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As big as his name



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Bruce McLaren


Cooper-Climax T60


Monte Carlo


XX Monaco GP (June 3, 1962)


It’s almost unfair. If you step up to the average motorsport aficionado these days and ask him about the first thing that comes up in his mind on the sound of the word McLaren, the odds-on answer will be ‘one of the top teams in F1 today’. Equally, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who jumps up and shouts ‘Why, of course! Bruce McLaren!’.

On the other hand, it’s the greatest tribute possible to McLaren the man that his name is now connected to the second most successful team in Formula 1 and one that did some winning in CanAm and Indycars too. The F1 figures connected to the single name of McLaren – which in fact spans three entities covering the leadership periods of Bruce McLaren, Teddy Mayer and Ron Dennis – are astounding. At the end of 2008 the counter stopped at 12 drivers’ titles, 8 constructors’ titles, 162 Grand Prix wins, 141 pole positions and 136 fastest laps. Divided through the number of races in which those figures were achieved McLaren’s statistics are even more impressive than Ferrari’s. It’s hard to imagine a more proper testimony to the organisation that Bruce McLaren left behind.

Least likely to succeed

Bruce Leslie McLaren was among the best of the influx of antipodean talent that rose to the top very quickly during the fifties and sixties. After Jack Brabham set the trend by showing he could be as fast as any of the best from Europe even with only years of local experience in what the old continent considered very minor championships, some attention finally diverted to other Aussies and Kiwis showing flashes of speed in their home events. The Tasman Series’ winter trail eventually caused the tide to shift from Australia and New Zealand being considered true motorsport backwaters to becoming acknowledged as suppliers of world-class driving talent. It set up the best of the locals against the crème de la crème from Grand Prix racing and allowed team owners to make direct comparisons without Australia’s and New Zealand’s top drivers having to travel half the world. The world was coming to them.

It’s exactly what happened to young Bruce McLaren. He was studying for his engineering degree at Auckland University in 1956 when he grabbed the chance to race his father’s Healey 100 in the New Zealand Grand Prix sportscar support race. Among his opponents at Ardmore was a certain Stirling Moss and Bruce did so well against him that he began entertaining thoughts of a career as a racing driver.

Before that, he wasn’t very likely to consummately outdo his father’s racing skills. At the age of 9, he was hit by Perthe’s disease, an ailment that affected his hip and caused the left joint to give up under his weight. Having lived three years in a children’s home for the crippled, immobilised, his leg in traction in a plaster cast, he returned to society with a pronounced limp, his left leg an inch and a half shorter than the right leg. His social environment had been perfect for the budding racing driver, though. Father Leslie owned a garage business in an Auckland suburb called Remuera, and pre-war had been a keen motorcycle racer, along with his three brothers. After the war, Leslie made the switch to cars and bought an Austin Ulster to compete in hillclimbs. However, McLaren Sr was unable to make the car work for himself, so he handed it to his son, initially as a subject upon which the youngster would be able to develop his engineering skills, as young Bruce was all lined up to take over the garage business at a later age.

But Bruce did rather more with the wayward Ulster than he was intended to do. At 15 years of age, he took his first hillclimb class win at Muriwai, a performance which made Leslie sit up. One of Bruce’s early rivals was Phil Kerr, who would later become central to McLaren’s own operation, and Bruce and Phil became close friends, the two working together on their Austins in the McLaren workshop at Remuera. Impressed by his son’s prowess, McLaren Sr would from then on share drives with his son in the Ulster. That is, until Leslie bought the 100 in 1954 and allowed Bruce to race it. Cue the NZ GP of 1956, the support race and Bruce’s remarkable display of skills. The smart but limp son set to take over dad’s business would win his first Grand Prix just three years later.

From Ardmore to Sebring

It was leaps and bounds from the Healey to the Cooper Grand Prix car. First came the decision to buy Jack Brabham’s old centre-seat Cooper ‘Bobtail’ sportscar, an example of the legendary car that set off the rear-engined revolution in Grand Prix racing. What proved to be essential to furthering his career was the correspondence he set up with Brabham in England to have ‘Black Jack’ help him sort out the car from the other side of the world. In their writings, the two soon got on famously, leading to Brabham suggesting he bring two Cooper F2s to New Zealand for the 1958 winter season. One would be for Jack himself, of course, but would Bruce be interested in racing the other one? The result was the best possible prize the young Kiwi could imagine – the ‘Driver to Europe’ scholarship from the New Zealand International Grand Prix Association. And did they ever pick the right one…

Incidentally, the scenario was to repeat itself with Denny Hulme, who also became the new occupant of an ex-Brabham Cooper and used it to such good effect at home that he would merit the same scholarship a few years later. Initially teaming up with Brabham in Europe and then with fellow Kiwi McLaren Hulme became a multiple Grand Prix winner and World Champion. Again, they chose the right guy, and again, Jack Brabham was instrumental in it.

A fairly successful first season in F2 followed, highlighted by the win in the F2 section of the German Grand Prix, finishing a remarkable 5th overall. At 21 years of age, Bruce was already on the brink of being a Grand Prix driver, and the fact that he fretted away at preparing his own car in the Surbiton shops must have been an endearing factor as well in Charles and John Cooper’s decision to put Bruce in the second Grand Prix seat next to his mentor for 1959.

