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Gurney Luck--The 1964 French Grand Prix

Mention Rouen to any self-respecting Frenchman, and he may think of France's Patron Saint, Joan of Arc. Or, perhaps be reminded of Rouen's magnificent Gothic architecture, with so many church spires that Rouen is often called "The City of Hundred Spires". If he's a motor racing fan--and what self-respecting Frenchman isn't?--he will tell you Rouen was the finish line of the world's first ever motor race, "The Paris-Rouen Trial", staged in 1894. And now that he's on the subject of motor racing, he's certain to tell you that it was the French who staged the very first Grand Prix, in 1906.

It's fitting then, that the 50th French Grand Prix should be held at Rouen.

Circuit Rouen-les-Essarts, as it is officially known, lies five miles south of the city of Rouen, in the forest of la Ronde, between two bends of the River Seine. While the area is pastoral, the circuit is strictly a white-knuckle affair. The section of downhill curves from the start-finish line down to the Nouveau-Mode hairpin, may be the most frightening mile in all of motor racing. The rest of the 4.1-mile circuit is no less difficult, making it a true drivers' circuit, and therefor a Dan Gurney circuit.

Daniel Sexton Gurney arrives in Rouen looking for his first Grand Prix win of the 1964 Formula One season. His quick Brabham-Climax F-1 racing machine fits him like a glove, and for the first three races he's been right there, up front, in a position to win, but each time dropping out with sundry problems. At Monaco, he led eventual winner Graham Hill until his differential packed in. At Zandvoort, he started from pole and was contesting second place when--are you ready?--the spokes on his steering wheel broke. The Belgian Grand Prix, at Spa-Francorchamps, was the worst. Starting from pole, he led going away until the final lap when--incredibly--he ran out of fuel.

Broken steering wheel? Running out of fuel? There's a name for such luck.

Gurney Luck.

The famous Gurney grin looks a bit strained at Rouen. An optimist by nature, these past three races have been, in Dan's words, "a character builder."

Still Gurney manages to keep a positive attitude. After all, his luck is bound to change eventually. And, for reasons known only to the gods of motor racing, France has been particularly kind to Gurney's racing career. Enzo Ferrari, for whom Gurney drove sports cars, chose to make the 1959 French Grand Prix the place where the American would make his F-1 debut. Gurney ran as high as sixth place until sidelined with mechanical troubles. Two years later, also in the French Grand Prix, now driving for Porsche, the Californian came within a whisker of winning. In 1962, at Rouen, racing the new low-line Porsche flat-eight, he clinched his first ever Grand Prix victory. And only last weekend, at the Le Mans 24 Hour, driving Carroll Shelby's sleek Daytona Coupe, he and co-driver Bob Bondurant, overcame a trio of Ferrari GTOs to win the GT class, and finish fourth overall. Gurney feels at home in France, and should--his forbearers came from here.

As Grand Prix circuits go, Rouen is not old, having hosted its first Grand Prix in 1952. The paddock area, however, seems to date from an earlier time, say, from the turn of the century. It's more park than paddock--grass, weeds and trees. As with Spa Francorchamps in Belgium, the Rouen circuit is laid out in a broad river valley and shaped like a teardrop, with a sharp hairpin curve on one end, and on the other end, a series of long fast curves. However, at Spa-Francorchamps, the hairpin is at the top of valley, while at Rouen, the hairpin is at the bottom of the valley.

Like most European circuits, Rouen is comprised of public roads, which means practice is held at odd hours, in his case, late afternoons.

Dan Gurney is among the first out on the circuit, when it opens Friday afternoon, bedding in new tires and brakes. But it's Scotland's Jim Clark, in the sleek Lotus 33-Climax, who is the first to get down to serious business, and records a sizzling 2:09.6. Gurney then goes out and records 2:10.1, for second fastest. No one else comes close to these times.

On Saturday afternoon, Scuderia Ferrari arrives, allowing John Surtees to show what the new simi-monocoque Ferrari P158 could do, and records 2:11.1, for third fastest.

