Boxing Day at Brands Hatch or two months of winter sunshine? Gordon Cruickshank talks to some who made the Tasman Cup choice
It’s Derek Bell who makes the comparison: “I’ve just come back from the first GP Masters race in South Africa. Enthusiastic crowd starved of racing, watching big names in winter sunshine — it reminded me of the Tasman series.”
With 19 grands prix next year, it’s hard to credit a winter series of eight races featuring the current F1 stars, but in the late 1960s that’s what Tasman offered. And according to those who raced, they had a ball.
There were low-key grands prix in both New Zealand and Australia from the 1950s on, but the standard rose as the Sixties approached: the ’58 winner was Jack Brabham, in ’59 it was Stirling Moss. A keen Antipodean racing fraternity steadily whipped up the amount and quality, and by the time Bruce McLaren had added another home-grown element, the various NZ/Australian races had their own sparkle. When Brabham began to build his own cars especially for down-under racing, the grand prix world began to look south. Apart from anything else it offered a ready market for cars at the end of the season…
In 1961 Australia tempted the F1 circus to stay on after its GP for extra races, and Lotus made a first foray with Jim Clark, Trevor Taylor and Innes Ireland. With no great success: the rough track conditions didn’t suit the fragile Lotus 18, whereas the sturdy Coopers of Brabham and McLaren didn’t flinch. Dick Scammell was Clark’s mechanic: “We were just given a handful of petty cash and sent to Australia — we had to find the car at the docks, no hotels booked, nothing.” The locals soon stepped in: “Frank Matich found us rooms, loaned trailers, arranged workshops. In New Zealand I was building Jimmy’s car in the garage of a private house!” And the famous parties? “I know Innes was off enjoying himself, but with one person per car we were pretty tied up.” Colleague Jim Endruweit concurs: “I don’t remember the social life. I remember constantly changing gearbox parts and begging favours from local engineering shops. But the New Zealanders were very sociable.”
Trophies were in short supply, but Scammell retains one memento: “I still have a speeding ticket I got driving the car back from the circuit. The policeman wasn’t really interested in whether it was road-legal — he just wrote ‘Lotus No2’!”
While Brabham and McLaren wrangled in these off-season races, it seemed logical to package them together. After all, New Zealand and Australia are only 1200 miles apart… And what links them is the Tasman Sea — obvious name for the series, really. But the masterstroke was choosing a 2.5-litre limit; it distanced Tasman from F1, by then well into its 1500 era, it tapped into a huge number of reliable Climax FPF engines, and it opened the paddock to a wide range of local entries.
It was 1964 when the series was formalised with a pattern of (usually) four events in New Zealand (the GP at Pukekohe, Levin, Christchurch, Teretonga) and four in Australia (Lakeside, Warwick Farm, Sandown Park, Longford, with a moveable GP). The Brabham versus McLaren tussle continued, Bruce’s mods to his T70 Cooper flexing his nascent manufacturer muscles, while Brabham used a variant of his F1 BT7. But in the opening round it was both teams’ deputies who scored: Denny Hulme won in last year’s Brabham, while promising American Timmy Mayer brought his Cooper home ahead of his boss McLaren. But Bruce put things right with three in a row in NZ, only to be matched by Brabham achieving a similar hat-trick in Australia. Thanks to an extra second place, Bruce arrived in Tasmania for the last round already sure of the first Tasman Cup. But Longford, that scary road circuit, had a couple of shocks ready. During practice, Mayer went off at the notorious Pub Corner and was killed. Racing goes on though, and suddenly Jack and Bruce had to face up to a ‘new’ boy — Graham Hill, in a Brabham loaned by David Mackay, lifted the prize. And the winter venues drew other eyes too: for ’65, Lotus would field a complete Tasman team.
With a modified F2 Lotus 32 carrying a Climax FPF, Jim Clark drove all over the competition. Four wins brought him the 1965 championship, while the Coopers were slow to catchup, even though Bruce drafted in Phil Hill, and Brabham was finding two racing arenas hard to balance. At first it was Aussie Frank Gardner’s Repco-Brabham that chased the Scot, though Bruce finished runner-up. Graham Hill had travelled down to the first round at Pukekohe to check out the series for BRM. Reports back to the Old Country, however, spoke of sun, fun and parties; with local fixer Bill Bryce arranging hotels and travel, it sounded like the package holiday from heaven.
