Gary Hocking called a premature halt to his meteoric bike career in 1962. He felt Formula One was a safer option… Paul Fearnley recalls a talent that shone brightly, but much too briefly
It was a remarkable opening lap of a remarkable circuit. Rhodesia’s Gary Hocking had been drawn at six, his MV Agusta team-mate Mike Hailwood at three and his good friend, Honda’s Aussie charger Tom Phillis, at one. Yet as this talented trio flashed past the huge scoreboard which crowned Bray Hill, it was Hocking, the reigning 350 and 500cc world champion, in the lead on elapsed time — and on the road. He had taken 20sec out of Phillis and 10 out of Hailwood.
But tragedy struck on the second lap of the 1962 Junior TT, Phillis crashing fatally at Laurel Bank. For Hocking, who eventually finished second to Hailwood by less than 6sec after a titanic two-hour struggle, and who won the Senior race two days later, this crash marked the end — of his first motorsport career.
“Gary was forever saying that we were going to kill each other because we were all trying so hard,” says fellow expat Rhodesian Jim Redman, a six-time world champion with Honda. “We were gunning for MV Agusta and the competition was fierce. Gary was still pushing on the bike, but off it he kept saying that we were all going too fast.” Perhaps he was right: Honda’s Bob McIntyre would also be dead, killed at Oulton Park, before the year was out. “Gary was a religious bloke who used to pray every day,” Redman continues, “and after that Junior TT he felt that he had lured Tom to his death. And that was that. He walked away from a world championship. He was his own man.”
Born in Caerleon, just north of Newport in South Wales, in 1937, Hocking was a glittering star on two wheels. But there was no Stan Hailwood — an ambitious millionaire father — in his corner. Raised simply in Bulawayo, he learned his trade in a hard-knocks national scene. But, says Redman, Hocking was no trial-and-error merchant: “He was a natural, confident of his own ability. But instead of jumping on and learning by his mistakes, he waited and waited until he was sure that he and his Triumph were exactly right before starting that first race. He was absolutely determined to win it. And he would have too, but for some small problem when leading. He was a thinker, Gary.”
It was the older Redman who flew the nest first, handing over his repair business to Hocking and arriving in the UK in 1958 — whereupon he immediately went head-to-head with Derek Minter, the ‘King of Brands’.
“Derek was very good, but he was just a bloke on a bike as far as I was concerned,” says Redman. “Sometimes you can leave the comfort of your national championship only to discover that the rest of the world has forgotten more than you ever knew. Fortunately, it turned out that our local scene was competitive enough to put us in good stead when we ventured abroad. When Gary read that I had finished second in that race at Brands Hatch, he said he could have won it So he packed up and came over. He arrived in England with £200 and a suitcase that rattled.”
Hocking was an instant hit on privateer Nortons, and MZ gave him his first works ride in 1959; he won first time out on its 250 two-stroke at Kristianstad in Sweden. He won at Dundrod, too. And all-conquering MV came a-calling. Its team leader John Surtees was making noises about switching to four wheels — he would successfully mix and match codes during ’60— and Count Agusta needed a new talent to pick up the torch. He chose wisely. Hocking finished runner-up to MV’s Carlo Ubbiali on the 125s and 250s and to Surtees on the 350s in his first year with the team, and leapt seamlessly onto its number one saddle when Surtees, a seven-time champ with MV, went cars for good in ’61.
“Gary was a very serious competitor,” says Surtees, “very determined and more interested in the technical side of things than Mike Hailwood. I felt happier leaving MV in the knowledge that he would be there to guide them.”
Hocking won 12 times in 1961, including seven of the nine 500cc GPs he contested, and secured that and the 350 title. However, the late-season arrival at MV from Norton of Hailwood — who promptly ended Hocking’s 500cc domination with a win at Monza — and the increasing threat from Honda indicated that a more testing ’62 was on the cards. Hocking’s win in the year’s Senior TT proved that his talent was still up to it; but his heart was no longer in it He flew straight to Italy to tell Agusta that he was retiring forthwith.
“Gary asked my father for advice about getting started in cars,” says Tim Parnell. Dad Reg was adamant that good biker rider equalled good car driver — Surtees was capably heading up his Lola GP squad — and Hocking seemed to be cut from the same cloth. “I had injured myself in 1961 and was out of racing that year,” continues Tim, “so dad offered him my Lotus.” The four-cylinder 18/21 was outdated in Fl ‘s new V8 era, but it would do — for now.
Hocking took the Alan Smith-prepared car to Mallory Park and planted it on pole for the August Bank Holiday Formula Libre race. He led it too, only to be denied a win by an engine failure. Tim was bowled over: “I have never seen anybody compete so fiercely and competitively in their first-ever car race — except perhaps John Surtees. They’re a different breed those bike boys. It was raining a bit and Gary was amazing in those conditions. Totally at home.
“It was a slightly tricky situation given that Dad had John on his books, but he knew that he had somebody else with incredible potential in Gary, and so he entered him in the Lotus for the Danish Grand Prix.”
Held at the 43sec lap Roskildering, this non-championship Fl race was a step up for Hocking, who had no chance against the V8s. But he impressed as the fastest four-cylinder runner and finished fourth overall. He also proved that he was no respecter of reputations, tangling with and sidelining the Lola of Roy Salvadori on the first lap of the second heat Er… sorry, Reg.
