BACK-TO-BACK WORLD CHAMPIONS
Michael recalls past Grand Prix champions, remembers Stirling Moss’ New Zealand racing debut, looks to the big NZ Festival of Motor Racing Porsche Festival, and plans to celebrate Kiwi racing legend Kenny Smith at the 2017 festival
Here’s a bit of trivia that had escaped me until recently: among the many plaudits and accolades extended to 2015 Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton was this — he is the first Briton to achieve back-to-back world championships. When I first heard that, I must say I wondered initially if it could, in fact, be true. I did a quick check, in chronological order, starting with Britain’s first champion in 1958.
Of course, Mike Hawthorn couldn’t have been a back-to-back winner, because he wound up his short-butglittering career at the end of his champion year, aged 29. When asked ‘why stop now?’ he replied with this great line — “It’s so much nicer to be asked ‘Why did you retire?’ than to be told ‘Why don’t you retire?’”
Graham Hill was the UK’S next world champion, and, although he scored overall laurels twice, there was a six-year gap between his champion seasons, 1962 and 1968. Jim Clark became Scotland’s first world champion in 1963, and, while he came achingly close to being champion again in 1964, that honour went to John Surtees. Clark’s turn came again in 1965. But his chance to go back-to-back on that title was scuppered by the new regulations enacted for 1966 that left him and Lotus without a competitive engine.
Scotland’s next world champion came in the form of Jackie Stewart — but his three titles came in 1969, 1971, and 1973, so no back-to-back wins there either. Stewart didn’t have the car
up to the job in 1970, while his 1972 season was compromised by health issues — and he retired at the end of 1973.
Then along came James Hunt and his famous last-round snatching of the title in 1976, but although he remained competitive in 1977, the title went to his equally famous rival Niki Lauda.
Despite the best efforts of Nigel Mansell, the ’80s passed without a title going to a Brit — however, he finally cracked in it 1992. But any chance of a follow-up win dissipated when he decided to head off to America and try his hand at Indycar.
Graham Hill’s lad, Damon, was world champion for Britain in 1996, but leaving Williams for the perennial back-marker Arrows team guaranteed he wasn’t going to be a back-to-back contender. Lewis Hamilton was the UK’S next champion in 2008 — in arguably the most extraordinary final lap of a Formula 1 season ever, during which the championship swung between Hamilton and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. However, while the 2009 champion was another Englishman, it wasn’t Hamilton.
That honour went to Jenson Button, and a move to Mclaren (from Brawn) for 2010 immediately put him into contention for ‘ backing-up’, but along came the combined brilliance of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull. So, in this new age of Formula 1 — in which cars don’t have engines because they’re called ‘power units’, and if you develop the thing too much you get penalized a couple of hundred grid places — Lewis Hamilton has ‘ backed up’ his 2014 world championship and, to be fair, in some style.
The ‘ What if?’ game
Of course, another way of looking at the subject of back-to-back winners is to consider just the drivers who were ‘ backup’ champions.
The list goes like this — Alberto Ascari (1952/’53), Juan-manuel Fangio (1954/’55/’56/’57), Jack Brabham (1959/’60), Alain Prost (1985/’86), Ayrton Senna (1990/’91), Michael Schumacher (1994/’95 and then 2000/’01/’02/’03/’04), Fernando Alonso (2005/’06), and Vettel’s four on the trot from 2010. This list provides a starker indication as to just how difficult it is to achieve back-to-back world championships.
Ascari had the benefit of the clearly superior Ferrari 500, combined with the fact that his great rival Fangio was wounded in 1952, and struggling to get his Formula 2 Maserati up to speed in 1953. This is to take nothing away from Ascari, who was a genuine ace.
Fangio had the benefit of a dominant Mercedes in 1954 and 1955 (then, as now), while it was Ascari who was hobbled with uncompetitive machinery in 1954. Even Fangio regarded his 1956 world championship in the LanciaFerrari to have been fortuitous, but there was no doubting his winning of that final title in 1957, capped by a stupendous drive in his Maserati 250F at the Nürburgring.
It’s extraordinary to think that, following Brabham’s second title in 1960, it would take another 26 years for the next back-to-back feat to be accomplished — a clear indication of how difficult it is to crack. So,
Lewis Hamilton becomes only the ninth driver to lay claim to that rare achievement, and, as an aside, the current dominance of Mercedes doesn’t look even close to winding down.
