Great Eight... Kiwi F1 racers

13th October 2017
Henry Hope-Frost

News linking Porsche World Endurance Championship star and Le Mans winner Brendon Hartley to the second Toro Rosso Formula 1 seat for next weekend’s United States GP at Austin has put New Zealand back on the F1 map.


Interestingly, it will be the first time since 1994 that a team has run two entirely different drivers in consecutive in-season GPs. Back then, Lotus drivers Philippe Adams and Johnny Herbert raced the team’s Mugen-Honda-powered 109s in the Portuguese GP at Estoril, before Eric Bernard and Alessandro Zanardi stepped in for the European GP at Jerez three weeks later.

Hartley would be the ninth driver from his tiny nation to race in a World Championship GP. Among the eight, you’ll most certainly have heard of some, others possibly not.


Chris Amon – b 20 July 1943; d 3 August 2016

Dubbed the most unlucky driver in Grand Prix racing, and certainly one of the very best who never stood atop an F1 podium, Amon started 96 Grands Prix, in Lola, Lotus, Brabham, Cooper, Ferrari, March, Matra, Tecno, Tyrrell, Amon, BRM and Ensign machinery, between 1963 and ’76. He racked up five pole positions for Ferrari and Matra and started on the front row on another 12 occasions, yet never managed a victory. Three times he finished second, every time from third on the grid. His biggest career victory came in a Ford GT40 alongside friend and countryman Bruce McLaren at Le Mans in 1966.


Howden Ganley – b 24 December 1941 

Hamilton-born Ganley started 35 races for BRM, Iso-Marlboro and March between 1971 and ’74. He had been a close ally of Bruce McLaren during the McLaren team’s infancy but didn’t make his top-level debut until after his friend had died. Ganley’s best result was a brace of fourth places – in the 1971 US and ’72 German GP in variants of the 3-litre V12 BRM P160. His biggest career win came in a European Formula 5000 round at Oulton Park in 1970 aboard a McLaren M10B.


Denis Hulme – b 18 June 1936; d 4 October 1992

The most capped and successful of the Kiwi racers, Hulme was a Grand Prix winner and the only one of his countrymen to lift the Drivers’ title. He began his F1 career with Brabham in 1965, staying with Jack’s outfit for three seasons, during which time he won twice – at Monaco and the Nürburgring in ’67 – and secured that year’s crown. He moved to McLaren for ’68 and won six more races for his friend and team-mate’s British-based team over a seven-season period. He also took two Can-Am titles for McLaren, taking a record 22 wins in the papaya-orange M8 and M20 V8 monsters between 1967 and ’72. He died, aged just 56, of a heart attack while competing in the Bathurst 1000km touring car race for BMW in 1992.


Bruce McLaren – b 30 August 1937; d 2 June 1970

This super-talented racer and engineer, who overcame crippling Perthes disease during childhood, came to Europe on a find-a-driver scholarship and quickly made a serious name for himself. His F1 career began in 1958, with Cooper, and at the end of year two he became the then-youngest winner of a World Championship F1 race – 22 – in the US GP at Sebring. He stayed with the Surrey-based team until the end of 1965, winning twice more, before going it alone with his own car in ’66. The breakthrough win for his eponymous team came in Belgium in ’68 and, nearly 50 years later, it remains the second most successful team in F1 history. Bruce also won Le Mans for Ford in 1966 and, like his friend Denis Hulme, took two Can-Am titles in his eponymous M8 sportscars. He died while testing one such machine at Goodwood in 1970, aged only 32. 


Graham McRae – b 5 March 1940

Better known for his success in a self-built McRae Formula 5000 car in the early 1970s, Wellington-born McRae tackled one Grand Prix – at Silverstone in 1973 – as team-mate to Howden Ganley in the Frank Williams-run Iso Marlboro team. He qualified the Cosworth DFV-powered car 28th of 29 (Ganley was 18th) and failed to complete a lap when the throttle cable snapped. Ganley went on to finish ninth, while McRae was left to rue what would be one of the shortest Grand Prix careers on record.


John Nicholson – b 6 October 1941; d 19 September 2017

Aucklander Nicholson was renowned for his engine-building prowess, working for Bruce McLaren in the early years, before setting up Nicholson-McLaren that tuned Cosworth DFVs to World Championship-winning level with Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt in the mid-1970s. Nicholson was also a good pedaller, competing against up-and-coming names in the lower formulas and winning two Formula Atlantic titles. He made one GP start, in Silverstone’s British Grand Prix in 1975, in an uncompetitive Lyncar, a machine he had commissioned. He qualified 26th and last but was classified 18th after crashing five laps before the end of the rain-shortened race. While continuing his thriving engine business he enjoyed success in powerboat racing, taking several British titles.  

Tony Shelly – b 2 February 1937; d 4 October 1998

Hailing from Wellington, Shelly is probably the least-known of the ‘Kiwi Eight’. His only World Championship start came in the British GP at Silverstone in 1962 in a Lotus 18. He started 18th of the 21 runners and retired the car after just five laps when the Climax engine failed. He entered two more races that year, in Germany with the 18 and Italy with a BRM-engined 24, but failed to qualify on both occasions. And that was that for Shelly in Formula 1.


Mike Thackwell – b 30 March 1961   

Arguably Formula 1’s greatest lost talent, the enigmatic Thackwell’s credentials convinced most that he would become a superstar and add his name to those of Hulme and McLaren as Kiwi F1 winners. Oddly, his first Grand Prix start came before he racked up wins and titles in the feeder-formula European F2 and its successor F3000. It came in a Tyrrell 010 in Canada in 1980, having failed to qualify in an Arrows A3 in the Dutch GP earlier in the year. Sadly, his Montreal debut lasted until the first corner where a race-stopping pile-up meant he then had to hand his undamaged car to the more-senior Jean-Pierre Jarier for the restart. He got another chance at Watkins Glen a week later but failed to qualify. He’d have to wait almost four years for another crack, this time with the tiny RAM team in, of all places, Montreal. He got into the race, on the back row with team-mate Philippe Alliot, but turbo failure on the 1.5-litre Hart engine put paid to his efforts after 29 laps. Back with Tyrrell for that year’s German GP, he again failed to make the cut and that would be the end of his F1 dream. Consolation came in the form of European F2 title victory at the end of the year and F3000 race wins in ’85, but sadly for his fans Thackwell would soon turn his back on the sport for good.

Photography courtest of LAT Images

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