Bruce McLaren remembered 50 years on from the formation of his motorsport leviathan

Fifty years after starting his F1 team, Bruce McLaren’s legacy of winning lives on, writes Philip Charles.

Bruce McLaren pictured driving the McLaren BRM M4B during the Daily Mail Race of Champions at the Brands Hatch circuit in England in March 1967. Three years later, he was killed in a 270kph accident at the Goodwood Circuit. Getty Images
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St Mary’s is a fast left, giving you a moment to exhale before swinging the wheel right for the sharp Lavant Corner, then opening up wide, winding out the steering wheel for the Goodwood Circuit’s longest straight. Any race car will quickly get up to 250kph on this part of the short track, before braking for the final, second-fastest turn, the double-apex Woodcote.

The orange M8D Can-Am car was bursting the warm air of that summer noon, its monstrous silicon-aluminium 7.6L V8 bombarding the calm of the Sussex countryside. It had Goodwood all to itself on this test day of June 2, 1970. Bruce McLaren pulled into the pits to cull the oversteer of his team’s car and adjust the enormous rear wing sprouting from the smooth, organic bodywork. He was ready to go again at 12.19pm, careened through St Mary’s and Lavant one last time, the 670hp Chevrolet big-block open wide for the slight kink in the middle of the straight. The rear wing let go, the composite bodywork peeled off the monocoque chassis and the M8D veered off the track at 270kph.

Papaya Orange bits littered the trackside, two, 16-inch wide, black rubber strips pointed straight towards a marshal’s embankment, debris laid everywhere. The 32-year-old Bruce McLaren was thrown out of the destroyed car and died instantly. It was all over, but it had only just begun.

This year, McLaren Racing celebrated 50 years since its founding, having competed in 722 grands prix, amassing eight constructors’ championships and 12 drivers’ titles on the way, with 155 pole positions, 151 fastest laps, and 182 race victories – the highest winning ratio of any team ever. Higher even than Scuderia Ferrari, despite the Italian outfit’s 16-year head start.

“To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone,” Bruce once wrote. How right could one man be?

Bruce McLaren came from New Zealand – Chris Amon, Denny Hulme, Howden Ganley, Mike Thackwell, the rally driver Possum Bourne, the Millen family, Jim Richards (arguably the greatest tin-top racer of all time) all also originated from there, a land of just four million people. They must have some high-octane water in the taps there. The roads throughout New Zealand are mostly gravel, the weather unpredictable and, in the countryside, laws lax, allowing young boys to perch themselves into a car and gain valuable early experience slipping and sliding past the farms.

All those mentioned are great drivers without a doubt, but Bruce McLaren and the 1967 Formula One world champion Denny Hulme stand out. Their paths seemed destined to run in parallel – born just a year apart in 1937 and 1936 respectively, both their racing careers began in their home country and both men ended up pursuing glory in Europe thanks to the Australian Jack Brabham. McLaren, however, didn’t get a head start in racing, bitten by the bug only when he was about 16 after his first competitive event on a beach west of his hometown, Auckland.

“I was the one who brought Bruce McLaren over, really, because I had a driver-to-Europe scheme in New Zealand and he won that,” said the three-time Formula One champion Brabham. “Of course, that only gave him airfare to England and that’s not a lot of good – getting over here is only half the fight.”

But McLaren was always a fighter. In his childhood, he battled persistent health problems, suffering loss of bone mass in his leg, meaning that, for three years, little Bruce had to be in plaster. Through sheer will, the condition eventually settled and he was left with one leg 1.5 inches shorter than the other; but that wouldn’t stop the boy rising to heady heights.

Under the wing of “Black Jack”, an astonishing Formula 2 victory in 1958 at the Nürburgring followed by a win in Casablanca propelled Bruce into John Cooper’s good books – his illustrious new boss even suggested that the youngster should assemble his own car.

Finishing second in the Autosport F2 championship first time out must have helped endear McLaren to the team. At the race of races, the Monaco Grand Prix, Bruce drove a 1.5L, rear-engined Cooper, while his competition benefited from more powerful 2.5L motors, yet with finesse and talent, the chequered flag waved his F2 car home in second place. Europe, and the world, would remember the young Kiwi’s name.

Immediately, Cooper promoted him to the sport’s top-tier class of racing and, near the end of the 1959 Formula 1 season, the 22-year-old McLaren’s consistent results at the front of the pack, dicing with his teammates Stirling Moss and Brabham, cemented his status as a world-class driver. He was especially noted for his deftness behind the wheel of the rear-engined Coopers, which were particularly tail-happy.

