Here in 2017, we do have multiple anniversaries all tumbling over one another, each one qualifying in spades as a major feature of our forthcoming Festival of Speed and/or the Revival Meeting.
MAY 19th 2017
Doug Nye: Remembering "Denny the Bear"
We’ve had the 1937 Mercedes-Benz W125’s winning debut in that year’s Tripoli Grand Prix, and the 1947 Ferrari 125 V12’s troubled debut. Everything seemed to happen at once through 1957 with Maserati producing not only their ultimate ‘high-tide’ Maserati 450S V8-engined sports-racing car, but also the definitive ‘Lightweight’ 250F Grand Prix machine, and Fangio breathlessly taking true Drivers’ Championship title in his legendary German GP win. Vanwall, Cooper and more turned 1957 into a very special year. The same in 1967 with the high-tide 7-litre Ford and Chaparral endurance-racing Coupes confronting Ferrari’s 36-valve 4-cam P4s in sportscar competition, while the epochal Lotus 49 with its Cosworth-Ford V8 engine was launched in Formula 1.
And this is where I’d pause to think more about that remarkable year, which we will celebrate at Festival and Revival 2017. One of my favourite drivers of the time was Denny Hulme. The New Zealander was burly, self-contained and publicly enigmatic. He didn’t say much, to anyone. That’s right, to almost anyone he didn’t know – or didn’t take to – he was very much a Kimi Raikkonen of his day. His take it or leave it approach – if it doesn’t help with what we’re doing, I’m not going to spend any time on it – did not sit well with some of the more excitable press. This – ahem – ‘difficult’ relationship would progress in later years. Denny became known as Denny the Bear. He was not only a big bear of a man, he could certainly be bearish if sweat what he regarded as time wasters pestered him. But you have to remember that this was a man who, when working as a teenager in his Victoria Cross-winning father Clive’s truck workshop seemed unaware of rising wisps of smoke, and an awful smell of burning meat. Hulme Sr came in to find Denny welding, barefoot, bare-chested and wearing only shorts as any sun-soaked Kiwi would at the time – while standing on a welding ember. His case-hardened habitually bare feet had felt no pain. You get the picture?
But just to get another picture – of the way top-class racing was back in ’67, consider Denny’s racing programme. He was Jack Brabham’s second driver in the Brabham Racing Organisation team. For example their 1967 season that Spring took in the Formula 2 Pau GP – in which Denny finished second. I was on ‘Motor Racing’ magazine at the time, in which Denny had a monthly column which Jack Brabham had formerly provided, but which he’d passed on to Denny “to bring him out”.
Of that F2 Pau GP – in which he finished second behind Jochen Rindt in a Roy Winkelmann-entered private Brabham – Denny remarked with typical clarity: “For me, it was an unusual race… I never got higher than fifth through actually overtaking other cars, but by the finish there I was sitting in second place…” thanks to rivals hitting trouble. The following weekend saw another F2 race run, in Barcelona, where Denny described the Montjuich Park circuit as “rather like an enlarged Monaco” with two points at which “..the cars fly into the air, one where you are braking viciously for a hairpin”. Failing brakes dropped him out of a fight for the lead with Jim Clark’s Lotus and Jochen’s Brabham, and he finished third there.
One week later, Formula 1 at the Oulton Park Spring Cup. “A lot of people thought it might be just a high-speed demo race” – said Denny – because “there was no prize money”. In fact, it became “a race with no quarter asked or given. Denny won both preliminary Heats. “What pleased Jack and me was that we were able to pass both the BRM H16 and the Honda V12 on the straight” – which showed that their less powerful, but much lighter Repco V8-engined Brabhams had real promise for the coming World Championship season. ’Black Jack’ won that Oulton Park Final, with Denny second.
In the BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone Denny was caught out by oil at Stowe Corner on the opening lap, he spun, hit a fence and broke an oil pipe, so had to retire. He drove Sid Taylor’s Ford GT40 in the supporting race there, and finished second to David Piper’s private Ferrari which could “streak away from me under acceleration, especially out of Beckett’s…”.
