Hard men and histrionics

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To Monaco came a welcome reminder of the days when Grand Prix drivers endured pain with clenched teeth and sealed lips

Television viewers the world over cannot have failed to observe – perhaps even been saddened by – the histrionics of Nigel Mansell as he sagged, near to collapse, at the end of the Principality’s 50th Grand Prix.

I found myself wondering what Denis Clive Hulme made of it. At the Ford motorhome on Saturday morning we wiled away the time during free practice, and the conversation turned to the burns ‘The Bear’ suffered at Indy back in 1970, only days before the McLaren team was thrown into further turmoil with Bruce’s death at Goodwood.

At the time nothing much was written about Denny’s accident, for the simple reason that Denny said little about it. He discouraged questions anyway. “The Bear reputation was justified. I gave people a hard time,” he grinned. “I used to try my best in the car and I didn’t want any other joker hanging on being nice. If I was going to do it. I was going to do it on my own. I’d look at Mohammed Ali and his entourage a mile long that wasn’t for me.”

He got burned on May 23, 1970, testing the new Indy McLaren M15. “There were two caps up front and we had a curly spring and a button to hold them shut, but USAC didn’t like that. They made us fit a gate spring. Well, the harmonic vibration of the Offenhauser sprang one of them open earlier that day, and we just closed it back down. But the harmonics opened it again like a banjo-type twang. I was out on the track and I saw what I thought was water on the screen. The next lap I saw more, and I assumed it was rain. I was waiting for them to throw the yellow. On my third lap – boof! The thing caught fire. Methanol burns with an invisible flame and all I saw was the screen and my helmet visor just folding up. It was real hot in there.

“I’d got out on to the back stretch, out of Turn Two, halfway down. Doing 200 plus. It was uncanny how the fuel had come forward, against the wind pressure. A freak of aerodynamics. It just expelled it and it exploded. At first it never dawned on me that there was something wrong, except that everything was melting. It was like an oxyacetylene torch. I was damp with fuel, like a sponge. I was well on fire when I jumped out. When I tried that the first time it didn’t work I’d forgotten the seat belts. Second time, my hands had shrivelled to nothing. I had Nomex overalls but only leather shoes and gloves. It was only the beginning of the Simpson boot and glove era. It was silly really. We knew all about the problem.

“My hands were claws but I managed the button. I stood up and turned round so I could see the back wing, and I jumped. I didn’t give a damn about the car, but I wanted to clear that wing. All I did was rip my toenails after I dived out backwards.

“The fire trucks all went to the car; the only marshal who came near me felt the wall of heat. Luckily, when my visor melted it welded itself all round. The paint on my helmet was blistered to hell. The heat was enormous.

“The ambulance arrived and the doc used trick scissors to cut my gloves off. When he took them off, all the skin came off too. I looked like a skinned fish. The pain was instant. On the way to the Methodist Hospital they gave me a saline solution to put my hands in. I drank it, I was so thirsty.

“Later on, I had to get off the morphine, because I was hallucinating so bad. I knew something was wrong. I told the doctor I’d put up with the pain. If that’s what the druggies get out of it, they’ve got rocks in their head.”

Four weeks later Denny Hulme raced at Mosport’s CanAm opener. Possibly only he knew how important it was for the team that he did, for Bruce had died on June 2 and his men were shattered. They looked to the injured but unbowed Bear for their lead.

“I remember one day Greeta just pushed some money into my bandages and off I went by train up to Harley Street. For the life of me I can’t figure out why I didn’t get taken up by car. Standing there on the platform, waiting for somebody to open the door for me

. “That day Bruce was killed was the worst of my life. I heard it on the radio coming back from Harley Street. I’d had no reaction to my hands, no shock, no self-pity. Then suddenly Bruce was gone. It was the worst ever in the week or so after that, because the reactions to both things hit me at the same time.”

