The bear that became World Champion
- Erwin van Delft
- July 27, 2006
- McLaren M2B - The first steps to a great heritage, by Mattijs Diepraam
XXIX German GP (August 6, 1967)
Denis Clive Hulme was born in Nelson, New Zealand, on June 18, 1936. He was the son of the Victoria Cross owner in a little village in New Zealand: Pongakawas. When he was a boy he learned to drive in his father's truck.
Denny was nicknamed “The Bear”, which in fact was a huge insult to his reputation. But Denny liked hiding behind it. But it was just about what kind of bear you were talking about. At times, the press used to write about him like he was a grizzly. Not that he could be compared to Paddington or Pooh… But they had a fair point: Hulme was all but diplomatic. It would sometimes lead to a fight with his mechanics while they were working on his car. He didn't have the tactics for being interviewed either. Bruce McLaren could do that much better. If somebody would ask Denny a stupid question, he just told them that they were idiots or simply ignored the question. He didn't like the press at all.
But Hulme was a very good and intelligent driver, who would never deliberately put any lives at stake, neither his own nor that of his colleagues. During his career he drove the most powerful cars of his time. He raced in F1, F2, Indycars, touring cars, CanAm and endurance races, all during the same season. Later, he even drove in truck races, much like Slim Borgudd used to do after his F1 career. Maybe Denny wasn't the fastest driver of the field, but he made it to the top anyway. All because he was determined and hard to himself. He could read races like no other and took full advantage of the situation when something happened.
Denny Hulme wasn't really the stereotypical driver. But then again, Formula 1 was so much different in that time compared to what it is now - much more relaxed and open. Nobody was afraid to get killed, everyone respected the other and above all: they enjoyed doing what they were doing.
How it all started
His first sportscar was an MG TF, which he raced in hillclimbs. He sold his TF in 1958 and bought himself an MGA. The race bug had bitten and within two years Hulme drove a two-litre Cooper to win the “Driver to Europe” Trophy. That was a race held three times between 1959 and 1961 in which promising young Kiwi drivers got the chance of being awarded a race drive in Europe. So Hulme was sent to Europe (as a matter of fact - Britain) along with George Lawton. Hulme got a seat in McLaren's Formula Junior team while Lawton wouldn't survive the year: he was killed during his first race in Denmark, at the Roskildering.
Bruce McLaren and Denis Hulme had already met in New Zealand – at school, while signing their diplomas. When Denny came to Europe, McLaren borrowed him his Morris Minor, so Hulme could at least travel around. At the same time Bruce was working on his first Formula Junior car.
Just like any other child in New Zealand, Denny used to walk barefoot. When he started racing in the UK in 1960 everybody at the Cooper team thought he was crazy to race barefoot. Hulme replied by saying he could feel the car much better that way.
Hulme won the Formula Junior races at Salerno and Pescara, but the New Zealand newspapers made no mention of it at all. They only wrote about Bruce McLaren, who was winning races in Formula 1. So Hulme hired a 2½-litre Cooper from Reg Parnell and entered it in the Tasman races in 1961. He won the title straight away.
His American career
In 1964, Hulme didn't score a point in the North American CanAm championship, but in 1965 he came home second in the championship, behind his teammate Bruce McLaren.
In 1967 and in 1969, Bruce became CanAm champion with his own car while Denny took the title from McLaren in 1968 and 1970. The McLarens proved virtually unbeatable and looked like inventions from another age. They had 7- or 8-litre engines, with metre-high wings and ultra-wide tyres. The most famous drivers drove around in these extraordinary cars, but the way the McLaren team dominated CanAm in the late sixties was astonishing. The races weren't called “The Bruce and Denny Show” for nothing!
In 1971, Hulme came second behind new team mate Peter Revson, and in his final CanAm year Hulme took a record by winning his 22nd race, ending up second again in the championship. The team had won five championships in seven years, but pulled out after the 1972 season because of rising costs.
Hulme would never win the Indy 500, although he tried. In 1967 until 1971 he entered the epic race four times – he didn't start in 1970 – but the best he could do was fourth, both in 1967 and 1968.
The three big accidents that influenced his life
There were not many drivers – good drivers – that had as few accidents as Hulme had. Yet there were three major accidents that were of major influence to his career. I'll name two of them right here, the third one was Revson's fatal accident.
