The Tasman 1969 Championship - Something Chris Amon Did Win
The Tasman Championship was something of a highlight in the old Grand Prix calendar. Rather than ultra-light cars putting in thousands of laps at Jerez or Estoril during the off-season, we were given a short series of races down under, usually around half in Australia and half in New Zealand. The best thing was, due to the less strenuous schedule of the time, both drivers and teams usually gave a good turnout, and up against them were the best of the local heroes in hybrid and/or antiquated machines, up for a chance to race against the big boys. It also gave the likes of Bruce McLaren, Jack Brabham and Chris Amon a chance to perform in front of their home crowd, something which wasn't going to happen within their Formula One Championship careers.
Turnout for the 1969 series wasn't as good as previous years. McLaren did not have the funds for these extra events, struggling for a decent engine supply. BRM were also absent (instead choosing to run Surtees at Kyalami), as were the works Brabham team, while Cooper had pinned away. The Grand Prix regulars were represented by Gold Leaf Team Lotus, Ferrari, and Frank Williams' Brabham. One of the reasons for the low Big Name turnout was that the Championship was being run to 2.5-litre regulations. Only these three were able to come up with engines to fit the regulations. Gold Leaf Team Lotus and Williams were given specially made Ford DFV V8s, built for the formula.
Lotus modified two of the beautiful 49B cars to take these, and they were designated 49T. Recently-crowned World Champion Graham Hill would lead the Hethel boys, with Austria's greatest driver, Jochen Rindt, joining the team from Brabham.
Williams took BT24/3, a 1968 works car upgraded to fit the 2.5l Cosworth, rather than the obsolete Repco used by the works squad. It was driven by rich playboy Piers Courage, who had become a close friend of Williams, having left Tim Parnell's team after a disappointing season.
Scuderia Ferrari had no 2.5l engine, and did not want to complete. However, they were led by the irrepressible Chris Amon. He talked Enzo into loaning him a pair of Dino F2 cars, powered by 2.3l F2 engines. One of Formula One's great lost talents, Derek Bell, made the trip with him.
The only local drivers who would look like getting close to the big boys were Frank Gardner and Leo Geoghegan. A friend of Jack Brabham's, entering some 8 Grands Prix in a private Brabham, Gardner was being run by Alec Mildren, Alfa Romeo's Australian importer in a car commissioned from Alan Mann, a small British constructor. Links with Alfa got Mildren a new V8 sportscar engine for the chassis, which took his name. The tub itself was designed by Len Bailey, later to link up with Williams and design the Politoys FX3. Geoghegan was a more remote challenger, having adapted an old Lotus 39 to take an F1 Repco V8. Reliability would be the Australian's biggest asset, and only hope.
Favourites for the series were undoubtedly the Lotus boys, and it would seem to be a straight fight between Hill and the aggressive Rindt. Ferrari's Grand Prix team couldn't hold a candle to the Hethel team at the time, so little hope was given to the pair of F2 machines, driven by the perennially luckless Kiwi and the inexperienced Bell.
Zealand Grand Prix
Two days after the first World Championship race of the season, the seven-race schedule began with the first of a quartet of races in Amon's native New Zealand. On January 4, 1969, the New Zealand Grand Prix was held for 58 laps at the little Pukekohe circuit, where average speeds came out at around 100mph over just 1.75 miles. Amon loved the circuit, and put himself between the Lotus cars, Rindt in pole and Hill third.
Amon shot off at the start, hotly pursued by Rindt, with Hill holding off Bell and Geoghegan. At the start of the second lap, Rindt outbraked the Ferrari and pulled away, setting the eventual fastest lap as early as lap 10, with a time of 58.9s. Meanwhile, home hopes were sinking as Gardner stopped the Mildren as soon as he had started with a lack of fuel pressure, and Geoghegan fell back from the British pair towards the clutches of Courage. Amon got his head down, and began to reel in Rindt, eventually pressuring the Austrian into a spin, handing him the lead. Rindt got going again, but the spin had damaged his clutch and broken the moveable control surface on his rear wing. Things went from bad to worse for Lotus as Hill's front suspension collapsed as he was beginning to edge closer to Amon, and he limped back to the pits to retire. Bell picked up a puncture near the end, letting Rindt back up to second, albeit 20s behind Amon, and the impressive Courage up to 3rd.
