In the days when the Formula One stars had time off in the winter, many went down under for fun in the Tasman series. By David McKinney
Formula One drivers these days have very little time to themselves between championships. Pre-season testing schedules and sponsor commitments allow few opportunities to escape from the pressure, even for a few weeks.
In more relaxed times, though, many top drivers sought warmer climes in which they could not only avoid the Northern Hemisphere winter, but also keep their reflexes sharp with extra racing.
In the 1960s, following earlier “winter” series in South Africa (before the War) and South America, the Tasman Series of races in New Zealand and Australia became just the job.
New Zealand had staged its first international Grand Prix in 1954, and as other races in that country were added a fully-fledged series developed. Not run to any formula, these programmes usually attracted a number of second-rank European-based drivers, though occasionally an F1 star could be lured over for a race or two. Then, as the popularity of New Zealand’s races grew, so the quality of the participants improved. And none more so than Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren, the two best-known names down under, who would both become international stars.
Australia, 1200 miles away on the other side of the Tasman Sea, promoted the occasional one-off race of its own. However, it was not until 1961 that it took advantage of so many big names being in the region and invited the stars to stay for a further series of races in Australia.
It was only a matter of time before the races in New Zealand and Australia were organised into a single international championship, with its own formula. The large number of four-cylinder Coventry Climax FPF engines in both countries at the time meant that 2500cc was a logical upper limit for the new series. Four counting races in New Zealand in January were followed by four in Australia in February. Logically enough, the series took its name from the sea which links the two countries.
The first Tasman Series was run in 1964, but such was the championship’s standing over the next few years that leading manufacturers such as Cooper, Brabham, Lotus and even Ferrari would build cars especially for it.
From the start, the series produced some brilliant racing, with regular season-long battles. Brabham and McLaren fought it out in 1964, and subsequent series saw Jim Clark’s Lotus and the BRMs of Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart in the fray. By 1968, it was the turn of Chris Amon’s Ferrari to attack the Lotus 49s of Clark and Jochen Rindt.
Crucial in all this was the relaxed atmosphere. On the track, the competition was every bit as intense as if the drivers had been competing in a world championship Grand Prix. During the week, however, there was time to enjoy other pursuits such as fishing, waterskiing, jet-boating. and even deer stalking! The evenings weren’t wasted either -Some of the parties became legendary…
Travelling together and staying in the same hotels, the teams could not help but make it a much friendlier, clubbier, series than Formula One.
Brabham and McLaren were the stars of the inaugural series, as they had been in the earlier, less formalised years, and the championship immediately developed into a battle between the two. McLaren’s mount was a Cooper T70 which owed more to McLaren design ideas than Cooper, while Brabham used a development of the F1 BT7. Each won three rounds, but McLaren had a better record of other placings and ended the series with 39 points to Brabham’s 33.
Each man had brought a back-up car for a second driver, and third place in the overall rankings was shared by the drivers of these: Kiwi Denny Hulme and American Timmy Mayer. Brabham Formula Junior team-leader Hulme took a year-old BT4 to victory in the first round and was well in control in another until he spun. Mayer, who was expected to join the Cooper F1 team in Europe later in the year, raced McLaren’s second Cooper T70, taking two second places and two thirds before crashing to his death on the daunting Longford road course in Tasmania.
Brabham contested only six of the eight rounds, and the pressures of running his own company in England meant he restricted his Tasman campaigns even further in future years. However, McLaren returned with a two-car Cooper team to defend his title in 1965. He was partnered by his Formula One team mate Phil Hill, who was now nearing the end of his single-seater career. Others had made progress too; Team Lotus had built up a challenger for Jim Clark, based on an F2 model, and the Scot enjoyed a dominant run, winning four of that year’s seven races. The Coopers were hampered by a last-minute change from 13in Dunlop tyres, for which the cars had been designed, to 15in Firestones, and took most of the series to become competitive. Clark’s final points tally was 35, with McLaren’s 24 giving him the runner-up spot, although he had been unable to win until the last race of the series.
