Tasman turning point
Gee, we were spoilt — from the Grands Prix (GPS) at Ardmore, starting in 1954, we’d been treated to evocative machinery: Ferraris, Maseratis, and the extraordinary V16 BRM, then Coopers and Lotuses. As time went on, we went from seeing cars that were a couple of years old to the current models, and, better still, some were purchased by locals and so stayed. Prince B Bira was a big name to have been attracted for 1955, but not even Siamese royalty could compare with Stirling Moss, who arrived a year later, and he was a regular from 1959 until the sad early end of his career. Moss, Jack Brabham, and our own superstar Bruce Mclaren were dubbed the ‘Holy Trinity’ and these three alone were responsible for drawing a large percentage of the huge crowds that couldn’t get enough of this excitement — from Ardmore, just south of Auckland, to Teretonga on the outskirts of Invercargill.
A travelling circus
There wasn’t a championship — merely a circus that headed south via Levin and Wigram. In January 1961, we had virtually the entire grid from the 1960 US GP, with the notable exception of the Ferraris. Just as our races were run in January, the Australians followed, and it was only a matter of time before a championship was organized. In terms of timelines — the last GP at Ardmore was in 1962 (won in monsoon conditions by Moss), the first GP at Pukekohe was in January 1963, and the first Tasman Series race was run at Levin in January 1964 — 55 years ago this month. The winner was Denny Hulme, at that point not a Formula 1 (F1) regular, while compatriot Mclaren would win the New Zealand GP and then go on to take the inaugural Tasman Cup.
Jim Clark first raced here as a relative novice in 1961, and looked nothing special. However, by the time he returned in 1965, he’d been world champion once and finished runner-up on debut in the Indianapolis 500. He’d also taken over from Moss as ‘the man’ and, like Moss, had proven his ability to jump into anything and do wonders. In 1964, he’d been British Touring Car champion in a Lotus Cortina and footage of his wheel-waving antics remains a Youtube favourite over half a century on. He wasn’t the only world champion in the field in 1965 — there was American Phil Hill, plus namesake Englishman Graham Hill and, as ever, Brabham. Add Mclaren to that list and it was clear that the Tasman Series was being taken very seriously.
Jim Clark and others
Clark won the first of his three Tasmans in 1965 but was pipped by fellow Scot Jackie Stewart in 1966 when British Racing Motors (BRM) entered the championship — the quantity of F1 drivers wasn’t there, but any field with Clark, Graham Hill, and Stewart obviously oozed quality. For the only time during the ’60s, Mclaren, Hulme, and Amon were all absent in 1966. There was still no Bruce or Chris in 1967, but Denny was back and struggling with the Brabham-repco, giving no hint of the wondrous things that the combination would achieve on the world stage in the months to come. BRM was back, but after its domination in 1966, this time it was well beaten by the steamroller that was Clark and Lotus. We had all of the trio here for 1968 — Mclaren was an unfamiliar sight in a BRM; Hulme, as reigning champion, in a Formula 2 (F2) Brabham; and Amon, who the Scuderia had entrusted with the first works Ferrari to be sent to this part of the planet. Mexican Pedro Rodríguez was Mclaren’s teammate, British brewing heir Piers Courage had an F2 Mclaren, and Britishbased Aussie regular Frank Gardner looked a shot with a V8 Alfa Romeo–powered Brabham.
Jim Clark again
But, to be 1968 Tasman champion, they all had to beat Clark’s Lotus with a 2.5-litre version of the Cosworth V8 that, after making its F1 debut the previous June, was already the engine to have. Amon ran him close, but Clark prevailed and, in taking his third Tasman, was also, sadly, winning his final championship, for he was to die in the April of that dark year of 1968.
If the end of the Tasman Series, as we knew it, was imminent, then there was little sign of it from the entry for 1969 — both Lotus and Ferrari doubled their efforts with twocar teams, while Courage returned with an operation overseen by a highly ambitious young entrepreneur called Frank Williams. And Gardner was back with a more powerful Alfa V8 behind a more modern chassis. Backing up Amon in the second Ferrari was Derek Bell, who, in decades to come, would become a legend of long-distance sports car racing, while the Lotuses were chauffeured by reigning world champion Graham Hill and a young Austrian dubbed the fastest man in F1 — Jochen Rindt.
MICHAEL CLARK GETS MISTY EYED AS HE THINKS ABOUT THOSE DAYS WHEN SOME OF THE REALLY GREAT NAMES OF MOTOR SPORT ENTERTAINED US HEREIN OUR OWN BACK YARDS
pole — Rindt was 20 seconds adrift at the end, and Courage completed the GP podium. Chris: “A lot was expected from Hill and Rindt because they had so much more power, which is crucial at Pukekohe.” On lap two, the Austrian had a serious go and took the lead on the back straight. Amon sat close to the back of the Lotus, planning his move — braking later and later. On lap 17, Rindt slid wide at the hairpin, and the Kiwi was through and remained in front for the next 41 laps. Amon won at Levin a week later, but the wide open space of Wigram really suited the Lotus, and Rindt led home his teammate with Amon third. On the last Saturday of January, Courage prevailed at Teretonga over Hill and Amon, but, when the Kiwi won the Australian GP in early February, he’d as good as sewn the title up. Amon didn’t just win the Tasman championship 50 years ago — he cleaned up, winning four of the seven rounds and both GPS in the process. It was Amon’s only title for Ferrari in what turned out to be the final championship before New Zealand and Australia embraced Formula 5000.