One day in May 1970, Hulme was testing his McLaren for the famous Indy race, when a fuel rig opened and sprayed methanol over the red hot turbo. Hulme had only seconds to escape, far too short a time of course. His visor melted to his helmet, and his fireproof suit melted as well. His leather gloves melted around his hands and shaped his fingers into a painful claw. Denny thought he was going slowly and got out of the car, but it was still going at around 110 kph (some 70 mph) when he jumped out. The fire truck raced towards his car and nobody realized that Hulme was on fire too! (You can't see methanol burn.) Bruce and all the other members of the team visited Hulme every day during the period he was hospitalised. He was burned so badly that some thought he would have to miss some fingers from his left hand. Luckily for Hulme, that wasn't about to happen. But McLaren thought his friend would never recover.
McLaren and Hulme were the best of friends. When McLaren got himself killed during a test at Goodwood with his new CanAm car, Hulme – who never cried because of his own pain – started crying out loud. But it was that same Denny Hulme who became the new front-runner in the team that Bruce left behind. He was their strength, their new inspiration, the new team leader. “We must win for Bruce” he used to say. And that was what they did in the Can Am-series…
His Formula 1 career
Hulme started his Formula 1 career in 1965, at the Brabham team. His first race was in Monaco, where he took eighth place. He scored his first points in only his second race, the French GP, by coming home fourth. In 1966 he took his first podium by claiming third in – again – the French GP, only to take second in Zandvoort and to come home third again in Italy and Mexico. That made him fourth in the championship.
He took his first victory in 1967, lapping the whole field at least once at Monaco. Except for two retirements and a fourth place in the opening race of the season in South Africa he took eight podiums out of eleven races, also winning the German GP. That was enough to take the championship in only his second full F1 season.
Although Denny the Bear took the title in Formula 1 he became more famous for driving alongside his countryman McLaren in CanAm the same year he won the World Championship in his beautifully liveried green-and-gold Brabham BT24. He did so by beating team owner and constructor Jack Brabham in his own car, taking over where Brabham left off in 1966.
It took a long time before Hulme actually got famous. After winning the GP at Monza the Clerk of the Course – Louis Chiron – asked him his name! But Hulme didn't want to be famous. When he took the title in 1967 in Mexico by claiming third place Hulme said that he didn’t mind being World Champion, as long as Jimmy (Clark) did the interviews for him.
But he also could give everything he had when he felt it was his day. At other times it looked like he was uninspired. 1971 was much like that all season. These were “long races” for The Bear. But in 1972 and 1973 he was showing great things again when Peter Revson joined the team, Revson acting as the catalyst that Hulme needed.
After Bruce died in such a tragic way, racing would never be the same for Hulme. He was still capable of winning races (South Africa 1972, Sweden 1973, Argentina 1974) but it wasn't that much fun anymore. Hulme was also among the first drivers to arrive at the very spot where Peter Revson had crashed fatally at Kyalami in 1974, as he saw it happening in front of his car. That fatal accident was one of the reasons that pushed Denny to decide to quit racing. Due to his loyalty to the team, however, Hulme decided to finish the season first. It would be Team McLaren's first year that it won the world championship, with Emerson Fittipaldi at the wheel.
The bear has gone
Hulme finished the 1974 season to leave for New Zealand where he enjoyed his time in the sun together with his wife and his son Martin. But he soon got bored and started to race touring cars and trucks. Then his son Martin got killed in an accident and Denny was astonished. He and Martin were like two brothers, racing motorbikes together in the forest.
After Hulme went back to New Zealand in 1975, he still remained chairman of the Grand Prix Drivers Association for a whole year.
He had survived the sport that killed so many. There are not many drivers with less accidents then Hulme had. But that didn't stop him from dying in a racing car. He was 56 when he raced the 1992 edition of the Toohey's 1000 miles at Bathurst, Australia. He didn't feel too well all day driving his BMW M3, suffering from a terrible pain in the chest. So the cameras zoomed in when his car came to a slow halt on the grass. Everybody thought he had a mechanical problem, or maybe a lack of fuel. But Denny had died from a heart attack. Before the stewards had made their way to his car, Hulme was already lying over his steering wheel. The Bear was gone…