Dan Gurney, who passed away yesterday at his home in California at the age of 86, was justly regarded as one of the greatest racing drivers America has ever produced.
His four victories in world championship F1 races during a 12-year career are a reminder that mere statistics do not always do justice to the sport’s true greats. A better measure of his talent was the esteem he was held in by the likes of Jim Clark, who famously regarded Gurney as his greatest competitor.
Gurney reckoned that by the time he sat on the the grid at Reims for his world championship debut in 1959 he had only started 22 races. Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti had recommended Gurney to the Scuderia after seeing him race in the US, and after driving for the team at Le Mans Gurney was handed his F1 chance.
His debut was curtailed by a broken radiator, but next time out at AVUS he finished second to team mate Tony Brooks. Third and fourth in his next two starts were further indications a major new talent had arrived.
But his decision to leave the team at the end of the season to join BRM proved a mis-step: By 1961 Ferrari had the car to beat in the championship and Gurney, after a season frustrated by unreliability, had joined Porsche’s works F1 team. Here he faced the opposite problem: the car was reliable but not quick.
By 1962 it was competitive enough for him to take his first world championship race victory at Rouen and a non-championship triumph at Solitude. This wasn’t enough to sustain Porsche’s interested in F1, however, and they quit.
That Gurney to join Jack Brabham’s team. He finished ahead of his boss in the championship over the next three seasons, but leaving the team at the end of 1965 proved another ill-timed move: Brabham and new team mate Denny Hulme won the next two championships.
Like Brabham, Gurney’s ambitions lay beyond just driving. He entered his own car for 1966, the Anglo-American Racers Eagle, which once mated to Weslake’s V12 engine became a competitive if unreliable proposition.
The following year at Spa the car held to the flag and Gurney won after passing Jackie Stewart. The only other race it finished Gurney also reached the podium.
June 1967 was a good month for Gurney, as a week before his Spa win he had shared victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours with another giant of American motor racing, AJ Foyt, at the wheel of Ford’s GT40. His post-race champagne celebration started a trend which remains to this day.
Success in another of the great races eluded him, however: Despite being at the vanguard of the rear-engine revolution at the Indianapolis 500, Gurney peaked with back-to-back second places in 1968 and 1969.
By then he had stepped back from Formula One. But the death of another fellow racer-turned-constructor in 1970 drew him back.
The McLaren team turned to Gurney when founder Bruce McLaren was killed in a testing crash at Goodwood. Just 12 days later, Gurney claimed an important victory for the team’s Can-Am effort at Mosport, and followed that up with another victory at Mont Tremblant. He also drove for them in F1, scoring his final point at Clermont-Ferrand.
Gurney retired from the sport soon afterwards, making him one of the best drivers of his age to emerge unscathed. But his impact on the sport spread far beyond his achievements at the wheel.
Gurney continued to run a team in IndyCar, where in the early seventies he pioneered an aerodynamic device which remains in use across motor racing today: the Gurney flap. After pulling out in the eighties, Gurney revived his team in the nineties. And he continued to play a role in championing new motor racing technology until late in his life, championing the innovative DeltaWing project.
Gurney’s funeral will be private. His family and colleagues request that in lieu of flowers donations be made to Hoag Hospital Foundation in Newport Beach, California.
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