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Bruce McLaren's mastery of the Sussex track



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Bruce McLaren


Cooper-Climax T73 (F1-1-64)




Early April 1964 - Picture: GP Library


Ah, Goodwood and McLaren, a match made in heaven - and, sadly, one that ultimately ended up there… From his days with the Surbiton marque, testing new Cooper cars, to the years of creating, racing and testing his own racing machines, Bruce McLaren was one of the renowned Goodwood masters. If anyone needed a yardstick for the performance of their car - or driver - they just needed to ask Bruce for a couple of laps around the Sussex track. The bond between McLaren and Goodwood was so strong that years after his fatal accident at the track the team bearing his name considered moving their entire lot to Sussex - in which case Goodwood would have been to McLaren what Fiorano is to Ferrari.

Think today of an airfield track and your thoughts will be cast to dreary places like Zeltweg, Wunstorf or, at best, Silverstone. So it's hard to imagine that one of the world's most challenging high-speed tracks, with probably Britain's best sequence of high-speed, off-camber, multi-apex corners, was originally designed by an anonymous draughtsman in the service of the Air Ministry - but it was! Had he been commissioned to design a motor circuit? No. Only in 1948 the exact same stretch of tarmac that during World War II served as the perimeter track encircling the RAF air base of Westhampnett, was established as the Goodwood Motor Circuit. Sometimes art is created purely as a coincidence.

The site where the RAF base would be erected had previously been Westhampnett Farm and formed part of the Goodwood Estate, that by that time had considerably diminished to several thousands of acres in Sussex. Its owner, Frederick Lennox, the Duke of Richmond (and some nine other titles), known to his friends as Freddie Richmond, had reluctantly allowed the Air Ministry to use the Westhampnett fields to create a relief base for nearby RAF Tangmere, that had been built on land confiscated by force from the Goodwood Estate. However, Freddie carefully arranged that Westhampnett would remain property of Goodwood Estate.

Freddie Richmond would become on one Britain's most influential people in motor sports. From the moment his parents bought their first car, a 1912 T-Ford Laundelette, Freddie Lennox, Duke of Richmond, was spellbound by cars, and during his study of Agriculture at Oxford spent most of his time at the university motor club. He won several sprints on his motor cycle, and organized drag races. Of course he was a frequent visitor of Brooklands. His study unfinished, he joined Bentley, first as a mechanic, when he found his future bride Betty Hudson, then as a salesman. By 1929, having become Lord March, and writing auto columns in The Light Car, Freddie started his career as an amateur racer, driving Austins before switching to MG Midgets in 1931. He was a talented driver that took several great wins, partnering with such as Sammy Davis and Chris Staniland, but soon turned to managing his team of MGs. He also was serious in his photography of Bentley's Le Mans assault, before he became the coachbuilder that created the March body: the flowing low-line classic British sportcar body with cut-away doors that would suit a dozen of makes. And then, before joining the RAF, he designed a light aircraft that would carry three people, a business that would falter once the war had started. A versatile and ingenious man, and as such, the man needed to give back some purpose to the former Westhampnett airfield once the war was over.

Of course becoming the President of the immediate post-war amalgamation of the Junior Car Club and the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club - known from 1949 as the British Automobile Racing Club - did help. Then Freddie met Aussie racer and RAF pilot Tony Gaze. Tony had had his first taste of the Westhampnett perimeter track during the war, driving his MG anti-clockwise around the track just after it was finished. As Tony said, "Someone said, 'Freddie's the President of the JCC and they're looking everywhere for a replacement for Brooklands'. I said, 'Don't be bloody silly, he owns one'. And I went over and said, 'You've got an airfield. When are we going to have a sports car race at Westhampnett?' 'Bless my soul', he said, 'What will the neighbours say?'" A question, incidentally, that Freddie's grandson, the current Lord March, also had to deal with after unfolding his plans to resurrect Goodwood Motor Circuit for historic racing.

Freddie's first impression of the track was hardly memorable but still he pressed on with the work, and 18 months later preparations to convert the airfield started. And with Westhampnett having been a grass airfield, the tarmac perimeter would be the only possible layout, as opposed to Silverstone, that used several combinations of infield runway and perimeter track for its first three editions of the British Grand Prix. Goodwood would not be like all the other miserable and bleak aerodrome circuits - as its perimeter formed the perfect racing circuit.

The opening event, a three-lap sprint race for 3-litre closed-top sportscars, would be typical of the many Trophy races fought over at the Goodwood circuit: short bursts of speed over a limited number of laps. An 18-year-old Stirling Moss took part in his first-ever car race at that first Goodwood meeting, and won in the 500cc prepared by his father, while Reg Parnell in his Maserati 4CLT/48 won the track's first F1 race ahead of Bob Gerard's pre-war ERA.