McLaren, like Brabham, was now a fully-fledged racing constructor in his own right and was unable to spare the time for a Tasman campaign in 1966. Yet Clark was back to defend his title, this time with the Lotus 39, built for the stillborn Coventry Climax flat-16. For the Australasian series it was fitted with a four-cylinder FPF. Entering the series for the first time, BRM used V8 engines stretched to two litres in the back of their P261s, which were handled by Graham Hill and new team star Jackie Stewart. The scream of their exhausts made a welcome change from the hitherto universal FPFs.
As the 1966 season wore on, the anticipated Lotus vs BRM battle turned out to be rather onesided. Stewart won four races, beating his teamleader on one occasion and finishing a bare second and a half behind on another. Hill did not contest the whole series, but won two of the races he did start. Stewart was a clear championship winner, and the BRM steamroller left just one race for Clark, who otherwise managed only two second places and a third in the midst of a glut of retirements. The FPF, which had powered its first Grand Prix winner in 1958, had reached its sell-by date.
For the Lotus/BRM return match of 1967 Clark followed the BRM lead and armed himself with an F1 car a Lotus 33 – fitted with a 2-litre Climax V8. The plan worked and Clark regained his championship. Only six races counted that year; Clark won three of them and finished second in all the others, for a total of 45 points. He also beat the BRMs in the two non-championship races.
BRM’s effort was hampered by the fact that Stewart had to miss several races because of tyre testing commitments in South Africa. He still won two races, though, to share the runner-up position in the championship. Attwood, the other regular driver, had to be content with fifth place overall in the standings. Chris Irwin and Piers Courage alternated in Stewart’s seat during his absence, with Irwin showing particular promise.
Clark’s 1968 Tasman weapon was a Lotus 49 using a destroked version of the Ford-Cosworth DFV engine. During the season its livery was changed from the traditional Team Lotus green and gold to the red, white and gold of Gold Leaf, and a new era in international motor racing was born.
The Lotus vs BRM battle of the previous two seasons turned into a Lotus vs Ferrari war over the next two. The Italian factory had built a special Tasman car for the 1966 series, but kept it at home after the Can-Am sportscar accident which befell its driver John Surtees. Now with the young New Zealander Chris Amon leading their team they modified one of their Formula Two cars to take the proven Dino 246 engine.
Clark and Amon spent the whole series in each other’s wheeltracks, the Lotus generally having the upper hand. Each driver finished in the points in six of the eight rounds, but Clark’s tally of four wins, a second place and a fifth brought him 44 points, while Amon notched up 36 from two wins, two seconds and two fourths. Nevertheless, the British team had been sufficiently concerned about the new challenge to send Hill out with a second 49T for the Australian rounds, in which the English driver supported his Scottish team mate with two second places and a third.
During the previous year’s series Hill had caused an upset by running strongly in one or two Australian events with an F2 Lotus 48, powered by the new Ford-Cosworth FVA engine, and this year newly crowned world champion Hulme ran an F2 Brabham BT23, a car with which he scored points in four rounds. But that performance was quite overshadowed by Courage, whose similarly powered McLaren M4A finished in the points in every round. His Tasman placings included a second and three thirds and an upset victory in the wet Longford race.
The battle hotted up in 1969, with two Lotus 49Ts completing the full season and Ferrari mounting a two-car effort of its own. Tragically, Clark, universally popular in the Southern Hemisphere, had lost his life just after winning the previous year’s Tasman Series, so it was new signing Rindt who joined Hill on the 1969 campaign. Amon’s No.2 was his Ferrari F2 team-Mate Derek Bell.
The series had started badly for Gold Leaf Team Lotus, with six retirements and only two finishes in the New Zealand races. They did better in Australia, but by then Amon had built up a huge points lead. He notched up four wins and two thirds during the series, and Bell backed that up by finishing in the points in every round but one, his best placings being a pair of seconds.
Amon’s final points tally of 44 put him well clear of Rindt’s 30. Third place went to Courage, who drove a DFV-powered Brabham BT24 entered by Frank Williams and finished ahead of Bell and Hill.
BRM did not contest the 1969 series, following a disastrous campaign with V12 P126 models in 1968 disastrous, that is, apart from a freak win by Bruce McLaren when a sudden rain shower sent the favourites spinning off. Pedro Rodriguez drove the other car and took a second, but the team found the old faithful V8s, brought out as stand-bys, to be more competitive.
