Yesteryear of F1 races in New Zealand & why todays F1 drivers don’t race in the off season

Last weekend the Castrol Toyota Racing Series (TRS) descends on the Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park in Taupo and the main trophy on offer is the Denny Hulme Memorial Trophy.

Just a bit of background here.
Denny Hulme racing a McLaren in 1971.

Hulme of course was, and remains, New Zealand’s only Formula 1 World Champion and the Denny Hulme Memorial Trophy was the last trophy to be won by Denny, in a Formula 1 race in 1974.

The trophy, won for the Gran Premio Republica Argentina – Presidencia De La Nacion’ event, is a classic ‘old world’ trophy.

Looking at that trophy, combined with the beautiful ‘NEW ZEALAND MOTOR CUP’ won by Dutchman Richard Verschoor the weekend before at the Hampton Downs track, reminded me of the days when the very best Formula 1 drivers visited New Zealand to race.

Evocative names of the past heritage of motor sport, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Brabham, Surtees, Prince Bira, Stewart, Hill and others raced against the likes of McLaren, Amon and yes, one Kenny Smith who is still racing and winning today.

The races in New Zealand, as well as Australia, were part of what was called the ‘Tasman Series’ 

So why do todays contemporaries of these drivers not make this same journey?

Why don’t todays drivers, with some exceptions like Fernando Alonso, get away from the winter in Europe and race in warmer climes and other disciplines? In fact these days an appearance by any Formula One driver in any form of racing outside of their own microcosmic world is a rare thing.

Fernando racing in the Daytona 24H this year.

Some obvious answers here of course: They earn too much money to bother doing it, their contracts with the manufacturers and teams now forbid it, the tracks are not suitable, the ever present threat of any injury that may affect their ‘main job,’ too expensive, too complicated and a dwindling audience, and the Formula 1 season is much longer than the seasons of the late 1960s and early ‘70s with seasons of only ten or twelve F1 GPs to occupy them. Now it may well be twenty-one or more events in a season. And simply, why bother?

I could go on and on with the reasons that Formula 1 drivers, let alone teams, will never again race in this country, at least while they are still active on ‘the big stage’.

It was also a different era for the drivers themselves with wives and girlfriends doing much of the timing and catering, local mechanics making up the team numbers, and a party atmosphere that spilled over to ‘extra curricular activities’ with all the drivers joining in. In short it was a bit of a holiday. It was fun.

It was also the days when many thousands of spectators would turn up to see these heroes that they only read about or saw in grainy black and white images weeks after the event. Colour TV did not reach the New Zealand public until 1974.

A Lotus leading the Ferrari in the Trans Tasman Series.

The heyday of the Tasman series really did look like a ‘Winter World Championship’ and was as keenly contested as any Grand Prix anywhere else in the world. Sadly, like all things, the times changed, the sport became more intense, the drivers more professional and the teams more demanding.

It was a glorious era that lives on through some of the historic trophies now competed for by the Castrol Toyota Racing Series drivers.

Not only the New Zealand Motor Cup – the origins of which go back to 1921 – but the Lady Wigram Trophy that harks back to the fearsome Wigram Airfield race and first awarded in 1951.

All that was then and this, as they say, is now.

As these polished and experienced drivers came to this country to race in that golden era, we now have young drivers who come here to polish their skills and gain experience so that they can emulate those heroes of the past because, make no mistake, all of these young drivers – internationals as well as Kiwis – are well aware of the importance of adding their names to those trophies and cups.

Joining the ranks of the immortals of their chosen sport. Becoming an official FIA ‘Grand Prix Winner’. An overly romantic take on things perhaps? Perhaps yes, but it is the romanticism of the sport that fires the imagination of each generation of new drivers.

The 2018 Toyota Racing Series.

The TRS consistently produces star drivers who go on to be famous names in the sport. A sport now with devices and ‘aids’ like ‘the halo’, deformable structures, hybrid engines, energy recovery systems, computer controlled cars and yes, even ‘racing cars’ powered by batteries.

From an era when death due to racing was the norm, those early racing drivers may well turn in their graves at the thought of what their sport has become. But like the chariot drivers of old, like the young men who first took to the road races in steam powered bedsteads, like the young pilots in the war and like young men, and now young women, everywhere- it is still that same sense of danger and excitement that literally drives them on.

They are very much the likes of a Clark, Hulme, Moss, McLaren and the rest, just with different names and much younger!

In a recent interview with famed motorsport columnist Nigel Roebuck, and after his most recent race at the ‘24 Hours of Daytona’, where Fernando Alonso shared the driving with Lando Norris – the 2016 TRS Champion – Alonso was quoted as saying “I think I’ll come back to Daytona. It’s an iconic race, and it’s in January. Instead of being in the gym, you’re driving, and that’s much better!”

It would be nice if more of the Formula 1 drivers thought that.

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Bob McMurray has had a long relationship with motor sport – especially Formula 1.  He spent over thirty years with the McLaren Formula 1 team and then many years as a commentator on TVNZ ONE . He is also regularly called upon to contribute to various TV and radio stations as the ‘expert comments’ person. For three years he was the CEO of A1 Grand Prix Team New Zealand. Bob is also a Director of two sports marketing companies. In 2006 Bob was awarded the ‘Motorsport Personality of the Year’ award and in 2007 the ‘Motor Trades Association Award for Contribution to Industry. He has also the subject of a successful and well-received book about life in Formula 1.   Bob was the presenter of the many Indy 500 shows produced for TVNZ One, as well as co producing and presenting the ‘Kiwis and Characters’ TV series.  He is currently the co-host of ‘The Driven Hour’ weekly radio show on Radio Sport, a columnist for the ‘New Zealand Herald’ and ‘Driven’ supplement, a Trustee of the MSNZ Scholarship Trust / Elite Academy and a Trustee of the ‘Kiwi Driver Fund’, a new initiative that aims to help aspiring New Zealand race drivers contest the Toyota Racing Series as well as being a regular F1 GP tour ‘host’, most recently at the 2017 Singapore and Malaysian Formula 1 Grands Prix. Very much still connected to F1, Bob gives Pit Talk Asia and exclusive look behind the scenes of the pinnacle of motorsport.