The southern star
- Rémi Paolozzi
- November 6, 2003
- 1969 Tasman Championship - Something that Chris Amon did win, by Tom Prankerd
- Chris Amon - The unluckiest hero, by Tom Prankerd
- Williams - From rags to riches, by Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas
Wigram airfield, Christchurch in New Zealand
22nd Lady Wigram Trophy (Tasman series), 20th January 1973
If asked to quote some New Zealand drivers, you would answer McLaren, Hulme or Amon. Only a few of you would mention the name of Graham McRae, as this driver only raced in one F1 Grand Prix. Nevertheless his career has to be told. Indeed, few drivers have won various championships and races on different continents. Moreover, even less drivers have won these by driving their self-built cars. Which makes Graham McRae part of an elite club of victorious driver/constructors…
McRae is born on May 5th, 1940 in Wellington. In 1957 he enters university and five years later he has an engineering degree. During his education, at the age of twenty, he starts building his own car, the McRae 220S, a sports car which looks a bit like a Ferrari Testa Rossa or Jaguar D-type. At the same time he begins racing and takes part in hillclimbs.
In early 1968, he sits on the starting grid of an international event for the very first time: the Levin race which is a round of the Tasman Cup. This championship, which takes place in Australia and New Zealand, has been created in 1964. It allows local drivers to race against F1 stars at the wheel of single-seaters with engines with a 2.5-litre maximum capacity. These cars are true Formula One cars, despite the fact that in the sixties F1 engines only have 1.5-litre engines. However, McRae drives a Brabham BT6 with a 1500cc engine, a 5-year-old uncompetitive car. He takes part in three races and only manages 14th in the Lady Wigram Trophy in New Zealand.
Nevertheless, McRae cannot forget his engineering appetite. Thus, in 1969, he is back in the Tasman Cup with his own car: the McRae S2, with a spaceframe body and a 1.5-litre twin-cam Ford engine. He only takes part in the four New Zealand races of the Cup. The results are satisfying as his best performance is 6th at Levin. Chris Amon (Ferrari 246T) wins the race ahead of Piers Courage (Brabham-Cosworth BT24). McRae is three laps behind them, but he finishes in the same lap as Leo Geoghegan (4th with a Lotus-Repco 39) and Graeme Lawrence (5th with a McLaren-Cosworth M4A). The first four pilots drive 2.5-litre engines whereas Lawrence drives a 1.6-litre Cosworth.
Yet the most important fact of the 1969 season is McRae’s victory in the New Zealand National Formula Championship awarded in races for 1500cc single-seaters. He wins ahead of David Oxton (Brabham BT16) and Ken Smith (Lotus 41). Thanks to this title he is awarded the Driver to Europe scholarship to take part in six F2 races in Europe. There, he drives a Brabham-FVA BT23C for Frank Williams’ team alongside Piers Courage, Jacky Ickx, Malcolm Guthrie and Alistair Walker. His best result is 4th in Zolder, behind his team mates.
In 1970, the 2500cc Tasman Formula disappears and is replaced by the 5000cc F5000. McRae is not yet aware that he is about to become the “King of Formula 5000”... First he wins the New Zealand Gold Star championship with a Begg-Chevrolet FM2 – another Kiwi constructor – and a McLaren-Chrevolet M10B. Then he wins two Tasman cup races with the McLaren. It is worth saying that the switch from the Tasman formula to F5000 is detrimental to the Cup as it does not attract F1 stars. However, because of a lack of reliability, he cannot win this championship.
McRae also takes part in the NZ National Formula Championship to try and win this title for the second year running, driving his McRae S2 and a Brabham BT18 too. But he does win and is second behind Ken Smith (Lotus 41). Then he goes to Europe to take part in the F5000 European championship, still with his McLaren M10B. He mounts the podium four times before winning the last round at Brands Hatch, ahead of Howden Ganley (McLaren M10B), Mike Hailwood (Lola T192) and Trevor Taylor (Lola T190).