And still, Denny never said a word to the outside world. Never betrayed his emotion. Even in the weeks that followed, when after every race removing his gloves meant removing a layer of new skin, he never looked for sympathy. And he never gave up. He won the CanAm title that year in the M8D, against the odds. For Bruce. The doctors told him racing would make his hands take twice as long to heal, but he carried on. In Crete, his father Clive had won the VC. They don’t give them for motor racing, but if they did Denny would have got one too.

“In January ’68 I was mechanicking around a car with a spanner and I knocked the bore out of the end of a finger. It had always stuck out and been painful since Indy, but had bleached itself and was never infectious, I knocked it off, and a few days later the hand was right as rain.”

Denny was in Monaco to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his first GP victory there, with the Repco Brabham in 1967. He’d led in South Africa in the previous race, only to be robbed by brake problems. But once Jackie Stewart’s BRM had broken its transmission, it was The Bear all the way through the streets with the nimble BT20. “The car was the best there all day. Its handling was superb. The track was slippy with oil going into the chicane, and that’s probably what grabbed Bandini. Jack blew his engine early in the other Brabham, and there was a lot of oil and sawdust down there. And we carried a lot of fuel in those days because the race was 100 laps and lasted over two and a half hours. A stack of fuel. My car oversteered there and was a beaut to drive. I virtually didn’t have to turn the wheel in a corner, I just threw it round. Bandini was catching a little, but when you’re bushed like he was you tend to put your foot down harder. It’s debatable anyway whether he’d have caught me.

He liked being back, loved the freedom of having a FOCA pass that got him in without hassle. “Jeez, did I ever hate the aggravation getting in in the old days! The place isn’t like it was then, but progress needs to go ahead. But it was bloody lovely to walk down the hill from the hotel. Jack and I haven’t been recognised at all” – that wasn’t strictly true – “but it doesn’t worry me at all. It’s nice to go incognito.”

What was his abiding memory of that win, the first of eight, I asked him. Denny’s face creased into the usual grin. “Well, at the end of the day I stopped at the Royal Box and Louis Chiron was Clerk of the Course. I’d been leading for at least two hours of the bloody race and he came over and leant in the cockpit and said, ‘What was your name, Monsieur?’ It bloody pissed me off. He was well past his sell-by date, I reckon!”

Denny was one of the sport’s great pragmatists, a cautious man with deep concern over safety issues, yet capable of electrifying performances, as Kyalami 1973, or Sweden later that year, proved. But his real element was the CanAm, the Bruce and Denny Show.

“I always looked forward to the CanAm more than F1. The cars were so damned nice to drive. They’d get round the corners pretty good. They were so exciting, with instant power. You got it to jump, or you just eased it on. You made your foot do the work. Where they were scary was at the top end. You got real high speed, near 200. Your biggest worry in traffic was that you’d lose the front-end downforce. Sometimes I’d hear the front wheels pattering, especially at Riverside. Turn Nine there was my favourite. Go in with your foot down and come out an inch off the wall. That was always a treat…”

He remembers the backflip he did at Road Atlanta in the M20 in ’72, when the vortex from the rear wing of George Follmer’s turbo Porsche sucked him into the air, but the thing he can’t figure is the way Team McLaren did some things. “We were quite scientific, but my fastest race lap was always the second flier, on fresh Goodyears and with full tanks. We never figured to run the car low and put fresh rubber on it at the end of qualifying. We didn’t figure what it was telling us.”

He hadn’t been to Goodwood for 20 years when he went back recently on the 22nd anniversary of Bruce’s death, for the unveiling of a memorial stone. In the old days he’d be there every Wednesday, testing for the CanAm. He was reunited with an M8D, Robert Home’s beautifully prepared car, and he loved it. The byelaws restricted him to 50mph, supposedly, but Denny had fun in the few laps he did. It was written in the smile that stayed on his face long after he’d removed his helmet and mask.

“That was great,” he growled quietly, preparing to spring from the cockpit. Then he paused. “Maybe I should do a Mansell,” he suggested, and slumped helplessly back into the seat, face crimped with pain. His audience cracked up. We’d learned after all what The Bear was thinking after the Monaco Grand Prix.