Jack Brabham’s restricted campaigns over these years usually managed at least one podium finish, and he won a round in 1965 (with the last of his Climax-powered cars) and another in 1967 (with a Repco). He also brought a second car for Hulme, who had a miserable season, with only a single third place to show for his efforts.
Two professional Australian teams contested the early seasons with FPF-powered Brabhams. Scuderia Veloce hired Graham Hill to drive its BT4 and BT11 in some 1964 and 1965 rounds, and he succeeded in winning one race each year. In 1966 the car was driven by 21-year-old Sydney saloon driver Spencer Martin, and he proved the equal of all but the very best of the visitors.
The rival Alec Mildren Racing Team ran BT11s for expatriate Sydney driver Frank Gardner in 1965 and 1966, then an FPF-powered F2 Brabham. For the last two years of the formula Mildren and Gardner used 2-litre Alfa Romeo V8 sportscar engines, first in another F2 Brabham and finally in the one-off Mildren monocoque. In Gardner’s hands these cars proved strong contenders: one year he led Clark and the BRMs and everyone else for all but the last two laps of one race Although never a winner in the five seasons he drove for the Mildren team in the Tasman Series, Gardner took five second places and eight thirds, and was the championship runner-up in 1967.
The most consistently successful resident driver in these years was New Zealander Jim Palmer. Only 22 years old when the series was inaugurated, he always had some of the best equipment and was fourth in the championship in 1965 (in the ex-Brabham B17) and 1966 (ex-Clark Lotus 32B). Among his countrymen, young saloon driver Kerry Grant shocked the establishment with some brilliant drives in a Brabham BT4 in 1965, while by the end of the period Roly Levis (Brabham BT23C) and Graeme Lawrence (McLaren M4A) were consistent place-winners in FVA-powered cars.
Australians Bib Stillwell, Frank Matich and Lex Davison all gained numerous placings with Brabhams in the early years, as did John Youl with a Cooper. But by 1969 their places had been taken by Kevin Bartlett as Gardner’s back-up in the previous year’s Mildren cars, Leo Geoghegar (Lotus 39) and small-car men Neil Allen (McLarer M4A) and Max Stewart (spaceframe Mildren-Alfa).
With the approach of the new decade, the writing was on the wall for the Tasman series. As winter F1 testing programmes took increasing priority it became more and more difficult for the Australian and New Zealand circuits to attract the top drivers. As a result, the decision was taken to adopt a new formula, based on Formula 5000, which was doing well in Europe, and its American counterpart Formula A – both of which allowed “stock block” engines up to 5000cc. At the same time, the original appearance -money fund was replaced by a generous prize fund.
In this form the Tasman series continued for another six years, but the big names were gone. Instead, the winners were leading European F5000 contenders such as Graham McRae (who was a New Zealander anyway), Mike Hallwood, Peter Gethin, David Hobbs and Teddy Pilette in the latest British F5000 cars, and top Americans such as John Cannon, Bobby Brown and Sam Posey. The only real star competing at that time was Amon, Who made two separate campaigns, although neither proved to be a success.
Most visitors found the local knowledge of the Australian and New Zealand drivers hard to beat, and the stars were home-based runners such as Matich, Allen and Bartlett. Indeed, during the six years of the 2.5-litre formula, no resident Australian or New Zealander had succeeded in winning a round of the Tasman Championship. Yet 24 of the 46 races held under the “stock-block” formula fell to local residents.
The first “stock-block” Tasman series in 1970 produced an upset winner in the form of Graeme Lawrence with the ex-Amon Tasman Ferrari, but from then on the 5-litre cars had things all their own way. McRae won the next three titles, first in a McLaren M10B and then in his own McRae GM1s. Gethin won the 1974 championship in a Team VDS Chevron, but by 1975 the championship was no more than a test series for the two host nations, and was won by young Australian Warwick Brown in a Lola T332.
That was it. The increasingly crowded international calendar, coinciding with a drop in the prestige of F5000 in both Europe and America, meant a major winter series could no longer be sustained. It was bound to happen, but racing had lost one of the most enthralling and generous-spirited series it had ever seen. Nothing that was to follow would be quite the same.