The following year Hill was back with a full BRM team. McLaren’s new F1 project kept him in Europe, but Lotus came to defend Clark’s title with a 39 modified to pack an FPF. BRM, of course, never took the easy option and, while it struggled with the H-16 for the new 3-litre F1, bored out its dainty and reliable V8 for Tasman, first to 1900cc, later to 2100. BRM’s team manager was Tim Parnell: “We had a very generous budget, but the prize money and bonuses were good too. We took three cars, mainly because Graham was very protective and didn’t like anyone else in his car, plus three spare engines, and sometimes we would fly parts out.” They also had World Champ Hill and new star Jackie Stewart. Richard Attwood would do the races Hill chose not to.
For Stewart it was the perfect warm-up to 1966: “Tasman was a bloody good series. It was a fine test series because it came before the F1 season, so cars and drivers were race-ready. And it was a big deal to win the New Zealand or Australian GP.” In fact his attempt on the former that year was nearly scuppered because his own car was trapped in the hold of a ship. BRM PR man Rivers Fletcher had to sail out and retrieve seat, wheel and pedals to make Stewart comfortable in the spare. It worked: JYS was only headed by Hill to the flag, setting in motion a BRM steamroller which brought four wins and the Cup to Stewart, two victories to Hill and another for Attwood, leaving Jimmy Clark a single prize in a run of bad luck and breakages.
With the eight races often a week apart, it made little sense to fly back and forth. And given the choice between a dank British winter with no racing and a hot summer being treated like film stars, who would hesitate? Graham, says Stewart, was the only driver who flew back. The other ‘foreign’ drivers signed on for the duration, moving from race to race in a group, staying at the same hotels, relishing the sun. Attwood: “It was huge fun. We all jollied around together. We were only working one day a week, but you needed stamina for the six days of pleasure!” Jackie agrees: “The races were on Saturday, not Sunday, so there was always a party afterwards. Jimmy and I would share a suite and we drove from race to race. Jaguar had given me a red 3.8 MkII and Jimmy had an E-type. There were a lot of functions too; Shell was very strong in New Zealand, and we had to sing for our supper. But we’d all end up at Chris Anion’s parents’ summer place, and that was an all-night party.”
Distances between the circuits were enormous, and the big names soon had an answer. “That was when we all learned to fly, — Jimmy, Graham and me,” says Jackie. “And Piper gave us two planes. We even flew across the water to Tasmania, information. So risky, looking back, but it was funny. Air Traffic Control called us up and asked, ‘Can any of you guys actually read a compass?” If that sounds a bit cavalier from the high priest of racing safety, remember it was before his frightening Spa crash. And he wasn’t blind to the danger, even then: “Pukekohe was a great circuit, but Christchurch was a bumpy airfield covered with stones. I got hit on the head. And Longford was a safety nightmare. Bridges, brick walls, earth banks…”
Maybe it was to forget the risks that JYS threw himself into partying: “I remember everybody sitting on the floor in a bar pretending to be in Maori war canoes, singing Maori chants. There was a race between rival canoes — I’ve no idea how somebody won!”
Lotus couldn’t let BRM keep the Cup, and for 1967 put Clark into an F1 car with a Climax V8. BRM rotated Stewart and Attwood, with Piers Courage and Chris Irwin backing up, but though Jackie won twice, Jimmy’s three victories brought the title back to Hethel. The Brits were hogging things, but it was no pushover, as Attwood explains: “We always had the new cars, whereas the others had older machines, but there was only good feeling with the local drivers.” Stewart amplifies this: “There was an amazing number of high-ranking drivers from Europe, but the home competition was tough too. Amon, Gardner, Frank Matich — he was a bloody good driver, just never went overseas. Alec Mildren’s team [which ran Gardner in FPF and then Alfa-powered Brabhams] was very professional, and the Geoghegan brothers, they were both good.”
Generous start and prize money helped attract large fields. Attwood: “The money was massive, but I just got a flat fee of £500 and the trophies went to BRM. I didn’t care, though. I just felt lucky to be involved.” There were liquid rewards too, recalls Jackie, who won 25 bottles of champagne for the first 100mph lap of Pukekohe: “There was always champagne to win and you couldn’t take it home; you had to bring it to the next party. Mind you, it was New Zealand champagne…”
Graham Hill had views on the local tipple too, according to Attwood: “We all went to a restaurant where the proprietor was very proud of his wine cellar. He brought out one very special wine and gave Graham a glass. ‘Absolute piss’, he yelled, and threw the bottle out of the window. It got a huge laugh, so he did it again and again.”
