On this day in 1936 a one of a kind was born. Denny Hulme is New Zealand’s one and only F1 world champion. He was nick named ‘the bear’ because of his gruff personality, rugged looks and fiery temper. But by all accounts he was a ‘man’s man’ and a real racer.
Grand Prix.com reveals that Denny Hulme came from a most unusual background. “As a child he lived on a tobacco farm owned by his grandparents at Moteuka on New Zealand’s South Island. His father was a mystic, water diviner and fortune-teller who used these talents when serving with the ANZAC forces in the Battle of Crete in 1941.
Convinced that he would not be killed, no matter what he did, Clive Hulme won the Victoria Cross with a startling career as a sharpshooter and came home a national hero. He then moved to Te Puke on North Island and started a trucking business”.
Young Denny left school to work with his father in a motor repair garage and saved his money to buy an MG TF to compete in hill climbs in 1956.
In 1960 he was selected to be the new New Zealand driver to compete in the Formula Junior championship in a Cooper-BMC. Denny had to find work to fund this enterprise and happened upon Jack Brabham. He was subsequently employed by the Brabham as a mechanic in his road going auto garage in Chessington.
Ken Tyrell spotted the young New Zealander and recruited him for his Formula Junior team. Jack Brabham then realised the talent of his mechanic and promoted him to his own Formula 2 team in 1964. Hulme proceeded to win half the races in the series that year, and his Formula One destiny was secured.
Hulme debuted for Brabham in F1 at the 1965 Monaco GP and scored points in his first race. He competed in F1 between 1965 and 1974 and racked up 112 starts, 8 wins, 33 podiums and the 1967 drivers’ championship for the Brabham team, piping team mate and boss Jack to the title.
That year, Denny won his first F1 race in Monaco and followed it up by an epic win at the ‘green hell’ circuit known as the Nordeschliefe. He added six further podiums to his two wins in the 1967 season, and the F1 championship that year comprised of just 11 races in total.
The Brabham Repco’s were not the quickest cars in 1967 and faced the super quick Lotus 49 cars in the hands of Graham Hill and Jim Clarke. However, the BT19, BT20 and BT24 iterations of racing car from the Brabham stable proved to be reliable and consistent – which became the winning combination that year.
Denny’s driving style in F1 was epitomized by a ‘take it easy’ approach during the early parts of a race to conserve the car, then Hulme would unleash an onslaught on those ahead of him later – regularly charging through the field to the amazement of his competitors.
Hulme raced for McLaren between 1968 and 1874 and McLaren.com’s heritage archive recalls. “Legend has it that during his youth he was doing some welding in his father’s garage when he smelled burning. As it happened, he had trodden on a spark; but had smelled it before the burning sensation started to drill through the sole of his foot!
Many years later he would bear the searing pain and discomfort of methanol burns to his hands – sustained while testing at Indianapolis when a fuel filler cap worked loose on the first McLaren Indycar – similarly without a murmur”.
Denny relished the idea of two New Zealander’s – him and Bruce McLaren – taking on the world of F1, but his natural confidence and self belief took a severe knock when Bruce McLaren was killed testing in 1970.
In the good old days of 1966, Hulme and Bruce McLaren entered two GT40 MkII’s and during the last 30 minutes of the race, Denny’s car was at the head of the field with a comfortable lead over Bruce. However, a pre-arrangement saw him wait for McLaren to catch up so they could cross the line together for a photo shot dead heat.
McLaren apparently left a small margin to allow Hulme’s co-driver Miles to win the race. However, following an examination of the photo finish, the stewards awarded the race to McLaren/Amon. The reasoning was that Hulme had started ahead of McLaren on the grid – and therefore travelled a shorter race distance. The ACO estimated the difference at 8 metres.
Hulme’s partner Ken Miles was thus denied the triple crown Daytona-Sebring-Le Mans and the finish remains the closest in Le Mans history.
During his time with McLaren, Denny was a successful competitor in the CanAm series, winning with the McLaren team five straight titles between 1967 and 1971, and he clinched the individual drivers’ championship twice in 1968 and 1970.
Following the death of his good friend Peter Revson in 1973, Hulme led the GPDA campaign for greater safety before retiring to New Zealand.
Denny did return to racing, but only for fun. He featured in the 1980’s Tom Walkinshaw Austin Rover European Touring car team and regularly hammered around Mount Panorama in a yellow BMW.
Denny Hulme was tragically killed while competing in a BMW M3 in the 1993 Bathurst race, having suffered a heart attack at the wheel.
McLaren’s tribute to their former driver reads as follows: “This tough New Zealander was, in oh-so-many ways, as big a contributor to the McLaren motor racing legend as the team founder Bruce McLaren”.
High praise indeed, for a man – who many have never heard of.