The late 1960s saw the best pre-Formula One racing this country has ever experienced. Racing took place over January, during the European winter, giving the Formula One teams a chance to test new chassis and suspension systems prior to the upcoming European season. The only difference was that the engine capacity was limited to 2.5 litres, as opposed to the Formula One limit of 3 litres.
As a young motor sport enthusiast, I was teamed up to form one of the infieldmarshalling groups. Our job was to remain on the inside of the track and offer assistance to the competitors. It was two days of racing heaven and a great way to meet the people you’d never have thought possible.
Probably the greatest character of the era was the late, great Graham Hill. He was a neat, dapper, small man, with a wicked sense of humour and high heeled Cuban boots; a brilliant raconteur who, in no time at all, brought the house down laughing. He would have been one of the best ambassadors for Formula One I have encountered. And a terror with the ladies I might add! I well remember him demanding a kiss from my wife at a post race function.
I first met him while he was having a quick nap in the sun beside his car at the Friday practice session. I was fascinated by the Tag Heuer watch he wore, something I’d not seen before. I just paused to look at the watch and he awoke. I immediately apologised for disturbing him, but he would have none of it. When I explained I was admiring his watch he insisted on showing it to me. We spoke for about two or three minutes, then noticing an approaching TV crew, he quietly muttered, “Here we go again”. I laughed and wished him “good luck”… He just smiled and trudged off.
Jack Brabham was the opposite – the most aggressively competitive driver I have ever met. He stopped to talk to no one except his crew chief, and then only briefly to issue instructions. He appeared to me as a totally atypical Australian. My first – and only – face-to-face encounter with him was on the opposite side of a 44-gallon drum, not far from the Wigram control tower. He’d crossed a drain line and lost it, running into the barrel, hard enough to dent the car’s nose cone. I believe his first words were something like, “Who was the stupid bastard that filled it with water?” After removing the drum from the nose cone, we reminded him that the drum was supposed to be filled with water… and he should try not to hit it in future; it was, after all, 50 yards from the edge of the track! He jammed the Brabham in gear and stormed back into the practice session.
Then there was gentleman Jim Clark. Practice day, always Friday, was plagued by heavy showers deceptively punctuated by long periods of bright sunshine. We had located to the inside of the very long back straight, fully expecting someone to lose it at over 100 mph. We didn’t have to wait long. Jim had come through the top corner and decided he wanted to see what his Lotus 33 could do. He came past us in a dazzle of spray, going sideways.
We watched, with great interest, as you do, to see where he would stop. Remember, this was a wide, flat airfield, with nothing to impede his progress or cause any real damage. Except this massive, deep puddle, the size of Lake Ellesmere! There was an almighty parting of the waters as Jim headed for the centre, gripping on to the steering wheel for dear life. We arrived in a flash to see him sitting in the cockpit, looking as though he’d been through a carwash! We were laughing so hard we could barely attach the towrope to the front suspension of his car. Once out of the puddle, which he likened to the English Channel, I suggested the radiator might have slowed the water from coming into the car. He assured me it made no difference whatsoever, except to spray hot water over his feet! More laughter from the team… By that time his own pit crew had arrived and the Lotus was quickly winched on to a trailer and recovered to the pits. He thanked us for our efforts, through the laughter, as he waved goodbye.
Denny Hulme was another young man in a hurry. He was piloting a Brabham BT19 and was determined to give a good account of himself. He also nearly came to grief on the same drain line as Jack had the previous year, but just managed to miss the same 44-gallon drum line. After the second near miss, the drums were removed and infield traffic cleared from the area. I asked Graham Hill and Jim Clark about the drain line and both told me they wondered what they had hit when first running over it. Graham thought he’d damaged his suspension, but as soon as he realised the cause of the bump, drove as hard as he could over it, using it to catch slowing competitors… the trick was, he said, to hit it square on. That way it didn’t change your line through the corner.
Jackie Stewart was a total tearaway! Someone had unwisely given him a brand new Honda Sport – a 600 cc pocket rocket. Soon after, he was apprehended by the local constabulary, doing close to mach numbers through the city. Foolishly, they charged him with dangerous driving. When questioned by the judge he merely explained that as he was used to driving a Formula One racing car at several times the velocity he was alleged to have been doing in the Honda, he failed to see how he could be guilty of ‘dangerous driving’. The judge agreed and Jackie returned to the race next day.
About that time, the AFX slot car sets were beginning to make their debut. They were an instant success and AFX had cleverly arranged for a sponsorship deal with one of the racing car manufacturers, whose name now eludes me. They had arranged for a track to be set up near the pits infield, in a large marquee. I went to see this new slot car system, being a slot car racer myself, only to discover the tent was crammed with racing drivers all having a great time. What surprised me was how good they were. They could have run the race and never left the tent.
The most unusual car I saw was the BRM P261. There were two cars entered in the race, a V8 and a V12. But I recall Pedro Rodriguez and Tim Mayer trying to get what they referred to as an ‘H16’ to run on practice day. This was two V8 blocks, back to back. They didn’t seem to be able to get the timing right and it wasn’t used. Tim was very cross and was not at all interested in onlookers, which was a great pity, from my point of view at least!
This period of open wheel motor racing was in my opinion the very best of the best. It saw the transition of Formula One into the mega sport it’s become, with the first wing arrangements and the beginning of the ground effect bodies. It also saw the introduction of high strength monocoque chassis that allowed drivers to survive much higher speed crashes than ever before. It was also the height of the careers of the truly great pioneers in Formula One. Never again were we to see in New Zealand such a hugely talented collection of drivers, designers and innovators.