That was how it finished, Bell keeping 4th place, a lap down, then a further lap to Geoghegan, who had ruined his tyres after pushing too hard chasing Hill. The best for the rest was another local driver, Gerald Lawrence, in an old McLaren M4 adapted to take a home-converted Cosworth. 12 of the 20 starters finished.
The second race was the Rothmans International, held at the small Levin circuit one week later. The laps were around 50s, and the organisers decided that the speed differential was too great for the track, and ran two preliminary races. One effectively decided the grid positions for the Formula One machines, the Mildren, the Lotus 39 and Lawrence's McLaren. The rest drove a second 14-lap preliminary, the top 8 being allowed to enter the main 63-lap race.
Williams' Cosworth broke in practice, but Frank managed to persuade Lotus to lend him their spare V8. Amon took pole and led away, but Rindt soon managed to blast past, before Pukekohe repeated itself and the Austrian span back to sixth. He picked up a position a lap for three laps, passing both Hill and Courage, before managing to roll his Lotus and demolish the front end of the tub. Meanwhile, Bell had stopped for a lengthy repair on his exhaust, while the Lotus crew groaned as Hill ground to a halt about as far away from the pits as was possible on the tiny track, his driveshaft.
Courage was lapping impressively, and began to reel in Amon, who was suffering from, in his words, "disappearing-then-reappearing" gears. He nipped past Amon at lap 49 of 63 as the Kiwi took one of the longest curves in only second gear. Bell, 8 laps down but still running, pulled into the Ferrari pits, an oil seal finally ending his run. Courage overdid things three laps from the end, losing 25s restarting. He retained second as the two remaining Formula One cars were the only ones on the lead lap, and tore off after Amon. However, the New Zealander was able to make his gearbox behave itself enough to cross the line 6.8 seconds ahead of the flying Brabham. Gardner brought his car home third after a cautious run, a lap down, followed by Geoghegan, a further 2 laps behind, who had again massacred his tyres, only just holding off Lawrence and Graham McRae.
McRae was driving a home-made car powered by a 1,500cc Ford engine. He would become something of a Tasman hero, often mixing it with the big boys and even winning the title one time. He would also start the 1973 British Grand Prix for Frank Williams in an ISO-Marlboro Cosworth. He managed to avoid Jody Scheckter's fine day at the office on the opening lap, only to have his throttle stuck open at Bridge upon the restart, and be forced to plough through the gravel in an effort to stop.
However, the new car wasn't run until practice for the next event, the Lady Wigram Trophy, held over 44 laps of the Christchurch circuit. At a hardly Nürburgring-esque 2.3 miles, the airfield track was the longest in New Zealand.
Lotus were at panic stations meanwhile. A new 49 tub had to be flown in from England with the correct suspension components, while thankfully Jochen hadn't damaged the engine, or its mountings, so once this arrived it was fairly easy to put the thing back together. Lotus even found time to upgrade the ZF gearbox to a Hewland unit.
The circuit was very fast, meaning the event was effectively a Cosworth benefit. The race was rather straight forward, aside from the start. Rindt blasted away in the new 49T, while Gardner lunged forward into second in the Mildren, braking very very late for the first corner, spinning across the track and collecting to local back markers. Rindt was on his best behaviour, as he moved away from the pack, led by Hill. It finished a Lotus 1-2, while Amon and Courage had an epic, race-long scrap for third, eventually the Ferrari driver clinching it. Team-mate Bell came home a lonely fifth. The local machines were outclassed, the best of them, Roly Levis in a two-year old Brabham, coming 3 laps behind Bell.