If it was a surprise to see a scarlet F2 Ferrari at Pukekohe for the 1968 NZ GP, it wasn’t because Enzo was grabbed by winter racing. It was due to his new signing, Amon. “It was very much my instigation,” says the Kiwi from his New Zealand farm. “I hadn’t competed at home for a while and I was keen to return. Bandini had used the 2.4 V6 at Monaco, and I thought it would go well in Tasman.” It did; Amon jockeyed for the wins all season with Clark, now in a 49T with a short-stroke Cosworth DFV in the back, reinforced in Australia by Graham Hill in a second 49T. Amon’s brace of wins, two seconds and two fourths netted 36 points for the lithe Ferrari, despite being “a bit short of brakes,” according to its pilot, but couldn’t overturn Jimmy’s quartet of victories and 44 points, which brought him a third Tasman title. For BRM, the Antipodean races were a chance to break in its new V12 engine, as Parnell remembers: “We were passing development info to and from Mike Spence at home.” To little avail: the twelve was so troublesome the team brought out the old V8s. A lucky win for Bruce McLaren was Bourne’s only cheer.
Halfway through the ’68 season Amon had stopped sending motors back to Ferrari, relying on his mechanic Bruce Wilson to rebuild them locally, with better results. This independence from Modena meant he could plan a double attack for ’69, so he signed up his Ferrari F2 team-mate Derek Bell. Bell was thrilled: “Chris and I were great friends. We did a deal for two Ferraris, and I picked them up from Modena in a double-decker trailer and took them home. I was so excited — two works Ferraris outside my house in Bognor Regis!” With a Transit-load of spares and one works mechanic, Amon proceeded to dominate the 1969 series; “the Brabhams were ahead on power, but our car was light and nimble,” says Derek. Chris finally took home the Tasman Cup. But he was chased, after a string of early retirements, by Lotus new boy Jochen Rindt, whose Gold Leaf-liveried 49 carried him to second place in the championship. It wasn’t just about the car, says Amon: “We were much better organised than Lotus.”
Bell, about to reach F1, took home a valuable lesson: “At Teretonga Jochen was on the grid in front of me, with Graham behind. Jochen stalled, and I hit his wheel with mine. He started again, and so did I — but he stopped and I hit him again. I finished [fifth, minus a spoiler], but that evening Graham called me over and said, ‘You were bloody stupid to hit Jochen. Don’t let the clutch up until the car in front moves.’ And I thought he was going to congratulate me on a great drive!”
Socially, the series just got better. “We were on the road together for two months,” recalls Amon. “The tension of F1 wasn’t there; we all went on group trips; I got to know Jimmy, Jochen and the others in a way you couldn’t at grands prix.” True; around Europe you wouldn’t see an unofficial race between Attwood and Jimmy Clark — behind trotting ponies: “Oh, no skill involved —you just sat and steered!”
The Amon all-night barbeque remained a highlight, among many exertions. “We played loads of tennis and squash,” says Bell. “Once Jochen and I came back from a squash game to where Chris was drinking a beer. I said, ‘You should try it — gets you fit!’ He said, ‘When you beat me, then I’ll get fit… ‘ And we taught Jochen to play cricket.”
“We had our own ‘Ashes’ cricket series,” says Attwood. Amon recalls it too: “Yeah, we could never win that because Tim Parnell was the umpire and his wife was the scorer!”
The drivers were lionised around both countries. Amon remembers the crowds: “We’re a rugby nation, but we got 80-90,000 people at the New Zealand GP.” This was helped by Shell, which whipped up the buzz. “They took huge full-page ads in the papers,” says JYS. “It was a publicity machine,” says Bell, “which grew and grew at each race. The interest in New Zealand was intense. They were starved of top-class racing, so they turned out in droves when we arrived. Of course, Chris was the national hero.”
Bell, however, reminds us that they were on duty too: “People put up a lot of money to bring us over there, and we were called on a lot. At each place we’d be invited to official functions, or to visit kids in hospital, which we were happy to do, but some of the drivers began to get bored with that. At one function my wife and I were the only ones there. They said, ‘It’s our one chance to meet you guys, and you’re the only ones who bothered to turn up.’ It brought home to me what it meant to them.”
But the enthusiasm of the crowds didn’t guarantee the survival of the series. As the F1 world became more intense it was harder to run a separate Tasman team, and off-season testing began to claim the big names. The organisers saw the signs, and for 1970 Tasman changed to a ‘stockblock’ series based on F5000. For six years the racing continued, but with start money replaced by prize money it drew fewer and fewer outsiders. As F5000 began to fade, the Tasman series came to an end.
In its wake, party stories are in danger of overshadowing the quality of the racing. “The whole series was about fun,” says Bell, “but it was serious racing.” Parnell agrees: “A terrific social pack, great camaraderie, really competitive racing — and it was wonderful to get away from an English winter!”