With Liam Lawson poised to become a Formula One driver, Allan looks back at Kiwis who have already made it – and one who may be forgotten.
Words: Allan Dick
While there has been Grand Prix racing since virtually the first ever motor race, it wasn’t until ‘after the war’ that a World Championship was created and because there were going to be three levels of international, single-seat racing, the cars that were to take part in this World Championship would be from Formula One.
Today, ‘Formula One’ no longer just identifies the class but is a title unto itself and has come to epitomise glamour and the peak of something that is bigger than motor racing itself.
Ascending to Formula One is akin to Hillary and Tensing scaling Mount Everest or Neil Armstrong walking on the moon – it is the ultimate.
Right now we have 19-year-old Liam Lawson knocking on the door – and he’s almost sure to become the next New Zealander into Formula One.
How many will have gone before him? How many other Kiwis have been able to add ‘Formula One driver’ to their name?
It may surprise you to know that, when (or if) Liam Lawson starts his first Formula One race, he will be number 10! Yes, so far nine New Zealand drivers have made it into Formula One – including one who did it entirely his way.
Tony Shelly was a Wellingtonian who competed in several Formula One races in 1962 – showing typical Kiwi DIY spirit, he was a private entrant.
Shelly was born in 1937 and he had motorsport and fast cars in his DNA – his father Jack Shelly owned Independent Motors in Wellington, which was a Jaguar and Cooper dealer.
Tony had a Morgan sports car, which he entered in the sports car section of the 1955 Grand Prix at Ardmore.
These were the Formula Libre days and production sports cars were accepted, providing they were quick enough, but 18-year-old Tony Shelly failed to qualify.
However, in mid-1958, a 21-year-old Tony decided he wanted to take motor racing seriously and purchased the ex-Syd Jensen, Ron Frost Formula 2 Cooper, single-cam Climax. This was a reasonably good car, and the inexperienced and unknown Shelly headed for the opening round of the 1958/1959 Gold Star Series at Teretonga – where he made the big time by winning the race! The Cooper gearbox broke in practice and there was a last minute rush to replace it and Shelly just made the grid, which consisted of pretty much every top-line driver in New Zealand, including Ross Jensen (Maserati 250F) and Pat Hoare (Ferrari).
Merv Neil in a brand new 2.0-litre Cooper-Climax led until the last lap when the fuel pump quit, leaving a surprised but delighted Shelly to win – it was quite a debut.
Incidentally, Frank Shuter had rare ‘success’ in one of the two Maserati 8CLTs built for Indianapolis but never raced there, by placing third.
I was at the meeting and afterwards sneaked into the pits and watched as the Shelly team packed up. Tony Shelly looked the part – tall, dark-haired, slim, square-jawed, handsome and wearing expensive casual clothes.
He also won the feature races at Levin and Napier (Port Ahuriri road circuit) that season, but the international meetings saw mechanical problems and he only placed fifth on the Gold Star table behind Bruce McLaren, Syd Jensen, Ross Jensen and Merv Neil, and ahead of Johnny Mansel.
But there definitely was promise, although that had to wait a season as Shelly sat out the 1959/1960 season, returning for 1960/1961 with the 2.0-litre Cooper-Climax of Merv Neil, later sold to Denis Hulme in which he (and George Lawton) earned his ticket to Europe and the start of a World Championship career.
Shelly ran the car for two seasons in 1960/1961 and 1961/1962, with mixed results – the highlight being a win on the RNZAF base at Ohakea and a second on the streets of Napier. Otherwise it was a bag of fifths or so, resulting in fourth place on the 1960/1961 Gold Star table and sixth the following season.
However, this was promising enough for Shelly to head to the UK in early 1962 and go Formula One racing, something that no other New Zealander had tried.
While we now live in an era of extraordinary costs and technology in Formula One, back in the early ’60s it was the era of the British ‘kit’ car – exemplified by the success of Cooper and Lotus, both using parts that could be pretty much bought off the shelf, notably the ubiquitous Coventry-Climax engine. This situation was interrupted in 1961 when Ferrari caught the British teams asleep.