Park Grand Prix
The final round to take place in New Zealand was the Teretonga Park Grand Prix, held at the 1.6-mile Invercargill circuit, over 62 laps. Rindt took pole, but amazingly his driveshaft broke as the green flag fell, and the car stopped on the grid. Bell behind him rammed straight into the back of the Lotus, but suffered only minor damage, pitting at the end of the first lap.
day got worse as Hill's engine developed a misfire, while on the
fast circuit Amon couldn't keep with Courage. As the misfire began
to clear, Hill overcame Amon, but could not catch Courage, who took
victory. Hill came in second, closely followed by Amon, while Bell
had recovered superbly to fifth. Gardner continued to disappoint
in the Mildren, only coming a lapped fourth despite a trouble-free
run, while Levis notched up another 'best of the rest' result.
The travelling drivers now moved across to Australia for the final three rounds. The Australian Grand Prix was held at the Lakeside circuit in Queensland, at 2.41 miles the longest track in the series, with an average speed of over 100mph.
However, circumstances reduced the spectacle, as a misfire slowed early leader Rindt, who eventually retired fed up with being overtaken by the locals, and Courage getting over-enthusiastic trying to pass Hill, putting himself out, and losing the Lotus driver over 2 laps.
This left Amon to stroll home, Bell obediently shadowing him until his engine began to misfire, the Englishman easing off and eventually coming home around 25s behind Amon. Geoghegan had his moment of glory, coming home third, while Hill recovered to 4th place. Neil Allen came home 5th in his first race of the series, driving a McLaren similar to Lawrence's car. Gardner was missing from his home Grand Prix for reasons unknown, so another local hero, Max Stewart, drove the Mildren to 6th place.
The penultimate round of the series was the International 100, and the race, at the 2.25 mile Warwick Farm circuit, was the first in the series that year to suffer inclement weather. The downpour wreaked havoc with the Grand Prix cars, Courage spinning out on the very first lap, taking Amon with him (the first time Amon had not finished in the top three in the series), while Hill's engine got waterlogged. This left Rindt sprinting away, with Bell realising he couldn't challenge the Austrian and settling for second. After around ten laps in the pits, Hill returned to the track and was remarkably quick, but after a lucky escape from a spin, decided he had nothing to gain by staying out. Gardner picked up his first decent result in 3rd, with the Mildren-entered, Alfa-engined Brabham driven by Kevin Bartlett coming home 4th.
The final round of the series was also named the International 100, but this time was held at the 1.928 mile Sandown Park Track. Amon took pole, and led from flag to flag, despite the best efforts of Rindt, who continued to overshadow Hill, who dropped well back with throttle linkage trouble. 'Black Jack' made a welcome appearance, driving a new Repco-engined BT31 to third place, to the delight of the crowd. Gardner made another glimpse of glory, fending off Bell throughout the race to follow his good friend Brabham home. Courage ran ahead of this group until his driveshaft broke.
Team Lotus had shown speed but the cars had been unreliable, and Rindt had outran Hill in just about every race. Hill would win at Monaco, and Rindt at Watkins Glen, but reliability was poor, and Hill broke his leg in the latter race, an injury from which he never quite seemed to recover.
Ferrari's reliability and the persistence of Amon left them with the best results in the series, but the World Championship was the same old story, appalling reliability leaving Amon with only a third at Zandvoort, the driver quitting after Silverstone. Bell would only start one World Championship race in 1969, and that was for McLaren. He would concentrate on sportscars for the rest of his career, a missed chance for Formula One.
Courage was possibly the most improved driver over the Tasman series. He went from being a rich playboy to a respected racer, scoring several fantastic results, peaking with seconds at Monaco and Watkins Glen when Williams entered the Brabham for the Championship.
As for the Tasman Championship, the local heroes went back to their national races, waiting for another chance to face the big boys in 1970.