Nicknamed ‘The Bear’, Denny Hulme was one the most low key champions in Formula One history, preferring anonymity to fame. He was also one the most accomplished drivers of Formula One, who tragically died behind the wheel, 25 years after being crowned champion. Born to a World War II hero, Denny Hulme’s father, Clive, introduced him to the world of driving early in life, and by the age of six Denny was driving his father’s truck solo. Preferring hunting, trout fishing or working on his father’s truck, Denny left school at the age of 17, to become a mechanic and a driver. He would haul cargo over large distances across New Zealand and would while away hours pretending to be Stirling Moss, or any one of the European stars he knew of from New Zealand’s Tasman Series.
The first few competitions Denny participated in were in an MGTF, which was later replaced by an MGA, that his father bought for him. Denny became joint winner with George Lawton for a New Zealand’s Driver to Europe scholarship in 1959. Clive and Denny had a purchased a F2 Cooper that year, which Denny drove bare feet, as it gave him a better feel of the pedals. The scholarship earned them a year of racing abroad in 1960, during which time Denny and Lawton settled in London, where they were helped by fellow Kiwi Bruce McLaren, who was just making a name for himself in Formula One circuits at that time. Their European debut year ended in tragedy when Lawton crashed in a race in Roskilde, Denmark and died in Denny’s arms. Denny though devastated, managed to press on and towed his racing car around Europe along with Greeta, his New Zealand girlfriend, who later became his wife and also mother to their two children.
Since money was always an issue, Denny eventually took up a job as a mechanic with Jack Brabham. Denny won seven Formula Junior races in 1963, and the next year saw him back up his boss with many wins at the F2 series. This started their Formula One partnership in 1965, and the following year saw Brabham win the 1966 driving title, while Denny finished on the podium four times, and was ranked fourth overall.
Though the 1967 Brabham-Repcos was not one of the fastest cars of its time, they were more reliable and consistent, qualities displayed by their drivers as well. Sharing a serious work ethic, the Down Under duo also shared the tendency of not wasting words. Chris Amon, who was driving for Ferrari at that time, noted “Jack and Denny didn’t talk much at the best of times. But in 1967 what used to be extraordinarily limited conversation became almost non-existent”.
Denny’s brilliant win in Monaco established him as much more than a journeyman driver, as he was labeled by critics. His first Formula One victory was not all celebrations as the death of Lorenzo Bandini, whose Ferrari was second to Denny at the time of the accident, marred the win. The following win at Nurburgring, in Germany, proved Denny’s versatility on any type of track. His successful sprint continued into the season, with Denny finished on the podium in six more races and by the end of the season became the 1967 World Champion, five points ahead of Brabham. Jim Clark, who had four race wins while Denny had two, further honored Denny when he invited the shy Kiwi to share the victor’s laurel wreath at the season finale in Mexico, where Clark came first and Denny third.