1961 had seen the first year of the new Formula One of just 1.5-litres introduced by the FIA to try and make racing safer, saying that the previous 2.5-litre cars were getting too fast! A ridiculous situation!
The British teams were convinced they could get the FIA to retain the 2.5-litre formula and did nothing to develop new 1.5-litre engines – but Ferrari did.
The result was that in 1961, the British teams mostly made do with the four-cylinder, 1.5-litre Coventry-Climax engines of the previous Formula Two cars with around 145bhp (108kW), while Ferrari’s new V6 produced 165–170bhp (123–127kW) and also had the advantage of team numbers, with four cars and drivers at some meetings.
In was an old-fashioned turkey shoot, except at Monaco and the Nürburgring where only the brilliance of Stirling Moss spoiled the Ferrari parade.
For 1962 though, the Brits were back at their rightful place – both Coventry-Climax and BRM having developed all new 1.5-litre V8 engines, which were sold to all teams, making the old four-cylinder cars redundant – but still useful enough for minor placings in the hands of a good driver.
Enter Anthony Lionel Shelly from New Zealand. He bought a Lotus 18 with the four-cylinder, Coventry-Climax power unit.
The Lotus 18 model was actually designed and built for the 1960 season – the last for the 2.5-litre cars. The car Shelly bought was one of two originally built for Reg Parnell Racing in 1961 but carrying the factory updates of the Lotus 21 model. These were dubbed Lotus 18/21 and the Parnell Team didn’t achieve a lot that season.
For 1962, Reg Parnell Racing upped their game and had Lola produce brand new cars powered by the new Coventry-Climax V8 engine – so the Lotuses of the previous year were up for sale.
Shelly had the car painted New Zealand racing black and it carried his customary number 17 whenever possible. His crash helmet was similarly black with a silver fern.
Shelly’s first race was the Lombank Trophy non-championship meeting at Snetterton on April 14, 1962 – he finished fifth, four laps behind the winner, Jim Clark in a Lotus 24 Climax V8.
A week later Shelly placed third in the Lavant Cup race at Goodwood – a race restricted to four-cylinder cars, thus sidelining the Climax and BRM V8-powered cars as well as the V6 Ferraris. Bruce McLaren won the race in his works Cooper from Roy Salvadori in a Parnell Lola.
Shelly finished on the same lap as McLaren and Salvadori – 56 seconds adrift of the winner – and ahead of the established British driver Keith Greene.
The following day was also at Goodwood, this for the Glover Trophy for F1 cars with no engine restrictions. This was the race where Stirling Moss crashed, suffering career-ending injuries. Shelly was sixth, first privateer and, again, ahead of Greene. This was a star-studded field and one of Shelly’s best results in a Formula One race, two laps behind the winner.
Then it was on to the Aintree 200 on April 28, just five days later and a full scale, but non-championship, Formula One race that saw most of the works teams, including Ferrari.
Shelly finished seventh, two laps behind the winner, Jim Clark in his Lotus 24, with Bruce McLaren second in the works Cooper. World Champion Phil Hill was third in the first of two Ferraris entered. It was another strong performance from Shelly, who outlasted a lot of the big names and outdrove both David Piper and Ian Burgess, who had been ‘international stars’ a year or two earlier in New Zealand.
On May 12, Shelly was at the annual British Racing Drivers’ Club International at Silverstone where fellow New Zealander Ross Greenville was also entered, but he did not appear. The race was won by Graham Hill in the new BRM V8 from Jim Clark, John Surtees, Innes Ireland, Bruce McLaren and Jack Brabham. Shelly retired after spinning and damaging his car’s suspension.
Then it was across to Europe for the Naples Grand Prix – another non-championship meeting for Formula One cars, but held on the same day as the World Championship Dutch Grand Prix – so it was a line-up of lesser lights.
Shelly qualified sixth and gained a place to finish fifth. The race was dominated by the works Ferraris of Lorenzo Bandini and Willy Mairesse.
