Wurz and the gang

History

While reading Simon Taylor’s account of his Lunch With… Alex Wurz I was briefly transported back to New Zealand and the Peter Jackson series in which the Austrian played a spectacular part.

Arriving in Auckland just before Christmas 1990, I had been signed up by TV New Zealand for its coverage of the series which was then the highlight of the season Down Under. These were the days of cigarette sponsorship and the tobacco company had put a considerable wedge of dollars into promoting events for Formula Atlantic, Formula Ford and assorted touring cars. Essentially, it was local heroes Kenny Smith and Craig Baird (below) versus The Rest of the World, the latter camp including European racers Julian Westwood, Harry Nuttall, Guy Smith and Matt Aitken in a team run by Graham Lorrimer – and, of course, a teenager called Alex Wurz who was up against local champion Ashley Stitchbury among others.

V8_BairdPole_3341

On Christmas Day we had a barbecue, just one of the joys of leaving the English winter behind. Supplied with a new Toyota coupé I then set off for the races, the first of which was at Pukekohe, a fast and challenging little circuit on the North Island. Coming from Britain the circuits were a bit of a shock to the system. Safety standards were, shall we say, a little unsophisticated, and the facilities were basic, reminiscent of Brands Hatch in the ’60s. But the sun shone, the crowds came and veteran Kenny Smith went toe to toe with the 21-year-old Baird, as they did all season.

_Y8P3780

Double NZ champion Stitchbury set the pace in Formula Ford. Wurz reckoned him to be one of the quickest drivers he’d ever seen, but the young New Zealander tragically died far too young after a racing accident in Australia some years later. It was clear that Wurz had talent, and he was certainly the tallest, but he was on the wild side, crashing too often to feature in the final results. His command of English was minimal, meaning that he was not at the top of the TV interview list, although his different coloured boots were much filmed and photographed. By the end of the series, however, he stood out as one to watch.

Seeking some advice on the local racing scene, I went to see Denny Hulme (below) at his home near Tauranga where I found him mowing his orchard. We spent all day talking about his extraordinary career and he decided he should come to one of the races. That day was an education. He was perfect company, his mischievous humour and no-nonsense approach making for some scathing comments on the antics of some of the competitors. The former World Champion suggested that one or two would be still be looking for the apex as long as they lived, and that the circuit didn’t seem to have changed that much since he raced around it in bare feet.

6817

In the British camp Westwood made a good impression, returning home to some good results in F3000, while both he and Nuttall (who later inherited the Nuttall Baronetcy) spent many happy hours competing with Baird for the prettiest ladies in the paddock. Baird, who later tested with Dick Bennetts’ F3 team in England, found time to win the first of his back-to-back Formula Atlantic titles.

Meanwhile, Kiwi superstar Scott Dixon was still three years away from his first single-seater race.

You may also like