How two drivers surprised the karting world
New Zealand is populated by just over 4 million people, compared to 64m in the UK. Yet it has produced a surprising number of sporting world champions
In Speedway, Ronnie Moore, Ivan Mauger and Barry Briggs racked up twelve world titles between them, while Hugh Anderson was a four-times motorcycling world champion. On four wheels, though, only two New Zealanders were able to claim world number one rankings. Denny Hulme was 31 years old when he captured the 1967 F1 crown, racing for Brabham. Eleven years after Hulme’s tragic death from a heart attack, Wade Cunningham became the 2003 world karting champion with CRG. Chris Walker’s photograph was taken moments after Wade received his trophy at Sarno in Italy.
Unlike Cunningham, who was only 19 at the time of his triumph, Hulme entered motor racing as a late developer. Aged 24 he came to Britain in 1960 as the joint winner of a scholarship along with George Lawton. Both drivers were competing in a Formula 2 race at Roskilde in Denmark when Lawton overturned his car with fatal consequences. Following close behind at the time, Hulme was devastated by this incident but he resolved to keep racing. Shortage of funds led him to join Jack Brabham’s team, working as a mechanic. This provided him with an opportunity to drive some of Brabham’s cars and he won seven Formula Junior races in 1963.
During the 1964 season, 20 years before Wade Cunningham was born, Hulme competed successfully alongside Brabham in F2 races. He made his F1 debut at Monaco in 1965 and recorded a 4th place finish in the French GP later that year. He finished 4th in the 1966 world championship table and helped Brabham secure the F1 Constructors’ title. In 1967, Hulme claimed two important wins at Monaco and the Nurburgring. Although Jim Clark was victorious on four occasions that year, greater consistency made Denny the world champion by five points.
For 1968 he joined fellow New Zealander Bruce McLaren’s team and took 3rd place in the world championships. Denny remained with this team throughout his F1 career, finishing 3rd in the 1968 and 1972 world championships. In between came the tragic loss of Bruce McLaren whilst testing his Can-Am car at Goodwood on June 2nd, 1970. As with Lawton’s death 12 years earlier, Denny was badly affected, although he soldiered on to claim 4th place in the World Championships that year. His McLaren team-mate, Peter Revson, was killed during a test session prior to the 1974 South African GP. Hulme attempted to pull him out of the wreckage and decided afterwards that this would be his last season of F1 racing. Under such difficult circumstances he did well to finish 7th in the championship table.
Denny Hulme was an unlikely world champion, retiring with eight Grand Prix wins under his belt. Throughout his entire F1 career, spanning ten seasons and 112 races, in fact, he was only able to claim one pole position. That occurred at Kyalami in March, 1973, when Denny was 37 years old and thought by some to be past his best. After retiring from F1 he led the Grand Prix Drivers Association for a time before moving back to New Zealand, taking part in an occasional saloon car event over there. In 1982 he began competing seriously once again, setting up his own team. Four years later he competed in the European Touring Car Championship with a Rover Vitesse prepared by Tom Walkinshaw. It was during one of his favourite events, the 1992 Bathurst 1000, that he suffered a massive heart attack whilst travelling at around 140mph in his BMW M3 Evolution car.
If motor racing pundits were surprised by Denny Hulme’s F1 title win, it was nothing compared to the shock waves caused by Wade Cunningham, 36 years later when he became a karting world champion. The 2002 championships had been contested over five rounds in Belgium, Finland, Portugal, France and Italy. Wade was unable to qualify for the main final at any of these rounds. 12 months later the system was changed in favour of a single event at Sarno. He’d been competing for two years under the CRG banner, but was still very much a junior member of this team. Terry Fullerton was employed by CRG and given the unenviable task of looking after Cunningham. Ever the professional, Terry set about his task with a steely determination.
“Jonathan Thonon was the fancied CRG runner that year and Wade hardly merited a second thought from the team,” Terry recalls. “We were certainly given very little, if any, support and I had my work cut out trying to boost his confidence. I spent a lot of time working on improving his driving technique and mind control prior to the event. Ultimately, all that time and patience paid off for us, but suffice it to say that there were some very surprised people in the CRG camp afterwards. Wade was fast at Sarno, but not quite as quick as were the CRG bosses in claiming credit for his success despite their previous lack of input.”
Nico Hulkenberg, fresh from being crowned as the German champion, was also competing at Sarno, finishing back in 31st place. Another future F1 star, Vitantonio Liuzzi, was trying to repeat his 2001 world championship victory. It all went wrong for him in the opening Heat when he crashed and damaged his ribs. For the rest of this meeting Liuzzi would require painkilling injections to keep racing. There were 12 Heats in all and Thonon managed to win three of them. However, it was Manuel Renaudie of France who won the Pre Final ahead of Britain’s Ben Hanley, with Thonon settling for 3rd place. Cunningham showed his potential in this one by finishing 6th behind Davide Fore and fellow CRG driver Damien Claverie.
Following a strong pep talk from Fullerton, Wade started the main final off grid 6. By lap 5 he had come through into 2nd spot and took the lead shortly afterwards when Renaudie’s engine seized. Thonon also fell by the wayside. Sensing his opportunity, Cunningham pulled out a gap of two seconds or more over Kozlinsky. One thing Terry had heavily instilled into his driver was the folly of looking back once having taken the lead. It was vital under such circumstances to focus upon putting in lap after lap as perfectly as possible, Terry urged.
“I didn’t have a particular strategy. I just tried to drive every lap as fast as possible,” Wade claimed afterwards. It certainly paid off for him as Kozlinsky was unable to make any impression. Hanley finished 3rd ahead of Italy’s Ronnie Quintarelli and Markus Niemela of Finland. Britain’s Martin Plowman claimed a fine 6th place. “Wade allowed himself a quick glance behind on the last lap and couldn’t quite believe how far ahead of the pack he really was,” Terry recalls. “I suppose he could be forgiven this small lapse despite my firm instructions beforehand. Whichever way you looked at it, he’d produced a great performance exactly when it mattered most. I should have felt elated by what we’d achieved but CRG pointedly ignored my own contribution and their attitude left a very bitter taste.”
After this event Wade Cunningham made the transition to Formula Ford in America. After claiming four consecutive poles and seven podium finishes, he took 5th place in the Championship. The following year, in his rookie season, he won the Indy Lights Series. His motor racing career went a little flat afterwards, but Wade can always look back on that heady day at Sarno in October 2003 when he stunned the karting world.