Motorsport is still in Graeme Lawrence's blood

RETIREMENT RELAXATION: Graeme Lawrence is spending the Christmas-New Year period at Whangamata.
RETIREMENT RELAXATION: Graeme Lawrence is spending the Christmas-New Year period at Whangamata.

Graeme Lawrence reckons he got into motor racing too late.

But the Hamilton winner of the prestigious Tasman series in 1970 in a Ferrari and winner of multiple Asian grand prix titles has no regrets and still keeps an interest in the sport at the age of 73.

Lawrence these days gives his third son Shaun, 31, a helping hand with his motorsport exploits. Shaun this year won the Winger Suzuki Swift Sport Cup and now eyes a step up in class before going on to V8 Supercars.

TASMAN GLORY: Graeme Lawrence takes his Ferrari 246T to Tasman series honours in 1970.
TASMAN GLORY: Graeme Lawrence takes his Ferrari 246T to Tasman series honours in 1970.

"It's been wonderful and a lot of fun, bringing back memories and it's been great to catch up with people I hadn't seen for years and to make new friends," Lawrence said.

He also keeps busy doing various small jobs and has always enjoyed a close relationship with his four sons Daryn, Todd, Shaun and Josh as well as spending much time with his partner Maree.

As a youngster growing up in Whanganui with a father interested in motorsport Graeme was 18 or 19 when he started racing a Humber 80 at Ohakea Air Force Base and there were various other cars he, his father and his brother Tony also went on to drive but he didn't seriously step up to single seaters until he was 24.

A former schoolmate had gone to England in 1964 with another friend, Bruce McLaren, and the Lawrences gave him some money to buy and ship home a Brabham single seater with a 1600cc Lotus twin-cam engine.

"I was a late starter - 24 is starting to get a bit too old - and naturally I would have liked to have been able to do a bit earlier in life but hey at the end of the day I'm grateful to have had the opportunity," he said.

A trip to Europe in 1968 to race Formula Two for McLaren about the time he and his family moved to Hamilton was marred by the death of good friend, mentor and two-times Formula One world champion Jim Clark as well as a shortage of funding for the McLaren team at the time.

But he built up the undeveloped McLaren F2 car and brought it home to New Zealand where he campaigned it in the 1969 Tasman series.

The same year he was invited by the Singapore government to contest the Singapore and Malaysian grand prix and he won both of them.

"They were my first big wins and I ended up winning both those races three times in a row," Lawrence said.

In 1970 Lawrence became the first non-Ferrari works driver to be allowed to buy and race one of the famous marque's single seaters with a bit of help from friend and Ferrari driver Chris Amon.

They secured Amon's Formula Two Ferrari 246T, the engine capacity being increased from 1600cc to 2.4 litres to suit the Tasman series.

It brought immediate success in that series for Lawrence and after racing it for two years it was sold, under an agreement with Enzo Ferrari himself, to a French car museum owner and only five years ago moved to another museum in Rimini, Italy, where he visited it in 2011.

"It was bloody beautiful and just exactly the same as when we shipped it."

Lawrence's Tasman series success got him an invitation to race the Can Am series in North America that Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme made famous for McLaren. He drove a McLaren called the Spirit of Edmonton for a group of businessmen and councillors promoting the Canadian city of Edmonton.

"I did the whole series and had some very good races and a couple of crashes but nothing too serious."

The Tasman series class changed to Formula 5000 and Lawrence bought a Lola T300 for it but in 1972 suffered a horrific crash at Pukekohe that nearly ended his career and his life. It put him in hospital for eight months and in plaster for 11 months.

"I thought a bit about giving it up but I wasn't prepared to walk away from unfinished business," said Lawrence. "And once I got back racing it didn't have any effect on me and in fact I had some of my best races after that."

Driving for the Rothmans team from 1976-83 he won races in Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia before he wound down his driving career at the age of 43 and ran his own team for the next 11 years in the Peter Jackson summer series on both sides of the Tasman.

His family have come first since then and things like youngest son Josh representing New Zealand at the world inline hockey championships have taken Lawrence away from motorsport but never that far.

"I've always been interested in it because it has been so much part of my life," he said.

Waikato Times