was in the pits while the mechanics checked for a loose plug lead, and sent him off again, now in third place on the heels of the Ferguson. Another lap showed no improvement in the sour note of
the engine, and a closer pit inspection showed that the magneto was cooked. A fuel leak was also discovered, and for McLaren the race was over.
This left Surtees with a half-minute lead over the Ferguson. The four-wheeldrive car had lost first gear before the race started, and the extra work in second was starting to tire the clutch.
At Graham’s request the Maxaret nonskid braking apparatus on the Ferguson was removed in England, but the Ferguson wheels weren’t skidding under braking – they just weren’t stopping!
The gammy clutch meant Graham’s rev limit was decreased, and having little retardation – except through the gearbox – he was none too keen on giving chase to Surtees. The gearbox was protesting against the work it had to do, and on occasions when Graham missed a gear going by the pits the four-wheel-drive took over, with front and rear wheels breaking away at the same time, and the car heading infield.
Surtees was far enough out in front to be able to admire the scenery, yet even ‘cruising’ he was lapping Shelly in fourth place by lap 37. The title of first New Zealander home in the GP carried with it a large bag of gold, and this meant a fair old scrap between Hyslop (Cooper), Amon (Cooper), and Shelly (Lotus) with their 2.5 litre cars. Palmer did not know enough about his borrowed 2.7 Cooper to join in the scrap.
The title of first New Zealander home in the GP carried with it a large bag of gold, and this meant a fair old scrap between Hyslop, Amon, and Shelly with their 2.5
Amon fell by the wayside with magneto troubles by lap 18, and Hyslop drove around Shelly to leave him 30 seconds in arrears by lap 30. However, when Surtees lapped the black Lotus, Shelly decided to take advantage of the ‘tow’, and set off in the Lola slipstream. This was helping to haul in Hyslop handover-fist, but the 150-odd mph maximum of the Lola along the long straight lured the Shelly Lotus to destruction, and the New Zealander clattered to a halt on lap 61 with the bearings gone.
From then on it was like the last hour at Le Mans. The gaps between the leading cars were so great that no-one was trying to improve their positions; all they wanted to do was make sure they stayed on the island to collect the loot.
Early in the race Hyslop had been drawing dangerously near to the Ferguson, but Graham demonstrated that world champions can drive any sort of nails – even blunt ones – and maintained a steady 15-second lead on the New Zealander.
The results appeared to be printable with 10 laps to go, but half-way round on the last lap the Ferguson gearbox snapped a shaft, and the car trickled to the edge of the track with no drive. This left a surprised Hyslop in second place, almost a lap behind Surtees, and an equally surprised Palmer in third place, 45.9 seconds behind Hyslop.
Amazing to think that all that happened half a century ago and I had been there to record the event!
John Surtees with winner’s trophy, Jim Palmer (3rd) and Angus Hyslop (2nd) on the Pukekohe rostrum
Chris Amon in his Cooper
John Surtees, Bruce McLaren, his father Les, race steward George Smith
Graham Hill being push-started in the Ferguson, Innes Ireland standing alongside