It was back to Old Blighty for his next outing at Mallory Park, where Shelly finished eighth just ahead of Dutch privateer de Beaufort in his F1 Porsche. John Surtees won from Jack Brabham and Graham Hill.
There was a huge turnout for Shelly’s next race – the Reims Grand Prix on July 1 – another non-championship race on the fast road circuit in northern France. Bruce McLaren won, but Shelly retired with a blown head gasket.
It was the big time for Shelly’s next appearance, a World Championship race – the British Grand Prix at Aintree on July 12. The works Ferraris didn’t appear due to a strike in Italy. Shelly qualified 18th between the Porsche of de Beaufort and the Emeryson of Tony Settember. Shelly’s lap time was 2.02.4 compared to pole-sitter Jim Clark’s 1.53.6. Engine trouble saw Shelly retire on lap six.
On August 5, Shelly joined the World Championship circus for the second time at the daunting Nürburgring for the German Grand Prix. There were 30 entries for the 26 grid positions. Shelly just missed out, qualifying 27th fastest.
His time in Europe was now coming to a close, but Shelly appeared at Oulton Park on September 1 for the International Gold Cup. He finished fifth ahead of Masten Gregory and de Beaufort, with the race won by Jim Clark from Graham Hill and Jack Brabham.
With that, the Lotus was converted to ‘New Zealand specifications’ (repowered by a 2.7-litre Coventry-Climax engine) and shipped home.
However, there was one last European adventure – the Italian GP at Monza. Shelly was to drive a Lotus 24 BRM V8 owned by private team Autosport, the car usually driven by Wolfgang Seidel. This was another championship affair and another 30-strong entry, with only 21 making the cut. Again, it was tough luck with Shelly recording the 22nd fastest time.
Apart from his Formula One races, Shelly was also entered by Team Lotus in a Lotus 23 in the Le Mans 24 Hour race, but the entry was declined by the organisers.
And that was that. Shelly returned home for two very busy seasons on both sides of the Tasman with the Lotus – and when it wasn’t available for whatever reason, he used the old Cooper for a race or two.
The Lotus was one of the best two racing cars in New Zealand – the other being the ‘new’ Cooper-Climax of Angus Hyslop. At the start of the 1962/1963 season, you’d have put money on Shelly being the man to beat – the Lotus was possibly the better car and Shelly had had great experience in Europe. But he spent the season chasing the Cooper and, at times, the 1.5-litre Lotus of Jim Palmer, eventually finishing third on the Gold Star table.
During the winter of 1963, Hyslop retired, selling the Cooper to Jim Palmer, so that the 1963/1964 season was a rerun of the previous – Cooper versus Lotus.
Again, the popular money was on Shelly, especially after he’d had a reasonably successful campaign in Australia, but the first meeting of the season at Renwick saw Palmer win by six seconds and that was pretty much it for the rest of the season – Palmer won the Gold Star from Bruce McLaren and Shelly had to be content again with third place.
But he wasn’t finished yet. Or was he?
The Lotus was sold to John Riley (and eventually became a sports car) and Tony Shelly bought the Lola run in the 1964 Tasman Series by Chris Amon. Amon had had a terrible time with the car – it was a high-mileage dog. But it was two years newer than the Lotus, so, maybe…
Shelly had his long-serving mechanic Ginger Grundle rebuild the car and he took it for another ‘between New Zealand seasons’ campaign in Australia. But he had no better joy with the car than Amon. With the Lola in pieces undergoing another rebuild, Tony Shelly had a serious think and decided to call it quits.
I had been a Tony Shelly fan from the day that I had seen him win, luckily, at Teretonga. I liked his style, his approach, his attitude and I wanted him to win. But I knew when I saw he had no answer for Angus Hyslop and then Jim Palmer that maybe he just wasn’t championship stuff.
His retirement statement elevated him to hero status with me. Even after all of these years I remember the courage it must have taken for Tony Shelly to say he had given it his best shot and he knew it wasn’t quite enough.