Saturday's practice session having ended, the grid is set for Sunday's race. Comprising the front row, are Jim Clark (Lotus-Climax), Dan Gurney (Brabham-Climax), and John Surtees (Ferrari). In Row Two are Jack Brabham (Brabham-Climax) and Pete Arundell (Lotus-Climax). In Row Three are Graham Hill (BRM), Bruce McLaren (Cooper-Climax) and Lorenzo Bandini (Ferrari).

After two days of blazing sunshine, a spot of English weather blows in overnight from the English Channel, turning race day gray and cold. After the usual preliminary events, the Formula Ones are lined up on the starting grid. The signal is given, and up and down the starting grid, engines roar to life. The race starter appears, and signals the drivers to take a warm-up lap. One-by-one the F-1 machines move out, and can be heard motoring down to the Nouveau-Mode hairpin, and back up the far side of valley. Their sound fades as the cars enter the woods. Moments later, the sound of 20 F1s grows louder, as they return and retake their positions on the starting grid.

At the drop of the green flag, Clark, Gurney, and Surtees burst away smoothly, upshifting as they pick up speed. Running closely together, the three drivers set-up for the first curve, a sweeping right-hander, with Clark in front, Gurney in second, and Surtees in third. Unlike other F-1 circuits, there is no time for drivers to become acclimated to speed, no easy curves to find their rhythm. Oh no. At Rouen, the challenging curves come immediately, leaving drivers no to think, or to have second thoughts. Some drivers admit to screaming, as soldiers are wont to do when faced with a fortified position against a hail of bullets. The fear is the same.

The race isn't thirty seconds old, and leaders Clark, Gurney, and Surtees have negotiated three of the toughest and most dangerous curves on the circuit, averaging 130 mph. and have yet to touch their brakes. That's about the change drastically in the next few seconds.

Approaching the next curve, a left-hander, Gurney eases on the brakes, to settle the chassis, and to reduce speed down to 70 mph. Exiting the left-hander, the Noveau-Monde hairpin appears at the bottom of the hill. Now he brakes much more firmly, to cut speed down to a 20-mph crawl. Tires do not track but sort of skate over the uneven cobblestones that comprise the hairpin's surface.

Exiting onto asphalt, keeping RPM up, Gurney gasses it for the long climb back up the other side of the valley. Above the road, amidst the trees, clusters of fans can be seen peering down as the F-1s scream past. Powering uphill, Clark opens a slight gap on Gurney, while behind them Surtees is falling back and being crowded by Arundell and Brabham.

Gurney upshifts to fourth, then backs down to third, for a sliding left-hander, quickly followed by a right-hander. Next, he shifts down to second for the sharp Sanson left-hander, the three corners taken in rapid secession.

Further up ahead, are two gentle right-handers, followed by a long uphill straight. Shifting up to fifth gear, speed nears 140 mph. The trees thin out, revealing a broad gray sky.

Virage du Grésil, a sweeping right-harder, awaits at the top of the valley. Gurney senses it before he sees it, and sets up. Staying in fifth gear, he eases up on the throttles slightly, and begins the turn in. Clipping the apex, he presses his foot fully to the floor and feels a wonderful sensation of flat-out acceleration, as his Brabham romps onto a long downhill straightaway, the engine high and clear, not missing a beat.

Gurney feels good. The gap over Surtees has lengthened to a dozen car-lengths. Clearly the race is between Gurney and Clark. Two weeks ago at Spa, Gurney had him beat. Today, just maybe, he can do it again.

The gap closes under braking for Virage de la Scierie, the sharp right-hander that points them back down the valley. Gurney follows Clark through the sweeping Virage Du Paradis right-hander that follows. The main grandstand, control tower, and pits loom among the trees. The Dunlop footbridge spanning the road rises up and flashes overhead in a flicker of shadow.

