Today marks twenty years since the death of New Zealand’s one and only Formula 1 World Champion, Denny Hulme, who won the world title in 1967 with the Brabham team.
He had an unusual childhood to say the least, and hardly one that would indicate he’d become a racing driver, let alone join the annals of Formula 1 World Champions. Growing up on a tobacco farm in New Zealand’s South Island, his father was a decorated World War II hero, but a man who was also a mystic, fortune-teller and water diviner!
When Denny left school, he went to work at the garage now run by his father, and saved up enough money to buy an MG TF, in which he started to contest hillclimb events in the mid-1950s, earning a reputation for his preference of driving barefoot!
In 1960, he was sponsored under New Zealand’s ‘Driver to Europe’ scheme and began competing in the Formula Junior championship in a Cooper BMC. In order to keep the money trickling in, he picked up a job as a mechanic in Jack Brabham’s garage, forging a relationship that would propel him up the motorsport ladder under the watchful eye of a (then) two-time World Champion.
Earning the nickname ‘The Bear’ because of his brusque manner, his continued success in Formula Junior (both with Brabham and Ken Tyrrell’s respective teams) led him to being promoted to Brabham’s Formula 2 team for the 1964 season. The pair won the majority of the season’s races in the 1964 European Championship, finishing 1-2 in the standings.
Despite the odd non-championship F1 outing in 1964, it wasn’t until 1965 that Hulme made his full-time World Championship debut, picking up his first points finish at the French Grand Prix.
When Dan Gurney left the Brabham team to start up his own bespoke Eagle F1 team for the 1966 season, Hulme was appointed full-time to be Jack’s team-mate. While his team leader would go on to become the first (and so far only) driver to win the World Championship in a car of his own making, Hulme served as a capable deputy and finished fourth overall in the championship.
The following year would be Hulme’s turn to become champion. The Brabhams were the team to beat, but it was team-mate Brabham who was given first preference for the new development parts, often coming a cropper when his car broke down. Hulme – armed with the less competitive but more reliable machinery – took the title, becoming the first and so far only New Zealander to do so.
He took up an offer to join his compatriot Bruce McLaren’s eponymous F1 team for the 1968 season, representing the team in both F1 and CanAm, taking the title in the latter and winning that year’s Italian and Canadian Grands Prix in the former.
The following year saw him win just one Grand Prix, while he followed McLaren home to finish 1-2 in that year’s CanAm title.
He was sidelined for part of the 1970 season after suffering terrible burns to his hands at the Indianapolis 500, and then his misery was compounded further when McLaren was killed in a testing accident at Goodwood. Denny was instrumental at keeping a grief-stricken team together, and despite his own injuries, he still managed to deliver himself a second CanAm title and finish fourth in the F1 championship.
He remained a frontrunner in F1 and CanAm until 1974, making the decision to quit racing following the death of his good friend, Peter Revson.
Despite returning briefly to a quieter life in his native country, Hulme found it hard to quieten the racing bug, and he returned to racing in the 1980s in the European Touring Car Championship, driving for Tom Walkinshaw’s Austin Rover team.
Still competitive into his mid-fifties, Denny concentrated on the Australian Touring Car Championship, in which he started racing full-time in the late 1980s.
Driving a semi-works BMW M3 in the race, he complained over the pit-to-car radio of blurred vision, perhaps not realising that he was in the early stages of a heart attack. Driving along the circuit’s fastest stretch, Conrod Straight, the cardiac arrest set in.
Incredibly, Hulme managed to bring his car to a safe stop after gently scraping his car along the trackside barriers on the right-hand-side of the track, and when marshals arrived at the scene they found him unconscious behind the wheel, still strapped in.
He was rushed to hospital and pronounced dead upon arrival. The motorsport world would mourn the passing of a truly gentle giant of four-wheeled competition who died doing what he loved best.
[Images via Corbis Images, Flickr, F1 Nostalgia, The Cahier Archive]