I told him that over a small catered luncheon put on by BMW for just me and Tony at BMW’s New Zealand headquarters in the mid-1990s about a year before he died. He was a charming man, easy to talk with, and he was moved by my assessment of his ‘retirement’. I think we liked each other.
Of course, it wasn’t total retirement – it seldom is. There were the occasional returns to the track for long-distance saloon races, and he was always at the major race meetings, arriving in wonderful cars – the first E-Type V12 in New Zealand, a gorgeous Buick Riviera – but the dream of being a World Champion was over.
His father, Jack, had left Tony to run Independent Motors in Wellington and had gone to live in Hawaii, where he owned the BLMC dealership – think Austin-Healey, Jaguar, etc. Independent Motors had become Shelly Motors, a vast networks of various car dealerships – new and used – in New Zealand, far bigger and more diverse than many knew. After his father died, Tony moved to Hawaii and eventually turned the business into a network of BMW dealerships and he became an American citizen in 1975. My luncheon with him was during a visit home.
Now, who are the other eight New Zealanders who have competed in Formula One? Name them? Right.
Denis Hulme takes pole position because not only did he make it into Formula One, but he won the World Championship in 1967 – the highlight of a long career marked by determination, sheer guts and courage. He was no Jim Clark, but he was tough.
Bruce McLaren is number two because he was not only a winner, but he also left a huge legacy.
Chris Amon is third and not just because he took a ladder with him to the top of Mount Everest and got extra elevation by being the ‘numero uno’ driver for Ferrari, but because for his sheer natural talent, he was the equal of Jim Clark. I doubt if anyone has made Formula One via such a short road as Amon.
Number four is Howden Ganley – in many ways he was another Denis Hulme. Gritty, determined and more of a technical driver than one of sheer brilliance.
Right, now we head into the ‘I didn’t know that’ territory.
Although this is not a ‘top nine’ listing based on ability, it is based on how significant that Formula One career was.
So, number five I am going to make Mike Thackwell. Like pavlovas, Russell Crowe and Phar Lap, there have been attempts by Australia to claim Thackwell. He regarded himself as Australian but liked to be called a New Zealander, so that’s enough for me. To be fair, we didn’t see a lot of Thackwell – we saw more of his father. Mike made a mark in Europe and left more questions than answers. He took part in Five Formula One Grands Prix and was the youngest driver to have started a Formula One race – he was 19 years and 182 days old when he started the 1980 Canadian GP in a Tyrrell.
We move to modern history for number six – Brendon Hartley. Hartley had a lengthy spell in Formula One, driving for Red Bull-backed Toro Rosso. In fact, he started in 21 Formula One races over the 2017 and 2018 seasons, earning just four World Championship points in the process. It wasn’t a glittering career, but the car wasn’t great and outside F1 Hartley was definitely a star and remains so.
Graham McRae is our seventh driver to have made it into Formula One – albeit briefly. McRae turned down an offer to replace an ill Jackie Stewart in the Tyrrell team for the 1972 Belgian Grand Prix because he was too busy racing F5000! However, he did start the 1973 British Grand Prix driving for Frank Williams in an uncompetitive, Cosworth-powered Iso. McRae qualified second slowest – Chris Amon was slowest in a Tecno! McRae retired on the first lap with a broken throttle in a race that was marred by a huge crash.
So far, all of our drivers have been in factory cars. Our eighth driver changes that slightly.
John Nicholson – ‘Johnny Nick’ – ran a successful business rebuilding Cosworth DFV engines, was a winner in Formula Atlantic and had a Formula One chassis designed and built for him by Lyncar, which he powered by one of his own DFVs and entered into the 1974 and 1975 British Grands Prix. He didn’t qualify for the 1974 event but did so in 1975, qualifying in the final spot of the 26 car grid. He was officially placed 17th in the race, despite a storm that shortened the event from 67 to 56 laps and caused many drivers to spin off – including Nicholson.
This was the era when there were also non-championship races for F1 cars, and Nicholson competed in a handful of those as well.
So, nine Kiwis have driven in Formula One so far.