For 18 years Goodwood would be a regular fixture on the Grand Prix, sportscar and touring car calendars, its yearly Easter Monday meetings the top of the Goodwood bill. Then, with the arrival of 3-litre F1, things suddenly changed quickly. In a reverse of 1961, when the F2 regulations became F1, resulting in the top category coming back to many "minor" events in the world and in Britain, the many organizers reverted to F2 when the new F1 created the spiralling of costs and thus starting money. Moreover, it was rightfully claimed that 3-litre F1, but especially the "big banger" Can-Am and Group 7 sportscars, would just be too fast for the smaller tracks.

And so the 1965 Easter Monday race became the final F1 event at Goodwood, with a limited programme announced for 1966, combined with a 3-litre limit for sportscars. With Group 7 not having an upper limit on engine capacity, it was certain these cars would stay away. The 1966 Easter meeting had its main race featuring F2, and attracted all of the stars, including Clark, Brabham, Hulme, Stewart, Hill, Siffert and Rindt, but shortly after the July Members Meeting the track was closed. Freddie Richmond had got tired of running the show, and time had seemed to have overtaken him, with BARC having found a remarkably similar replacement track at Thruxton. Living a retreated life after his retirement Freddie died in 1989, having suffered from bone cancer for nine years.

It was not all over for the Goodwood track after it officially closed its doors. It remained a great place for testing the behaviour of a new and unproved racing car, as F2 and F3 teams increasingly infrequently did up until 1985 when noise restrictions were even further tightened. Silencers were mandatory on F1 cars from 1974 on but Cosworth DFV engines took to silencers quite easily, so that McLaren, Hesketh, March, Surtees, Brabham, Tyrrell, Ralt and Toleman regularly ventured to Sussex. In 1980, Nelson Piquet briefly shook down a Brabham-Cosworth BT49 at Goodwood and set a time of 1.03.6, which compares to Clark's official record of 1.20.4. But silencing the turbo engines that followed would turn out to be costly and ineffective - and by then Paul Ricard was discovered as the sunny alternative to a chilly British test track. Still, the unbelievably unofficial best-ever F1 time around Goodwood was set in 1989, when Stefan Johansson in his unraced Onyx ORE-1 put in one highly illegal flying lap of 1.02.5, amidst a car club sprint event, before the team hastily packed up the car in the transporter to ship it to Brazil…

This was not the overall unofficial record, as in 1971 Can-Am king Denny Hulme lapped a "big banger" McLaren M8D in 61 seconds. This was in the days that "The Bear" had taken the weight of the team on his shoulders after the tragic events of 1970, the year when suddenly within the space of a couple of months the Bruce and Denny Show was a thing of the past. The prelude was Denny burning his hands in a nasty practice crash at Indy, to the extent that people wondered whether he might ever race again. And then, on a sunny July afternoon, Bruce, now on his own, set off to Goodwood to do some more testing when a piece of bodywork flew from the car, pitching it out of control and careering into a disused marshals' post. McLaren was killed instantly.

The McLaren team had been a regular at Goodwood all the way back to Bruce testing the prototype of his first creation, the McLaren-Oldsmobile M1A, in the winter of 1964-'65, not long after having left Cooper. The Surbiton team was also used to testing at the track and Bruce was usually on hand to set a time when someone wanted to have an impression of a car's real performance. Would you consider the Gilby a failure? Maybe in the hands of Keith Greene it was but when McLaren was invited to race it around Goodwood, he set a time of 1.28.9, which was a mere tenth above the then F1 record.

In 1963, as the number one Cooper driver, he was again asked to set a benchmark time, this time in Ken Tyrrell's F3 Cooper. But this was one occasion when Bruce's time would not stick. Shortly after, the young Scotsman that Tyrrell had invited over from Dumbarton went out - and came back half a second quicker than Bruce. McLaren immediately set the Scot straight but the young man - in his first time driving a single-seater - retaliated with an even faster time. By that time, John Cooper had completed his walk back from Madgwick corner to tell Tyrrell to put his stopwatch away. John Young Stewart was signed on the spot.

One wonders, with the re-emergence of Goodwood as a historic track, the Sussex police is back to its habit of staging speed traps on race and test days. Both Bruce McLaren and John Surtees were once caught speeding. But once sent on their way again, the duo waited for the police car to go. When asked by the constables why they were still hanging about they replied: "We're waiting for you to catch Salvadori!"