Then there’s the speculative game a friend of mine likes to play called ‘How many championships would Stirling Moss have won had he ever joined Ferrari?’, which is supported by the equally intriguing, ‘How many championships would Chris Amon have won had he never left Ferrari?’
Moss at Ardmore
On mentioning Sir Stirling, on January 7, it will be 60 years since he drove in the New Zealand International Grand Prix (NZIGP) for the first time, and he was the first truly huge name to appear in that race. In 1954, the NZIGP field largely comprised the best of New Zealand and Australia plus a few English journeymen, while, in 1955, we had that, and Prince Bira — a big name but with nothing of the headline-grabbing appeal that young Moss possessed in 1956. After all, 1955 had been a pretty reasonable season for ‘the boy’, as he’d joined the dominant Mercedes-benz organization for both endurance sports car and Formula 1 racing. His contract also permitted him to compete in his own Maserati 250F, and anything else that came along, on weekends when he wasn’t required by the three-pointed star. And it was in his grey 250F that Stirling won the NZIGP, adding to his victory at the 1955 British Grand Prix (GP) and, of course, his famous win at that year’s Mille Miglia.
When I penned Motor Sport Flashback this time a decade ago, it was after spending part of an afternoon with Ken Smith to talk about it being 30 years since he’d become the first resident New Zealander to win our own GP. He told me how he’d been extra determined to win that day, because he’d read, on the morning of the race, that Eoin Young — no less — had wondered whether Kenny was up to it. Now, we all know how difficult it is to get Kenny fired up — not! However, Eoin’s supposed words certainly did the trick. That was the 1976 New Zealand GP — the last for Formula 5000 (F5000), a racing category that Kenny had openly shunned for the first five of the seven years it ran here. Then, when he embraced F5000, he wondered why he’d spent so much time avoiding the category. After the learning year of 1974/’75, Kenny and his Lola T332 really clicked, and he became the man to beat everywhere the following season.
We all know Kenny’s amazing and that he’s still the hardest of chargers, but it is worth reiterating — because he is a world phenomenon — that, this month, at the Porsche Festival at Hampton Downs, he will still be charging hard and still in a Lola T332, four decades on from the January of 1976 when he won not just the New Zealand GP but also the International Series. This time next year, he will be NZ Festival of Motor Racing honouree, and I have no doubt a wonderful collection of either the actual cars — or something similar to those — that he’s raced over the past 57 to 58 years — will be assembled for the event.
Mention of Kenny and next year’s festival sees us getting too far ahead of ourselves — there is still the 2016 festival featuring Porsche to entice car people to Hampton Downs.
In preparing a few words for the festival programme, I looked up Porsche’s sports car records, particularly at Daytona, Sebring, and the Targa Florio, in addition to the obvious biggie of Le Mans. Following that spot of research, I confirmed that Porsche has the most wins in the 24 Hours of Daytona — 18 of them — the first being in 1968 and the most recent being in 2003, while the winning car in 2010 was Porsche powered. In looking at the list of drivers to win in a Porsche at Daytona, my eye went straight to one of the biggest names of all — Anthony Joseph ‘AJ’ Foyt the third. He was one of four winning drivers in both 1983 and 1985, but, while the more recent win came at the wheel of the then– state-of-the-art Porsche 962, the 1983 victory was at the wheel of a 935.
It was 40 years ago that Porsche launched the 935 — a car that was akin to bringing a schoolboy’s ultimate fantasy of what could be done with a roadgoing 911 to life. I was reminded of the 935 during a recent trek up Auckland’s usually gridlocked Southern Motorway and spotting a giant billboard promoting the festival, as it features a 935 in those legendary Martini colours. Designed for the new ‘silhouette’ rules, the 935 — typically for a Porsche — was quick right out of the box. The 430kw achieved by the 1976 version, in 3.0-litre form, grew to 560kw for the most outlandish 935 variant of all. That car was big and white (with the Martini stripes), so it was no surprise that it was nicknamed ‘Moby Dick’. It was never intended to be anything other than a Le Mans special, and it was there, with engine capacity increased to 3.2 litres, that it achieved the fastest speed on the Mulsanne at some 365kph.