Thanks to three victories 1971 is the year of his first Tasman Cup title with his usual McLaren M10B. He even wins the Levin round where he made his debut, whereas Dexter Dunlop, another Kiwi driver, ranks 14th at the wheel of the McRae S2. Back on the old continent, McRae wins three rounds: Mallory Park, Thruxton and Snetterton. Unfortunately, in September, he destroys his car during the Hockenheim race. McRae is not injured but he has to find a new car for 1972…
In fact Graham McRae has already planned to manage the development of a brand new car, the Leda LT27, with the help of Malcolm Bridgeland, his associate, and well-known designer Len Terry. The team is located in Poole (Dorset, England). Basically, the Ledas have been existing since 1969, when John Surtees asked Len Terry to design a F5000 for him. The Surtees TS5 is born and is competitive from the start. Then Terry decides to build his own F5000 cars under the Leda name. The Leda T20 is manufactured in 1970 and the T22 in 1971.
Len Terry, a British engineer, has a fine pedigree in car development as he collaborated with Brian Hart, Gilby, Lotus, Eagle, BRM (he designed the P126) and BMW. The Leda T27 is quite simple and is inspired by the McLaren F5000. Terry even takes up the McLaren M10B’s suspension. The car itself is an aluminium monocoque with inboard brakes at the rear and a usual Chevy engine.
The Leda starts off very well as McRae wins the second and third rounds of the Tasman Cup. Two more victories allow him to win the championship for the second time. Hailwood (Surtees) is second in the championship, followed by Frank Gardner (Lola). Then McRae decides to take part in the F5000 European championship, with six victories at Brands Hatch (twice), Nivelles, Silverstone (twice) and Oulton Park as s result, and the F5000 US championship - taking three victories at Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen and Elkhart Lake. He wins the latter championship ahead of Sam Posey (Surtees) and Brett Lunger (Lola).
In the meantime the car's name has changed to McRae GM1. Indeed, from July, 1st 1972, John Heynes, McRae’s insurance broker, buys out Malcolm Bridgeland’s business and renames it McRae Cars Ltd. McRae is still the driver but he is also officially hired as the team's technical consultant. In April the Kiwi also races the International Trophy in Silverstone. On the grid, F1 and F5000 are mixed. He challenges some F1 drivers and dominates the F5000 ones. He comes home 8th (first of the F5000s) with everybody noticing the performance of the Kiwi. A look at 1972 gives us an exceptional score: Graham McRae wins two championships, finishes third in the European one, behind Gijs Van Lennep (Surtees) and Brian Redman (McLaren), and he wins 12 races out of 28. He definitely deserves to be nicknamed “King of F5000”.
He is also nicknamed “Cassius” as he is as frank and as self-confident as Cassius Clay. This may be why his relationship with some drivers is not always easy. Jody Scheckter, for example, has never been McRae’s friend: “I have never spoken to Scheckter in my life and I feel that's the best way if you're not going to get along with a guy," McRae says. But then young Jody wasn't quite an easy guy at the beginning of his career…
While 1972 forms, in a sense, the summit of McRae’s career, then 1973 is a succession of ups and downs. He goes on driving his McRae GM1 and wins the Tasman Cup for the third consecutive time. British driver Alan Rollinson ranks 5th in the Cup standings at the wheel of another GM1, thanks to a victory in the Teretonga race. Then McRae goes to Europe and wins in Mallory Park at the very beginning of the championship. Then… nothing. His best result in the following races is an 8th place in July at Elkhart Lake in the US championship and a 6th place at Zandvoort in September in a round of the European championship. The GM1, which contributed to Graham’s glory, has become too aged to be competitive.
Even if McRae is preparing the design of a new car, the GM1 still has a long career to go. In fact, about fifteen GM1s have been built. Some have been used with success, thanks to Graham, Alan Rollinson or Roy Lane, who wins the British hillclimb championship in 1975 and 1976 at the wheel of chassis 012. Others have less impressive palmares: New Zealander Dexter Dunlop drives one of the cars in the ’74 Cup but never succeeds in finishing a race.
But 1973 is not just year of disappointment as, for the first and only time in his life, McRae takes part in the Indy 500 with an STP Eagle-Offy. Indeed, McRae is now sponsored by STP in F5000. He is 13th on the grid while his team mates are 4th (Swede Savage) and 11th (Gordon Johncock). Though he retires mid-race because of a broken header, the Kiwi is 16th in the final standings. Thanks to this result he is Rookie of the Year while Johncock wins the race! Sadly, Swede Savage dies because of a crash on the lap 57 while fighting for the lead.
