In Formula One, unless you were an absolute obsessive (and it is a fair bet that many of you reading this are), it is a fairly safe bet that if you were asked to name as many F1 Champions as you could there is one name that would be last on most people’s lists, if they remembered him at all. That man is Denny Hulme. Today would have been his 75th birthday and so this is a perfect time to remember one of the truly great drivers of the late sixties and early seventies who is all too often forgotten.
Dennis Clive Hulme was born in Nelson, South Island, New Zealand on the 18th June 1936 and raised on his parents’ tobacco farm. After leaving school, the young Denny got a job in a garage and saved up enough money to buy himself an MG-TF. He entered this in local hillclimbing events, following in the footsteps of fellow Kiwi Bruce McLaren. However up until 1960, when he was persuaded otherwise, those feet were bare as Denny preferred to race without shoes, leading to his nickname of ‘The Barefoot Boy from Te Puke’. He was also later nicknamed ‘The Bear’ as he could be short with people who rubbed him the wrong way and didn’t suffer fools gladly.
Just like McLaren, he showed such progress that he was chosen for the New Zealand Driver to Europe programme, and he travelled to England in 1960 to the garages of Australian Jack Brabham where he worked as a mechanic.
The following year he drove at Le Mans for the Abarth team, before being asked to join Ken Tyrrell’s Formula Two effort. After strong performances for Tyrrell his old boss Jack Brabham invited him to join his F2 team and between them they began to dominate races in that formula.
In 1965 Denny finally got an F1 drive, racing for Brabham at Monaco. He scored his first points that season at the French GP at Clermont-Ferrand, but it was in 1966 that he had his first full season, where he finished fourth overall having put in some fine performances, including coming in second behind Brabham himself to complete a 1-2 for the team at Brands Hatch.
The following season was the one where everything came together. Hulme was known for being an intelligent and very safe driver, one who was far less prone to accidents than some of his contemporaries and, with the exceptions of retirements at Spa and Monza, he finished on the podium of all but one of the races he completed that year, having finished fourth at the opening South African GP. These results ensured that, despite a strong challenge from Graham Hill and particularly Jim Clark at Lotus, Hulme took the 1967 Drivers’ Championship by five points from his nearest rival, teammate Jack Brabham, and by ten points from Clark. He was the first, and so far only, F1 champion from New Zealand and he was awarded the NZ Sportsman of the Year title that year for his achievement.
For the following season Denny had changed teams and was now driving alongside NZ forerunner McLaren at Bruce’s team. Despite a poor start, a late pair of wins in Italy and Canada meant that he was in with an outside chance of retaining his title. Unfortunately a suspension failure in the final race in Mexico meant that he was unable to finish and the Championship went to Graham Hill with Denny third in the final standings.
Hulme stayed with McLaren for the rest of his career, but never managed to finish higher than third. The deaths of Bruce McLaren in 1970 and Peter Revson in 1974 affected Denny, especially the death of Revson as Denny had tried to save his friend and former teammate’s life after his crash at Kyalami, South Africa during practice; Hulme announced that he would retire from F1 at the end of that season.
During his F1 career Hulme had also competed in the Can-Am series, winning the 1968 and 1970 championships, and in the Indy 500, and it was no surprise that in the eighties he returned to competitive motorsport in the form of touring cars, racing for Austin Rover in the European Touring Car Championship.
It was while competing in the famous Australian touring car race, the Bathurst 1000, in 1992, that Denny Hulme suffered a fatal heart attack whilst driving. Despite this he managed to bring the car to a controlled stop and marshalls found him strapped into the car. He was rushed to Bathurst hospital but was pronounced dead when he arrived, the first F1 champion to die of natural causes.