And May 1967 for Denny saw only two races – the Monaco Grand Prix, and the Indianapolis 500-Miles…unlike Fernando Alonso, the fall of dates that year enabled The Bear to tackle both. Hd struggled in practice at Monaco to set up his car the way he wanted for the Gasworks and Station hairpin corners. “In 1966 I had found that a quick way round these corners was to brake very late and slide into them. This year… I couldn’t get that to happen absolutely right in practice, and then we put more braking on the rear wheels. It then became possible to lock them up and make the car nearly – but not quite – spin. When I got that sorted, I made a satisfactory time”. He then famously told the crew “She’ll be right”, and they set about race preparation without further running…
He was right behind Jack on the opening lap, and heard and saw his engine fail, which dropped a lot of oil on the track, “…and my car felt good on the oil”. Jackie Stewart led in his 2.1-litre ‘Tasman’ BRM P261 – ideal for Monte Carlo – only for its transmission to fail. “Then Jim Clark – the one I was most concerned about – and some of the others started to catch me and there seemed to be nothing I could do about it. Bandini really got flying too, and was catching me at half a second a lap, but I just wasn’t switched on.Then I got a signal Bandini was only 7 seconds behind, and suddenly I got with it again…”.
Poor Bandini was tiring, however, and on lap 82 his Ferrari crashed at the chicane, he was terribly burned in the ensuing fire and would succumb three days later. Denny considered the harbourside chicane a point at which considerable time could be made up, if you got it right. “You have to straighten it out as much as possible, and of course when you do this you make the chicane narrower. When you do it really quickly there is, I suppose, no more than an inch on either side of the car…”
The following day saw him flying to London, then to Indy, where he would drive an Eagle-Ford entered by ‘Smokey’ Yunick of Daytona ‘Best Damn Garage in Town’ fame. Denny had to take his rookie test. He’d driven before at Indy but had never yet raced there.
He considered the first test – 10 laps at 130mph – the toughest. “You can’t count any lap slower than 129mph or quicker than 134 – “… and it’s not easy to gauge your speed accurately”. With the tiresome business over he lapped at 157mph – “but then I got stuck and it took me another two weeks to break into the 161-162mph bracket.
Rival driver Gordon Johncock took out the car – only at Indy! – and reported he didn’t like it. ‘Smokey’ had set it up with the left-rear wheel supporting an extra 30lbs load. Denny had the suspension readjusted symmetrically and “this did the trick”. “I knew I had to qualify at over 163mph… to my surprise, I got over 164mph on the first lap and was just under 164 on the other two. But on the third lap, I got it all sideways on one corner and that sobered me up for the last lap, which was just under 162”. He qualified at 163.37mph “… enough to get me onto the grid without any danger of getting ‘bumped’”. Against 2017’s Indy lap speeds of over 220mph, 162 doesn’t sound much. I tell you – in 1967 it looked unworldly…
The 1967 Indy 500 was rained off on the first day. Denny: “I was very pleased that it did rain, because I was already out of brakes. We’d got the wheels fared in with ally plates, and these were preventing air getting to the brakes. These were cut off before the race began again next day, and but for this I would never have finished. “The biggest problem arriving at Indianapolis is to keep out of trouble”, but he did – and he finished a fine fourth overall.
And even The Bear admitted he was tired. “They asked me if I wanted lifting out of the cockpit, and I said ‘Yes, you might as well’, because I had developed cramp in my right leg during the race. I had been strapped in very tight, and the wind buffeting was tiring…”. Each of his fuel stops had taken 25 seconds – good at the time – and they used the same tyres throughout the full 500-miles. Denny signed off “If I do drive at Indy again I would want to spend more time there before the race, because this year I hadn’t enough time to do everything properly.
More glory awaited him then, back in Formula 1, fifty years ago…
Images courtesy of The GP Library
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