The days of fields with current F1 drivers, often with a world champion or two, ended with the arrival of Formula 5000 (F5000). It was a changing international scene, and even if the original Tasman formula of ‘up to 2.5 litres’ had been retained, it is doubtful that we’d continue to get the cream of the crop here. The number of world-championship races was increasing and the bigger budgets in F1 (via sponsorship, meaning the end of teams running in their traditional colours) meant more testing in Europe was preferable to splitting resources and sending a squad of guys down under for a couple of months. It was great while it lasted, but, like all good things …
F5000 at its best was fantastic, but the crowds never quite recovered from the days when the superstars came here to play.
Someone else was missing from the top table in 1969: local benchmark Jimmy Palmer. After years of being top resident Kiwi, Palmer had decided not to replace his F2 Mclaren after he’d won his fourth Gold Star title. That meant that not only would someone other than the Hamiltonian win the 1968/’69 Gold Star but also that they would do it without having to beat the vastly underrated and modest KJ Palmer. Further, there would be a new name that would take the much-sought-after honour of being first New Zealander home in the GP; something that Palmer had achieved on five occasions, the last four being consecutive. He’d finished as high as third in the GP three times, third in the Lady Wigram Trophy twice, and was fourth in the overall Tasman Series in 1965 and ’66.
If this isn’t enough raw information, then what about the names that he shared podiums with over those remarkable six seasons through the ’60s? John Surtees, Mclaren, Hulme, Brabham, Graham Hill, Clark, Stewart, Amon, and Courage — that’s a total of 12 world titles … The proposal to race a Ferrari Dino in 1967 faltered at the last hurdle — he tested it in Italy, and his biggest regret is that his mum left the camera in the hotel, meaning that no photographic proof of the test exists. Had the car come here, Palmer is in no doubt that it would
have been a serious contender, but when the Mclaren was sold, so ended the open-wheeler career of the most successful and dominant driver that we’ve ever had on the local scene.
In October 1970, eight brave young men faced the starter for New Zealand’s first race in a category that was taking the world by storm — Formula Ford. The winner that day was David Oxton, while the first person to crash in a New Zealand Formula Ford race did so on the back straight. His Lotus 20B was the oldest car in the race, having started life as a Formula Junior. Today, it’s worth a small fortune, but in 1970 it was a redundant relic. Its young driver was Hamiltonian Alan Crocker, but he was undeterred — and he’s still at it. These days, he still races an old Formula Ford — but now they’re all old — in the French series for the historic 1600cc Kent engine cars.
Formula Ford started in England in 1967 and quickly spread like wildfire across the globe — Australia adopted it in 1969, and we followed suit a year later. In January 2019, the Historic Formula Ford group — with new sponsor SAS — has organized a 50th anniversary series, starting over the weekend of the Legends of Bathurst festival at Hampton Downs, moving on a week later to Taupo, before wrapping up over Auckland Anniversary weekend back at Hampton Downs. The patron for the celebrations will be none other than Mr Oxton, who remains a staunch supporter of the category in all its versions.
So, why hold an anniversary now, when the half-century since that first race isn’t until October 2020? Well, young Crocker, these days domiciled in London and still a front runner after all these years, is bringing seven friends with him comprising Team Europe: an Irishman, an Englishman, a Dane, a Dutchman, a Swede, and two Swiss. Add to that an American, Phil Harris, a Us-based Kiwi, and an Australian, and there are the makings of a worthy celebration with at least one of those founding eight young men still scrapping away. I say ‘at least’, because, at the time of writing, there are still hopes that Oxo may be persuaded to dig out his race suit.
It’s just over 50 years since Denny Hulme was made Sportsman of the Year for winning the World Championship, and Kiwi race fans will have fingers crossed that Scott Dixon will be similarly recognized when the Halbergs are handed out in February. The Brabham Denny won the title in, BT24/2, was sold to South Africa in early 1968 and remained there — much of that time in a museum — until the mid 1990s, when it returned to England. In 2011, the then-owner found the cockpit a little too snug, and, prior to the car being run up the hill at Goodwood, a shakedown was required — what to do? On hand was Lawrence Wilkinson, a Kiwi working in F1, and so, by being in the right place at the right time, Lawrence became the second Kiwi to slide into the cockpit of BT24/2.
Fortunately, unlike Jimmy Palmer in Italy in late 1966, these days, there are cameras everywhere, and the lucky Lawrence has proof of what would be a deeply moving experience for anyone with an appreciation of the sport’s history — but even more so for a Kiwi like Lawrence, knowing full well that the last time Denny sat in that car, it was in Mexico City in October 1967 and he’d just been crowned world champion.
After years of being top resident Kiwi, Palmer had decided not to replace his F2 Mclaren after he’d won his fourth Gold Star title Below: The F2 Mclaren was Jim Palmer’s last Tasman mount
On hand was Lawrence Wilkinson, a Kiwi working in F1, and so, by being in the right place at the right time, Lawrence became the second Kiwi to slide into the cockpit of BT24/2