New Zealand International Grand Prix

History of the New Zealand International Grand Prix - A Kiwi Success Story




In the International sporting arena, New Zealand is acknowledged as a country which has always punched well above its weight. As any motorsport enthusiast will quickly point out, motor racing is a standout case of huge achievement in the face of immense worldwide competition and the New Zealand Grand Prix is an integral part of that success. This is confirmed by the event continuing after 60 years and still one of only two FIA recognised Grand Prix outside the World Formula 1 Championship.

The first Grand Prix held at the Ohakea Air Force base in 1950 was organised by the Manawatu Car club which was won by New Zealander John McMillan but the first high profile international event was not held until 1954 at the Ardmore Aerodrome south of Auckland. The event was organised by a committee of local business people together with some experienced motor racing identities from the Auckland Car Club, Northern Sports Car Club, Auckland Motorcycle Club and the Automobile Association. Thus the New Zealand International Grand Prix Association was born and fostered an increasing membership as more international racing "stars” headed down under for the southern hemisphere summer.

So popular was the 1954 race and those held at Ardmore over the next eight years that it held the New

Zealand record for the biggest spectator numbers for a single sporting event with over 70,000

attending from a country of less than two million people at the time. The race was won by Australian driver Stan Jones in the Maybach Special and featured international driver the likes of Ken Wharton, Peter Whitehead and Ron Flockhart who battled with locals including Ron Roycroft and the 1950 winner McMillan.

As the Grands Prix at Ardmore became more popular they ignited the imaginations and aspirations of a generation of drivers, mechanics and general enthusiasts as young Kiwis like Ross Jensen, Bruce McLaren, Johnny Mansel and Roycroft challenged the "big name internationals” such as Prince Bira, Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham,, Carroll Shelby, Lorenzo Bandini, Joakim Bonnier and Roy Salvadori. However, despite the huge popularity of the three day event, 1962 saw the last Grand Prix at Ardmore as needed to relocate the Auckland Aero Club from Mangere Airfield to Ardmore to enable the building of the the civil aviation authorities Auckland International Airport leaving the organising committee less than 12 months find a new circuit to host what was now New Zealand’s most prominent international sporting event.

What was to follow was a story of determination and careful business planning which saw the remarkable feat of building a brand new purpose built racing circuit to host the 1963 event. The venue was a horse racing track owned by the then Franklin Racing Club just 40 kilometres south of Auckland – a

name which would come to be synonymous with world motor racing – Pukekohe. The track was laid around the horse racing track within surrounding land owned by the horse racing club and in January 1963 massive crowds descended to witness future world champion John Surtees win the Grand Prix by beating off challenges from Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren and Graham Hill.

Over the next six years, Pukekohe would host some of the most famous and successful names to grace the sport including Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Jochen Rindt, Piers Courage and Pedro Rodriguez. By this time, however, a group of young New Zealanders had also come to prominence in world motor racing so local fans could cheer on drivers the calibre of Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme, Chris Amon, Angus Hyslop and Jim Palmer with McLaren winning the race in 1964 and Amon taking the honours in 1968 and 1969. Although Hulme never won the race he did return in 1968 as the reigning Formula 1 World Champion but was involved in a horrific crash with local driver Laurence Brownlie – an incident which is still subject to some debate to this day.

With the Formula 1 championship expanding its location base and over more months of the year, a major change was instigated for the 1970 Grand Prix when Formula A was introduced and immediately attracted several drivers from Europe, North America and Australia. The new stock block 5000cc V8 monsters were a sight to behold and left the crowds speechless as did some of the characters driving them. European and American drivers included Ron Grable, Ulf Norinder, Teddy Pillette, Mike Hailwood, Alan Rollinson, John Cannon, Peter Gethin and Sam Posey while Frank Gardner, Frank Matich, Neil Allen, John McCormack and Warwick Brown flew the Aussie flag.

However, Kiwi drivers were to prove most prominent headed by the brilliant Graham McRae, Graeme Lawrence, David Oxton and Garry Pedersen, Jim Murdoch and the incomparable Kenny Smith who actually took the first of his three Grand Prix victories in 1976. The Formula A era Grands Prix were traditionally held at Pukekohe, however, the 1974 event was run at Wigram by the Motor Racing Club

as a gesture of support to the Commonwealth Games which were held in Christchurch that year.

As the Formula A category began struggling to maintain relevance in the changing profile of motor racing, another format was introduced from 1977 which was the hugely successful Formula Pacific category. Based on the British and American Formula Atlantic Championships, the 1600cc four valve per cylinder powered cars brought many future stars of Formula 1 and Indycar to the New Zealand Grand Prix.

The most prominent of these were Keke Rosberg, Jos Verstappen, Danny Sullivan, Davy Jones, Bobby Rahal, Teo Fabi, Paul Tracey and Roberto Moreno. Again, Kiwi drivers were up to the challenge as David Oxton, Dave McMillan, Steve Millen, Ken Smith, Paul Radisich and Craig Baird all gained international accolades for their performances including taking the Grand Prix honours. Baird was particularly successful having taken the title three times and is still racing competitively today.

From 1994 until 2000 the Grand Prix was changed to the Australian based Formula Holden category then from 2002 until 2005 the Formula Ford category was implemented. However, after the successful debut of the "wings and slicks” format Toyota Racing Series as the country’s premier single-seater category, the Grand Prix title was awarded to this class in 2005 and has remained so since.

The race has enjoyed considerable success and a good overseas profile firstly at Southland’s Teretonga Park and now at Manfeild Park in Feilding. This season will be the sixth year the Grand Prix has been contested by the awesome 1800cc Toyota powered Tatuus cars which were created and designed exclusively for New Zealand. This fact in itself is yet another chapter in the amazing sporting success that is New Zealand Grand Prix and one which looks set to continue for some time yet.

Author Kevin Lancaster. 2011