This time they hit those demanding downhill curves flat-out. A look at the circuit map shows four curves, but it's the first three that get your heart racing, as the fourth leads directly into the hairpin, and is taken under braking. Speed collapses the distance between these three curves, and they come on as one long esse curve--right-left-right--as much a test of nerves as a test of the ability to keep the chassis absolutely settled and balanced, the driver controlling the machine as precisely and carefully as if walking a high wire. "The secret is to make no violent moves," says Gurney.

Gurney's right foot presses down as far as he dares, not quite to the floor, but close to it. He can't push it that last quarter-of-an inch and still maintain his fine edge of control. He's using every inch of road, his tires not quite brushing the verges as he goes, squeezing out every last mile-per-hour of speed, and doing it with utter smoothness.

As smooth and as fast as Gurney is--and no one is smoother than Dan Gurney--Clark is as smooth, and, at the moment, slightly faster. At this level of Formula One competition, it's the little things that make a difference. Gurney's Brabham and Clark's Lotus are roughly the same size and weight, and are both powered by the redoubtable Coventry-Climax V-8. With a mere 190 horsepower, momentum is everything; the margin between fast and faster is slight indeed. Clark is shorter in size and lighter in weight than Dan, which means the Lotus-Clark combination is slightly lighter and therefore slightly faster. Clark's Lotus 33 has a monocoque chassis, which holds its shape better through the long fast curves, and therefore keeps its four tires flatter against the road, yet another edge over Gurney, whose Brabham BT3 has a multi-tubular spaceframe chassis that flexes slightly in the curves, thereby decreasing tire grip. The Scot draws away at the rate of a consistent half-a-second per lap.

Meanwhile, behind Gurney, Surtees pits with a cracked oil line, turning third place over to Gurney's teammate, Jack Brabham. Graham Hill, who spun earlier, has recovered and moves up to threaten Brabham for third. It looks like Clark's day until lap 30, when a piston lets go, forcing him out of the race.

Gurney is the leader now, and everyone has their fingers crossed, hoping Gurney Luck will take a holiday. Such is Big Dan's popularity. Everyone likes him. But few really know the man behind the boyish grin.

Louis Stanley, a member of BRM's controlling family, had this observation of Gurney when the Californian drove for BRM in 1960: "Gurney was passing through one of those bleak periods common to many drivers. Nothing went right. Part of the trouble seemed psychological. In the middle of an analytical talk at my home, he suddenly said his feet hurt. Off came his socks and shoes. The rest of the afternoon he padded the lawns and house bare-footed. That was Gurney . . . an amiable figure, utterly informal and unpretentious. No pastiche. No affectation. His mind is no more smart than his clothes and he dresses like a forgetful college lad. In Grand Prix circles, Gurney is perhaps a shade too gullible. Experience alone will teach him the elementary facts of business techniques and acumen. Grand Prix success will come. There is no doubt about that. When it does, Dan Gurney will still be the same . . . unspoilt, naive, mentally honest in his sincerity."

About Gurney, a reporter wrote: "There is no visible arrogance in him nor any mock modesty, either."

Says Stirling Moss: "Dan is a very nice man . . . He looks exactly what he is, one of the few human beings I know who does."

The Gurney smile is big, it's genuine, and the world cannot help but smile back. There are no shades of gray in Dan Gurney's world; he sees everything in black and white, good and evil. Yes the world he sees is largely good. He rarely finds fault in others, never blames others for his problems, does not hold grudges. If Gurney has a fault, it's placing too much trust in others. Still, he's nobody's fool, and won't be pushed around. At Monza in 1963, Clark and Gurney were running one-two, lapping cars, when they came up behind Innes Ireland's apple-green BRP-BRM. In his book, "At the Wheel" Jim Clark described what happened next:

"(Ireland's) car was much quicker than ours down the straights but we had him on the corners. I first tried on one bend to get past on the inside but Innes blocked me off. Then I tried again and the same thing happened. The next time I thought I would play it crafty, so I waited until Dan had come up close behind me and I made a pass at Innes. But I eased off slightly, and let Dan go through. Innes thought the car coming inside him was me and he moved over again but found out it was Dan, and no one does this sort of thing to Dan. In the ensuing battle of wits, Dan eased Innes out and while he was doing this I passed both of them."

