The New Zealand Grand Prix

This is our Grand Prix. It’s an actual, official Grand Prix, recognised by the FIA too. In fact, little old New Zealand has one of only two current national Grand Prix events that are not part of the Formula One World Championship, the other being the Macau Grand Prix. And you can largely thank its heritage for that almost unique accolade.

Geographically, it’s been run at a variety of venues since the first race – Ohakea, Ardmore, Pukekohe, Ruapuna, Wigram, Teretonga, Manfeild and Hampton Downs where it resides today, The NZ Grand
Prix will find a new home at Highlands Motorsport Park in 2024. And it’s list of winners is not only a ‘Who’s Who’ of Kiwi motorsport, it is also fully reflective of golden eras of our international and domestic motorsport history and a fascinating technical record of the genres of cars that have competed for this
outstanding piece of silverware.

Kiwis have always excelled in their home event. The first winner, John McMillan, was a Kiwi and there have been no fewer than 32 New Zealand winners over the years with Nick Cassidy, Craig Baird and Ken Smith topping the Kiwi table with three wins each followed by Daniel Gaunt in the Toyota FT-40 era, Simon Wills in a Formula Holden and legend Chris Amon achieved, and indeed nobody else in the history of the New Zealand Grand Prix achieved the same degree of domination, though Australian legend Jack Brabham came closest with three wins over four years.

Kenny Smith is still active, of course, and competed in the 2021 event won by Shane van Gisbergen. Smith’s first win in the Grand Prix dates back 45 years to 1976 in a F5000 Lola of course. He won it again in 1990 in a Formula Pacific Swift Cosworth and demonstrating his complete versatility and staying power, took the trophy once more back in 2004 during a period when Formula Ford cars competed for the Grand Prix.

The type of cars that have competed for the GP trophy is also a point of interest and is a reflection very much of what was going on in the rest of the world at the time outside of Formula One, Formula Two and Formula Three – which tended to be mainly European-based formulae but were by no means exclusively the fastest single seaters in the world. In the early years of the Grand Prix up until the early
seventies – which ironically has many parallels with the current era of the Grand Prix (pre COVID) – many
Northern hemisphere racers came to race on these shores. During that era the Grand Prix was a very important race on the international calendar, most notably when it was a part of the Tasman Series. In this era, several contemporary Formula One drivers would compete in the race, often with great success.

Six Formula One World Drivers’ Champions have won the New Zealand Grand Prix and looking at some of the winners, none need an introduction. Our own Bruce McLaren, Amon, Brabham, Prince Bira, Stirling Moss, Reg Parnell, John Surtees, Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill. Enough said really. New Zealand’s only
F1 World Champion, Denny Hulme, however, never won his home Grand Prix.

From the early seventies, outside of F1 the major single seater formulae was F5000 with series in America, Europe, and Australasia and it was a halcyon period for the Grand Prix with the big bangers bringing massive crowds, decent fields and thunderous races won by the heroes of the day. Our cousins across the ditch arguably mastered the art of these cars better than we did and Australians Frank Matich, Neil Allen, Frank Gardner, John McCormack and Warwick Brown all added their names to the trophy. It was only Smith who added a Kiwi name to the trophy during the 5000 era.

The big bangers were followed by another formulae that was hugely popular outside of the mainstream – Formula Pacific (or Atlantic as it was known in the Northern Hemisphere). These were mighty little cars, largely based on Formula Two machines of the time but running smaller 1.6 litre rather than 2.0 litre four cylinder engines. The cars very much reflected F2 thinking at the time, with the eighties and nineties cars having full ground effect long after it had been outlawed in F1, for example. Another golden era it was too, when drivers who raced in F1 like eventual F1 world champ Keijo ‘Keke’ Rosberg, Brazilian Roberto Moreno and Italian Teo Fabi all joined the list of winners.

Formula Holden – effectively Formula 3000 cars re-engineered with Holden motors – competed for the Grand Prix between 1994 and 2000 and the list of winners in that period included Greg Murphy and the last winner of that era, Andy Booth. Murphy, of course, went on to gain legendary status in V8 Supercars.

Another Supercar racer Fabian Coulthard was a notable name in the Formula Ford era. This era was ended in time for the 2006 Grand Prix which heralded the start of the Toyota Racing Series. Since then, the Grand Prix has been fought out in identical Toyota-powered Tatuus chassis, with the earlier FT-40 putting in a long stint as the category car between 2006 and 2014 before the FT-50 chassis, which was utilised for five Grand Prix and carried Liam Lawson to his famous 2019 victory. Other notables in that car type included F1 racer Canadian Lance Stroll, McLaren’s Lando Norris and Jehan Daruvala the 2018 Grand Prix winner.

The current FT-60 was introduced for the 2020 season and it was champion Igor Fraga who showed his impressive style with a championship sealing victory in the Grand Prix that season. Then of course, COVID struck and the global pandemic left us temporarily without internationals. Step in the amazing Van Gisbergen to record what was arguably the greatest ever victory in the Grand Prix history when in 2021 he drove through the field from a pit lane start to record a famous victory that was heralded throughout the
motorsport world.