Vale Dan Gurney, 1931-2018

It has been nearly two months since 4-time Grand Prix winner Dan Gurney passed away from complications of pneumonia at the age of 86. This devastating news came just two months after we had an article printed about Gurney’s victory at the 1964 French Grand Prix in our Everything Auto Magazine. In honour of the life of Dan Gurney, we decided to revisit the circuit of Rouen-Les-Essarts one more time and recount the story of the first ever win by the Brabham racing team.

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EXACTLY 53 YEARS ago, the Rouen-Les-Essarts circuit played host to the 1964 French Grand Prix. It was the fourth race of the Formula One season that year and reigning champion Jim Clark held a 7-point lead in the championship when the series ventured to the circuit in northern France. At the previous event at Spa, Clark had inherited his third consecutive victory at the circuit after Dan Gurney, racing for Brabham, ran out of fuel after leading most of the race from pole. It may not have been that surprising then, that the 28th of June, 1964, would be the scene of a famous victory for Gurney and his Brabham team.

In 1951, the Brabham team was founded by Australians Jack Brabham and Ron Tauranac, who both were successfully building and racing cars in their homeland. Brabham, the more successful driver, went to the United Kingdom in 1955 to further his racing career and by 1958 was driving in Formula One for Cooper.
Cooper’s revolutionary mid-engined cars helped Brabham to claim consecutive championship wins in 1959 and 1960. Brabham pushed for further advances with Cooper’s cars, but chief designer Owen Maddock was resistant in developing their cars.

Brabham was confident he could do better and after a dismal 1961 season in which Ferrari and Lotus developed the mid-engined approach further than Cooper, he left in 1962 to drive for his own team: the Brabham Racing Organisation. Using cars built by Motor Racing Developments Ltd. (MRD), a car manufacturing enterprise Brabham created with Tauranac when the latter joined him the U.K., the pair earned money by building cars to sell to customers in lower formulae. The new car for the team was not ready until partway through the 1962 season. Brabham scored two points finishes in a customer Lotus chassis before the Brabham BT3 finally made its debut at the German Grand Prix.

The 1963 season saw the team repaint their turquoise car to Australia’s racing colours of green and gold and Brabham was joined by American driver Dan Gurney. Gurney had attracted the attention of Ferrari early on in his career and drove his first Formula One race with the Italian brand in 1959, finishing on the podium twice. However, Ferrari’s strict management style did not suit him and the 6’4″ American moved to BRM for 1960. Tragedy struck at the Dutch Grand Prix when a brake system failure on the poorly prepared BRM resulted in a severe accident which broke Gurney’s arm and killed a young spectator. From that moment onwards, Gurney would carry a longstanding distrust of engineers.

The accident had a dramatic effect on Gurney’s driving style and he began to use his brakes more sparingly than his rivals. This helped the brakes on his car last longer, which became especially important in endurance races. Gurney became renowned for an exceptionally fluid driving style and moved to the factory Porsche team for 1961 and 1962. After coming close to a maiden victory at Reims, France in 1961, Gurney finally broke through for his first World Championship victory at the 1962 French Grand Prix at Rouen. This would be the only Grand Prix win for Porsche as a Formula One constructor when they pulled the plug on their team at season’s end due to the high costs of racing in Formula One. In 1963, Gurney became the first driver hired by Jack Brabham to drive with him for the Brabham Racing Organisation.

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Following on from his victory in Belgium, Jim Clark took pole for the 1964 edition of the French Grand Prix with Gurney and John Surtees’ Ferrari joining him on the front row. Clark’s team mate Peter Arundell and Jack Brabham in the second Brabham started fourth and fifth on the second row with Graham Hill, Bruce McLaren and Lorenzo Bandini making up the third row. The top 3 of Clark, Gurney and Surtees were unchanged at race start as McLaren spun to the back of the field in his Cooper. On lap 3, a split oil pipe dropped Surtees back and Graham Hill spun, leaving just Clark and Gurney at the front as Brabham inherited third. Hill recovered quickly from his spin and worked his way back up to fourth place by lap 24.

On lap 31 out of 57, the engine in Jim Clark’s Lotus failed him and Gurney was left with the lead all to himself as he cruised to the finish line. It could have been a 1-2 for Brabham, but Hill closed in fast on the Australian and overtook him on the 37th lap. Brabham kept up with Hill however, and the two crossed the line less than a second apart. Although Brabham might have been frustrated, it was a good day for the team with Gurney’s victory marking the first of 35 race victories for Brabham’s team. Brabham of course, would famously go on to win the 1966 Driver’s Championship becoming the first – and still the only – driver to win the championship in a car he had built himself and the first driver to win three championships since Juan Manuel Fangio in 1955. The 1966 championship win would be the first of four driver’s championships won by Brabham and the first of two constructor’s titles.

Gurney meanwhile, went on to take another victory for Brabham at the season closing Mexican Grand Prix before enjoying another successful season with the team in 1965 including five consecutive podium finishes. Perhaps inspired by Brabham’s success, Gurney went into business with Carroll Shelby to create an American racing car that could match the well-established European marks. Shelby convinced Goodyear, the number one rival to challenge Firestone’s domination of American racing at the time, to sponsor the team and in 1965, “All American Racers” was formed. Gurney felt the name of the team sounded somewhat jingoistic, but that didn’t stop him from taking the victory at the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix in an Eagle-Weslake.

This victory would be the fourth and last of Dan Gurney’s career in Formula One, but he became only the second driver at the time, and one of only three to date, to win a Formula One Grand Prix in a car of their own construction. Not only that, his victory earned him the rare distinction of being the only driver in history to score maiden Grand Prix victories for three different manufacturers: Porsche, Brabham and his own All-American Racers. That win in Belgium, to this day, still stands as the only Formula One victory for a United States-built car.

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Daniel Sexton Gurney (April 13, 1931 – January 14, 2018)

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