Gurney has made a number of questionable career moves that a more calculating mind might not have made: leaving Ferrari after one season and joining BRM, a move that looked foolish two years later when Ferrari won the world championship; and leaving BRM for Porsche, only to see BRM win the championship two years after that.

About his decision to leave Ferrari, he said: "I was naive. In my great wisdom, all I could see was Ferrari was still stuck on front-engined cars, and rear-engined cars were the future . . . so I went with BRM, who were working on a rear-engined car, and seemed to be on the rise."

BRM (British Racing Motors), however, was anything but on the rise. In nine races, Gurney finished but once. During the Dutch Grand Prix, he was lucky to escape with his life when, at the end of the long front straight, his rear brakes failed. Describing the scene, Louis Stanley wrote: " . . . the car went over the top (and) down a grassy bank, through a barbed wire fence, and into a group of spectators before rolling over. The speed down the straight was about 140 mph. As the car plunged out of sight in a cloud of blue smoke, I felt it was impossible for Gurney to have survived."

Miraculously, Gurney's only injuries were several cuts and a cracked wrist (less fortunate was a spectator who had wandered into an off-limits area, and was struck and killed by Gurney's errant machine).

The Californian ended his association with BRM on a high note, however, by winning his last race, a non-points event in Australia.

About his decision to switch to Porsche, Gurney said: "Huschke (Porsche Racing director Huschke von Hanstein) approached me, filled me with a lot of baloney. At the time he was speaking to me--I didn't find this out until a long time later--they were making 127 horsepower out of their new eight-cylinder." Von Hanstein promised 200 horsepower, more than enough to put Porsche on top in 1961, plus a new low-line chassis. Gurney took him at his word and signed. As it turned out, engine development was glacially slow, and the low-line chassis didn't materialize until a year later. When the 1961 season began, Gurney was saddled with last year's flat-four engine and last year's F-2 chassis. He didn't complain. He gave it his absolute best in every race, finished second three times, and, in the French Grand Prix, came within an ace of winning. In the final championship standings, he tied Stirling Moss for third. It would be the most points Gurney would ever earn in the F-1championship standings.

In 1962, the Porsche flat-eight was fully developed, but down 15 horsepower to the competition. Gurney drove hard and won on circuits that rewarded driver ability--Solitude and Rouen. But for want of a broken battery strap, he might have won at the Nurburgring--perhaps the ultimate drivers' circuit--where in practice, he was three seconds faster than Graham Hill, who would win the race.

Porsche withdrew from F-1 at the end of 1962, and Gurney joined Jack Brabham's fledgling F-1 team. He spent the first season settling in, while showing the racing world that he and the new Brabham BT3 had the measure of Clark's Lotus, Hill's BRM, and Surtees' Ferrari. At last the Californian had an F-1 machine worthy of his talent: 1964 promised to be his year.

With Clark having dropped out on lap 30, Gurney went on to win his first Grand Prix of the 1964 season. It's not the stunning triumph Spa-Francorchamps would have been, but it feels wonderful nonetheless. In the Brabham pit, smiles are big and joyful. Gurney's done it--given Team Brabham its first Grand Prix victory.

The season isn't half over, and the championship is still up for grabs. Another win and the American will be in the thick of it. No one doubts Gurney's ability to deliver. He's quick, confident, and knows how to win. Expectations are high.

The second win proves as elusive as the first. The next race, the British Grand Prix, Gurney pits on lap three with ignition trouble, returns and finishes tenth--out of the points. At the German Grand Prix, battling Surtees for the lead, a food wrapper lodges in his radiator, his engine overheats, ending his race. At the Austrian Grand Prix, he leads until sidelined by a broken suspension. At the Italian Grand Prix, again battling Surtees for the lead, it's a faulty alternator that puts him out. At the U.S. Grand Prix, fighting Hill and Surtees for the lead, his oil pressure goes away. At the Mexican Grand Prix, with the championship long out of reach, he scores his second victory.