Hocking made up for his faux pas by buying the Lotus, and entered the following week’s Oulton Park Gold Cup. He qualified 11th — fastest four-pot — and was in among the V8s at the end of the first lap. He was still clinging to their coat-tails when his temperature gauge started to climb. The radiator cap had come off and he lost 2min in the subsequent pitstop, but thereafter he strung together a telling comeback that saw him retake the four-cylinder lead on lap 45. He was heading for fifth overall when the Lotus started to sound rough and he stopped to investigate at Cascades on lap 63 of 73. An oil pipe had broken; he was out. The Establishment had taken note, though. Bruce McLaren’s column in Autosport marked Hocking as a “coming man”.
But right now he was going — back home. The southern African single-seater scene was enjoying a boom time: its Gold Star series was thriving; Bruce Johnstone had just had his first BRIM F1 outing at Oulton; John Love and Tony Maggs had impressed with Ken Tyrrell’s team during 1961-62. So there was no reason to expect that Hocking would steal the show at Kyalami’s Rand Spring Trophy in October, for although the big overseas names had yet to arrive for two warm-up races before the GP, there was plenty of rival local talent.
He walked it, from pole, regularly breaking the lap record on his way to winning both 24-lap heats. The similar car of the highly regarded Neville Lederle was 28sec in arrears.
Gary dished up more of the same in the Total Cup in November, slicing 6sec from the lap record at Zwartkops. And in searing heat at the following weekend’s Rhodesian GP, he dominated this 50-lapper at Kumalo from start to finish, breaking the lap record a reported 36 times. Among the vanquished that day was the ex-works Cooper of Maggs — and Love, whom Hocking beat in the Formula Libre race. “Once you’ve been first, you don’t ever want to be second,” he told a local reporter.
“When I spoke to Gary about switching,” says Redman, “he told me that the biggest problem was that it was too easy. And he wasn’t the sort of guy to boast.”
Hocking was learning fast. Parnell asked Rob Walker to put him in his Lotus 24 for the bigger South African races to come, including the GP. Rob’s quest to find the next Moss had (understandably) proved impossible: his old hands were generally off the pace, and his team was still reeling from the fatal crash of 20-year-old Ricardo Rodriguez at the Mexican GP in early November. Rob was persuaded that Hocking was worth a flutter, and a deal was done.
In fact, it was Hocking who was the disappointed party when he got his first taste of V8 power. He qualified 11th for the Rand GP at Kyalami, 2.5sec slower than his lap record in the Lotus 18/21. Unhappy with the 24’s handling, he stuck at it manfully in the race and finished a lapped fourth, first local man home. There followed some hyped-up talk of him “doing a Baghetti” at East London’s South African GP in two weeks’ time, but Hocking knew that the intervening Natal GP at Westmead would be crucial to any chances he might have of upstaging the December 29 world title showdown between Jim Clark and Graham Hill. The new-to-him 24 was a long way from that honed-to-perfection, fits-like-a-glove Triumph and he wanted a number of changes made. Indeed, he was thinking strongly of reverting to the 18/21…
The 24 was going better at Westmead, though, and a spot on the outside of the Heat One front row beckoned. But Hocking wasn’t satisfied — “Once you’ve finished first…” His Lotus left the road at more than 100mph in the second session. He might have got away with it elsewhere, but this year-old track’s ‘run-off’ was littered with builders’ rubbish, boulders and just-cut tree stumps. The Lotus dug in and flipped. Hocking was dead and the theories began.
“Gary had a thing about not drinking before a race,” says Redman. “He used to say that it made you sweat more. Nobody really knew about dehydration in those days — you just jumped on your bike, or in your car, and got on with it. But even we noticed that he didn’t take in much liquid. The examining doctor said that Gary had been dehydrated enough to pass out — and I’m sure that’s what happened. That’s why there were no marks on the road. If his steering had failed he would have jammed the brakes on; if his brakes had failed he would have spun the car. He had the talent to get out of any situation.”
But Paddy Driver, a motorcycling rival of Hocking’s and a later four-wheel convert, has good reason to believe that mechanical failure was the cause. Driver made his F1 debut in the 1963 Rand GP, finishing 11th. Two weeks later he was trying to qualify for the South African GP at East London when his car left the road at speed and flipped. He was in a privateer Lotus 24.
“Its steering rack was from a Triumph Herald, and where the ball meets the cup was heavily radiused; ideal if you want a tight turning circle in your road car, not so good if you’re pulling big loads in an Fl car. I went over a bump just before a fast bend and saw the steering arm fall down.”
This experience, and a close friend’s eye-witness account of Hocking’s shunt, convinced Driver that Gary had suffered a similar failure: “He was accelerating hard uphill when the car turned sharp left. He was a long way from the preceding corner, almost at the crest of the rise. He would have had no time to react; I didn’t leave any marks on the road either.”
An examination of Hocking’s wreck suggested that incorrectly reassembled steering — he’d asked for a change on this item — might have been the cause. But suspension failure wasn’t ruled out. Only two things were beyond doubt: early-1960s Fl cars were fast and flimsy — and a great talent had been lost.