The test was a success, and Gurney became a Ferrari team driver in endurance races, competing impressively in 1958 at Le Mans and on the N�rburgring, which, because of its difficulty, became his favorite circuit.
The next year Ferrari tested Gurney again at Modena, this time in the latest Formula I car.
"To this day I don't know whether I rolled that car over or not," he says. "I made an error in judgment and spun out, but after that I don't know what happened. I got kind of disoriented. But when the dust settled there was a bunch of grass in the car, and I know that grass didn't come from inside the car."
Before he spun, Gurney had equaled the lap record; still, he considered it a poor test because the car was badly damaged. So he went back to California figuring he had blown it. But his maturity and talent had impressed Ferrari, who offered Gurney a car for the upcoming French Grand Prix. He didn't finish that race, but in the next one, in Germany, he came in second between the other Ferrari team drivers. In two more races that year he finished third and fourth. "I am staggered by his fantastically quick rise," said Britain's Stirling Moss. The great Argentinian driver Juan Fangio said young Gurney was as good as they come. The press hailed him as the discovery of the year. "There is no visible arrogance in him, nor any mock modesty, either," wrote one reporter.
"I was young and serious and dedicated," says Gurney. "I was willing to go through almost anything for the opportunities. I was hell-bent on going all the way. There wasn't any doubt in my mind what I wanted by then."
Gurney's parents have huge scrap-books chronicling their son's career and they contain portions of a diary he kept during 1959. One page reads, "Plan each day. Accomplish everything. Do not be late. Be strong. Maintain edge, stay alert. Toughen hands. Will power over all. Be true to self and true to others."
This determined idealism endeared Gurney to Enzo Ferrari, who called him "my big Marine." Ferrari's fondness for Gurney did not, however, encompass enriching him. Ferrari believed that a driver should be thankful for the privilege of racing one of his cars, period. Gurney was given one round-trip ticket to Europe for the 1959 season and was paid $163 per month, plus half his prize money. He had his wife and two children with him, and they lived on a shoestring, traveling between races and countries in a Volkswagen. (Gurney recalls awakening in a cheap hotel in Rouen, France, one night to see bats flying in and out of the open window.)
When Ferrari wouldn't give him a raise in 1960, Gurney signed with the British BRM team. They had offered him $14,000 a year in advance, and he needed the money. The new BRM was innovative—it was one of the earliest rear-engined designs—and that also attracted Gurney. Ferrari warned Gurney the BRM would never work because the horse should pull the cart, not vice versa, but he let his big Marine go.
Leaving Ferrari would be the first of many unfortunate career decisions. The BRM was an abject failure; out of 27 starts that year, the team had three finishes. "The Ferrari was a much stronger car than I ever gave it credit for," says Gurney. "It was the kind of car you could jump in and just drive your absolute head off. The BRM was liable to fall apart on the starting line. I had thought 1960 would be my year, but I didn't score a single championship point. It was a tremendous disappointment, a bitter pill to swallow. It was just a result of more of my great judgment."
Gurney's "great judgment" probably cost him the world championship. Ferrari won the year after he quit them for BRM. He left BRM for Porsche in 1961 and BRM won the 1962 championship, while Porsche withdrew from Formula I. He went to Brabham for three years and the year he left a Brabham won the world championship. Yet despite his predilection for moving away from winning cars, despite driving inferior equipment, Gurney won four Grand Prix races and led many more. But often he was the victim of a freak mechanical failure while leading near the finish. It happened so often that any bad luck in Formula I came to be referred to as "Gurney luck." "It's remarkable really, the way writers and fans recognize me," Gurney said at that time, "but I wouldn't blame them if one of these days they woke up and said, 'All right, I love the guy, but when in the hell is the s.o.b. going to win something?' "