Gurney luck.

Two GP wins in 1964, as many wins as John Surtees, the 1964 world champion. The only difference is Surtees finished more races, picking up valuable points for three second-place finishes, and one third place finish. Gurney finished only the races he won.

Looking back, Brabham designer/engineer Ron Tauranac said team finances were probably most to blame: "Jack (team-owner Jack Brabham) ran a ght ship, so there was only one mechanic on each car. I think that one extra mechanic on the team might have made the difference; it would have been a case of laying out a little and gaining a bigger return."

Gurney doesn't win any F-1 races in 1965, but finished six of eleven races, for fourth in the championship standing.


Dan Gurney leaves Brabham at the end of 1965 and--wouldn't you know it?--the very next year (1966) Brabham wins the world championship. Gurney never looks back. He has something he's aways wanted, his own team. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, hungry for Indycar and F-1 wins, supplies the start-up capital. The company is named All American Racers (AAR). The cars AAR produces are first-rate designs, beautifully crafted, and painted the American racing colors of blue with white center stripe. Gurney names his cars after America's national bird: "Eagle".

Gurney soldiers through the 1966 season with an underpowered Coventry-Climax four-cylinder, but works out an exclusive deal with English gas flow specialist Harry Weslake to design a powerful new V-12 engine that will put Gurney back in the front ranks and maybe win the 1967 world championship.

In some ways, 1967 is a replay of 1964. The car fit him like a glove, and he's as quick as anyone, and at most races startes on the front row. The German Grand Prix is a replay of the 1964 Belgian Grand Prix; he leads convincingly until the final lap, when a universal joint breaks. He wins a non-points race at Brands Hatch, triumphs at Spa-Francorchamps, comes in fourth at Mosport, and doesn't finish another race.

The next season is dismal, and at the end of the year, All American Racers withdraws from F-1 to concentrate on Indycar racing. A lack of finances is blamed. AAR has the money to build an Eagle F-1 and compete, but little else. The money is not there to test and develop the car, to make it bullet-proof.

Says Gurney: "I had to make a decision whether to continue over there or concentrate over here. I couldn't do both any longer. Never could do both efficiently. . . . We whipped the Ferrari factory and everybody else at Brands Hatch. And at Spa we whipped them all. I look back on the whole Eagle experience as being more miraculous than it was disappointing. I thought it very, very good."

Gurney retires from driving at then end of 1970, age 39, having failed to achieve his two main goals: winning the drivers' F-1 world championship and the Indianapolis 500. "I can't deny that I really wanted to win them," he says, "and it certainly bothered me that I didn't. But I had the respect of my competitors, my peers. That probably sustained me."

To this day, Gurney continues to be recognized wherever he goes. Like Stirling Moss, he's remembered as if he HAD won the world champion.

Gurney won a number of important international races: the Sebring 12 Hour in 1959, the Nurburgring 1000 Kilometers in 1960, two Nassau Trophy Cups (1960 and '61), the inaugural Daytona Continental in 1962, Le Mans outright in 1967, seven F-1 races, including four GPs; six Indycar race, five Riverside 500 NASCAR races, and three Can Am races. While he didn't win the Indy 500, he did lead on several occasions, and finished second twice (1968 and '69), and third once (1970).

If nothing else, Gurney was versatile. In one 18-moth stretch, he won races in six major categories: F-1, Indycar, sports car prototypes, Can Am, Trans Am, and NASCAR, a record of versatility that will probably never be exceeded, or matched.

Gurney always shined on the pure drivers' circuits, so it's fitting he should have won at Circuit Rouen les-Essarts. The Grand Prix record book shows only four winners: Alberto Ascari (1952), Juan Fangio (1957), Jacky Ickx (1968), and Dan Gurney, having the sole distinction of having won twice (1962 and 1964).

The supremely-talented Jim Clark, once confided to his father that he feared only one driver--Dan Gurney.

Gurney often said, to win a driver must possess a mean streak. Genial Dan did not have mean bone in his body, but won anyway.

- END -

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