On this week #25: Denny Hulme | Pirelli

On this week #25: Denny Hulme


The 1967 Formula 1 World Champion, Denny Hulme, was born on 18 June 1936 and grew up in Te Puke, New Zealand. In racing circles, he was known as “The Bear” because of his, to say the least, gruff character and his somewhat stocky build. He was part of a generation of drivers, Jack Brabham from Australia, Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren from New Zealand, who appeared on the motor racing scene in the Fifties, before making their mark a decade later. Hulme's father Clive was a hero of the Second World War, distinguishing himself as a sniper at the Battle of Crete in 1941, being awarded the British Victoria Cross. From a very early age Denny could be found with a steering wheel in his hands, making the most of his skills in his first job as a truck driver and also having fun and making a name for himself in hillclimbs in his native New Zealand. With help from his father, he saved-up to buy a Formula 2 Cooper-Climax and in 1960 he did well enough to win, jointly with fellow countryman George Lawton, the “Driver to Europe Award” which meant he followed in the footsteps of another Kiwi, Bruce McLaren, who by then had already been racing in Formula 1 for two years.

That first year on the Old Continent was marred by the tragic death of Lawton, killed in a Formula 2 race in Roskilde, Denmark. Denny, also racing there that day, took it badly, but not enough to give up his dream of making it as a racing driver, even if the money was running out. Jack Brabham offered him a job as a mechanic and soon realised the youngster had other talents, giving him drives in sports cars and his single-seaters, starting in Formula Junior and then in Formula 2. Hulme made his Formula 1 debut in the 1965 Monaco Grand Prix and the following year helped Brabham win the Constructors' title by finishing on the podium four times, while Jack clinched his third Drivers' crown. That same year, Hulme was one of the stars of the Ford GT40 team that took a clean sweep of the top three places in the Le Mans 24 Hours, with the cars due to take the flag in line-abreast for a dead heat. However, the organisers decided that the car crewed by New Zealanders Amon and McLaren had started from further back on the grid and had actually completed a greater distance, therefore Hulme and co-driver Ken Miles were classified second.

Then, in 1967 came the coronation. Still driving for Brabham, this time Hulme didn't settle for following his boss home to clinch another one-two finish in the championship. He was incredibly consistent, with only two retirements in eleven races, never finishing outside the top four. The highlights of an unforgettable year were two wins, one in Monaco, on a day marred by the death of Lorenzo Bandini and the other at the Nurburgring, while an eighth podium finish in the final round in Mexico was enough for him to end the season five points ahead of his boss to claim the crown.

Plenty more successes would follow, some met with scepticism by his critics but they never affected the thick-skinned Bear. He had no interest in public relations, so who knows how he would have fared in today's world of social media that places drivers permanently in the spotlight. He just loved racing and spending time with his family and closest friends. Bruce McLaren was one of these and they teamed up to race McLaren's cars in the Can-Am championship, which became known as the “Bruce and Denny Show,” such was their dominance when this North American series was at the height of its popularity. Driving for McLaren in Formula 1 proved less successful, although Hulme did win a further three Grands Prix for the team, in Italy and Canada in 1968 and in Mexico in 1969.

1970 was a tragic year. On 12 May, Hulme suffered badly burnt hands during practice for the Indy 500 and that affected him badly for the rest of the season. Less than a month later, on 2 June, Bruce McLaren lost his life while testing one of his Can-Am cars at Goodwood circuit. It was a terrible blow for Hulme who would continue in Formula 1 for another four seasons. There were a further three Grand Prix wins, in South Africa in 1972, Sweden in 1973 and Argentina in 1974, but death seemed to haunt him. On 22 March 1974, his friend Peter Revson was killed testing at Kyalami, but Hulme struggled on to finish the Formula 1 season before calling it quits and heading home to New Zealand, thus ending his career at the pinnacle of motorsport.

Hulme still loved racing and continued to get behind the wheel, albeit only occasionally, in various Touring Car races in Australasia and Europe and he even tried his hand at truck racing. However, it seemed the Grim Reaper was never far away, following him ever closer. Christmas Day 1988 was marred by the death of his 21 year old son Martin, in a diving accident in Lake Rotoiti, a shock from which Denny never really recovered. Almost four years later, Denny would finally meet his maker, at a race track of course. On 4 October 1992, he was racing in the legendary Bathurst 1000 at Mount Panorama, at the wheel of a BMW M3. He came on the radio to say he was having trouble with his vision and his team assumed he meant because of the rain. In fact, the marshals found his car neatly parked alongside the crash barriers, the driver dead inside. Having lived life to the full, the Bear's heart had finally stopped beating, while he was doing what he loved best.