McRae is also on grid of the British F1 Grand Prix at the wheel of Frank Williams’ Iso-Marlboro-Cosworth IR01. He qualifies 28th, between Graham Hill (Shadow) and Chris Amon (Tecno). McRae is 2”20 slower than Howden Ganley, his team mate, who is 18th. The race is even worse as McRae retires on the very first lap because of injection trouble, while Ganley finishes 9th. This race is the only F1 experience in McRae’s career. He is 33 and Formula 1 doesn't hold a real ambition for the Kiwi: “I like big powerful cars and I`ve got no interest at all in little cars. Really, Formula 1 is the least powerful class I'd be interested in."
Late 1973 Graham McRae presents his new car: the F5000 McRae-Chevrolet GM2. One month later, he drives it to a win in the Australian GP at Sandown Park. John Heynes then decides to sell McRae Cars Ltd to Penske as the US team needs to buy some premises to build the Penske F1 car in England. John McCormack, an Australian driver, buys the design of the McRae GM2 and renames it Talon MR1.
Yet McRae doesn't give up, as he hopes to win a fourth Tasman title. However, he realizes that the GM2 is not such a good car, and that victory in the 1973 Australian GP was something of a fluke. The fact that McRae does not win any Tasman race in 1974 says a lot about the car. His best results are two second places and he is only 7th in the final standings. The car is so bad that he prefers to drive a Lola T332 in some US championship rounds. He is 4th at Watkins Glen with the Lola, and 5th at Riverside with the GM2. Graham McRae has stopped being the “King of F5000”.
The following years are as bad as 1974. The victory in the Lady Wigram Trophy in 1975 can be considered as exceptional as the Kiwi is unable to repeat that form in the other races. The same year he has to drive a Matich A50 in the Surfers Paradise round of the Australian Gold Star Championship, as he destroys his own GM2 during practice. He finishes 4th at the wheel of Frank Matich's car, an Australian driver/constructor.
From 1977 to 1981 he takes part in various races of the new CanAm championship. The cars in the revamped championship are in fact F5000s rebuilt as prototypes. And so McRae fits a transparent cockpit to the new GM3 allowing spectators to see the driver at work. But the CanAm results are not good at all: a mere 6th at Riverside in 1977 and 7th on the same circuit in 1981 with a new GM9…
The only satisfaction in the eve of his career is perhaps the 1978 season as he proves that he has some unfinished business: he wins the F5000 Gold Star Australian championship with the GM3 transformed back into a single-seater… Of course this championship doesn't hold much international value but in the Australasian countries it is worth quite a lot. Often local champions are more famous than the stars of the old and new worlds. Moreover, he wins the Australian GP for the fourth time (1972, 1973, 1976, 1978), equalling Lex Davison’s record (1954, 1957, 1958, 1961). Indeed, this race has been created in 1928 and was admitted to the F1 World Championship only in 1985… Thus, this is a record Michael Scumacher has not won yet as he “only” won three times in Australia (2000, 2001, 2002)!
Graham McRae goes on racing until the end of the eighties but without success. He tries a bit of CART in 1984 and 1987 but stays at the back of the grids. He also drives at Bathurst in 1986, during the well-known 1000km race, certainly the most famous race in the Southern hemisphere. He is 11th at the wheel of a Volvo, with Neville Crichton – one of the 200 richest men in the world who is also a famous sailor and a gentleman driver - and John Bowe, who is now the only driver to have won the Australian Drivers Championship, Australian Sports Car Championship and the Australian Touring Car Championship.
Nowadays the Kiwi driver/constructor has stopped driving but he is still a constructor. He makes beautiful Porsche 550 replicas under the name of McRae Spyder. Thus, for €8,500, you can buy a sportscar built by a driver who has written quite some pages of motorsport history. But champions are also ordinary men. Thus, in September 2003, New Zealand newspapers have revealed, through an affair between the driver and a rock band (!), that Graham McRae had some health trouble. Let's hope that he is going to recover quickly.
- 1940: born in Wellington, New Zealand
- 1969: NZ National Formula Champion
- 1970: NZ Gold Star Champion (F5000)
- 1971: Wins Tasman Series (F5000)
- 1972: Wins Tasman Series (F5000), US F5000 Champion
- 1973: Wins Tasman Series (F5000), Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, 1 F1 Grand Prix
- 1978: Australia Gold Star Champion (F5000)