The sport’s layout revolution has a disputed origin, depending on whether you believe Cooper or Bruce McLaren. The Kiwi at the time claimed: “Hanging the engine off the back of the monocoque was pretty much my idea.” Brabham won that year’s title by pushing his stricken car across the line in the inaugural US Grand Prix and gifting a maiden F1 victory to his protégé.

Regardless, the others caught on to “hanging the engine off the back of the monocoque”, yet there were no handouts in the first race of the 1960 season. Bruce won the Argentinian round in a car very similar to the previous year’s chassis. With this new rear-engined competition to contend with, however, it was clear that the Cooper team would need a new design. It was time for the multi-talented McLaren to call on his years of education gained hanging around his parents’ workshop back home.

“Lotus had turned up in Argentina with this rear-engined car, the first rear-engined Lotus, and it was very quick,” remembered Cooper. “On the way home in the airplane, we said if we’re going to win the world championship again, we’d better have a completely new motor car, with a new gearbox. And Jack and Bruce started designing it on the way home in the plane.”

Brabham and McLaren now spent as much time in the drawing office as behind the wheel. Cooper’s underpowered and unreliable Coventry-Climax engines would necessitate all their car engineering genius and Black Jack would finish the year lifting his second championship trophy. In 1961, however, Brabham abruptly left the Cooper team, so Bruce started the 1962 season as the number one driver.

At the Zandvoort opener in the Netherlands, McLaren set the fastest lap and, at Monaco, the Kiwi won his second career grand prix, not including two additional victories in non-championship rounds at Goodwood and Reims. But his engineering influence was starting to be less felt in the Cooper team, as the team’s owners wanted more authority in the design. Behind his boyish smile, Bruce was starting to mature.

The following year, Bruce founded McLaren Racing Limited and initially concentrated on sports-car racing and the ultra-competitive world of Can-Am in North America. These cars were essentially F1 bolides with enclosed wheels and little rules to hold designers back. No wonder, then, that with 600-plus-horsepower, they lapped contemporary circuits two or more seconds quicker than F1 cars.

Bruce was sceptical at first: “There’s never been anything like this. There’s no way we can use all this horsepower.” But on the constant edge of adhesion, Can-Am cars suited Bruce’s intimate feel for a racing machine, and his ingenuity in both design and driving meant that McLaren cars won five out of six races in their second year of Can-Am competition. In 1967, McLarens were victorious four times and, in 1969, the orange monsters demolished the field with 11 out of 11 wins. In between, Bruce even found time to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Ford GT40, in the race’s closest-ever finish, mere inches ahead of the sister car of the Englishman Ken Miles.

Scoring Cosworth’s legendary DFV engine for 1968 – a V8 that would go on to power McLaren grand prix cars until 1983, before turbochargers took over – finally demonstrated the New Zealander’s engineering talents, as the new M7A car (co-designed by Robin Herd, of Concorde fame) took Bruce to victories at Brands Hatch and Spa-Francorchamps. Further wins bagged the McLaren team its first real achievement, with second place in the constructors’ table behind Lotus.

While the “Bruce and Denny show” rumbled on to great success in Can-Am, 1969 saw the McLaren team finish third on the F1 table, with Hulme taking the last round in Mexico.

“I thought the McLaren Can-Am cars were the best I’ve ever driven and I still do,” recalls Hulme. “They were certainly fun. You could go out and knock a second off and then go out again and knock two or three seconds off.”

But it wasn’t all fun. Bruce once said: “You’re doing 170mph and the unexpected happens, you lose your brakes, a wheel comes off, the steering goes dead. This has happened to me many times.”

When it happened one last time for Bruce, as the previous year’s Can-Am title defendant, crashing at Goodwood on that fateful June afternoon just days before the 1970 opener at Mosport in Canada began, his words still echoed through the factory halls: “To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy.”

His team picked itself up and won nine out of 10 races that season. Four years later, the grand prix squad began its glorious ascent and the trophy cabinets started overfilling. The Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi gave McLaren its first drivers’ championship title in 1974 and, from the 1980s to the early 1990s, the team dominated with seven drivers’ crowns and six constructors’ titles, pioneering mainstay technologies like carbonfibre construction. Its 1988 MP4/4 chassis epitomised McLaren excellence by winning all but one grands prix of the season and is still regarded by many as the greatest F1 car of all-time.

The humble British team with New Zealand roots is today a group of successful companies, supplying the entire F1 grid with electronic control units and revolutionising the world of production supercars with McLaren’s MP4-12C and P1 hybrid hypercar, the latter of which has just set a lap time at the Nürburgring that would have put the machine on pole position in a 1970s grand prix.

As McLaren said: “I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.” Half a century later and the achievements still keep coming.

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