The two years that followed would be dreams come true for the great Aussie and his Kiwi protégé, as they truly sent home the message that light and nimble, rear-engined cars were the future of Grand Prix racing. Brabham became a double World Champion, McLaren took his first win in the season-closing 1959 US GP, immediately followed by another win in the 1960 season-opening Argentine GP, to finish second to Brabham in the 1960 championship. The win at Sebring made him the youngest World Championship Grand Prix winner ever at 22 years and 3 months of age. He was to remain so until Fernando Alonso snatched the record away from him at the 2003 Hungarian GP. Still, being a 22-year-old GP winner in 1959 was quite something else compared to being victorious at that age after a long career in karts and feeder single-seaters. The fact that the record remained solid for 44 years says enough.

The slow drift towards independence

The Grand Prix landscape changed night and day in 1961, however, when the British teams were caught on the hop by the change to 1.5-litre regulations instead of the Intercontinental Formula they had put their bets on. It took until 1962 before Bruce returned to the winners’ circle, first in the minor early-spring Lavant Cup at Goodwood, then at Monte Carlo. One could say the Monaco victory was a gifted win, helped by the race’s usual attrition rate, but that’s not taking into account the machinery he had at his disposal. Indeed, Bruce got away best from his front-row starting position before succumbing to the pressure of the later World Champion, Graham Hill, on lap 7. After that, though, he managed to keep the likes of Clark, Brabham and Phil Hill at bay before Hill’s BRM cried enough after already having given up half of its staggering 48-second lead. Bruce still had to work hard for the win by fencing off a late attack by Phil Hill, who had moved up to second after the demise of Clark and Brabham. A Cooper winning ahead of a Ferrari – it would remain the season’s only occurrence of that unfavoured order, even though McLaren managed to beat Hill’s BRM in the non-points GP at Reims.

In fact, while Bruce had been promoted to team leader after Jack had decided to quit Cooper, the Surbiton team would never really return to the form it had shown during the heydays of ’59-‘60. It had been overtaken by better-funded constructors and now even by perennial failers BRM. Bruce soldiered on for another two seasons, his best results second places at Spa in 1963/‘64 and at Monza in ’64. In 1963, his former mentor was starting to show that it was possible to become one’s own constructor, taking several minor GP wins, before new team mate Dan Gurney took home the first two Grande Epreuve spoils for the new Brabham marque in 1964. McLaren did still win at home in the Tasman races, and also tried his hand at American sportscar racing, but significantly, he was denied a pair of new Coopers for the 1964 Tasman Series, to be run for himself and his intended team mate Timmy Mayer.

Fed up with Charles Cooper’s cautious approach he founded Bruce McLaren Motor Racing and arranged for Timmy’s brother Teddy to manage the team. Together they built their Cooper-based specials and Bruce cleaned up the Tasman Series as he had done the year before. Sadly, talented young Timmy crashed fatally at Longford. Teddy could have walked away there and then but stayed on, a decision that would prove to be fundamental to the team’s survival – not just in 1964, but in 1970 as well. Still seemingly as a sideshow to Bruce’s Grand Prix career, the team raced the ex-Roger Penske Zerex Special all through 1964, replacing its 2.7-litre Climax engine with a 3.5-litre Olds V8 to win immediately at Mosport Park. It was a prelude to McLaren becoming a big name in big-banger sportscar racing in the US.

Growing pains in F1, domination in sportscars

As 1965 grew into a nightmare season for McLaren and Cooper, they drifted further apart. The results getting worse and worse, Bruce decided to follow Jack Brabham’s example – as would Brabham’s team mate Gurney – and go it alone for the new 3-litre formula. The only joy he’d had in 1965 was with his own team anyway, as they became hugely successful in the States with their Elva-manufactured M1. The days of the Bruce & Denny Show weren’t far ahead but in the meantime Bruce was struggling to become competitive in 3-litre F1. He wasn’t the only one. Everyone was looking for an engine to match Ferrari’s but in 1966 and most of 1967 only Brabham’s Repco engines could compete – and on reliability alone. All other options were very much under par – from the ageing Maserati V12 to the cumbersome BRM H16, from the bored-out but still not fully 3-litre BRM V8 and Climax inline-fours and V8 to the range of, well, interesting choices made by the McLaren team, if we discount Bonnier’s Cooper-ATS, which was 1.5-litre anyway.

It must be said that Bruce did at least try to work a real 3-litre engine into the back of his M2B F1 car, first wrestling with a short-stroke Ford Indy V8 downsized from 4.2 litres before making a deal with small Italian sportscar manufacturer Serenissima. In the Serenissima-engined M2B Bruce took his first World Championship point but it was obvious that this couldn’t be a long-term solution. There was markedly more success in American sportscars, now in the guise of CanAm, where he took on young countryman Chris Amon as a team mate but lost out to John Surtees’s Lola in the title race. The two Kiwis did however manage to take the Le Mans crown back to the States for Ford after Bruce joined the Blue Oval’s GT programme in 1964. The first two tries in ’64 and ’65 ended in agony, but this time they were right on the money.

In 1967, there was more money to be gained in the CanAm championship, and the orange McLarens grabbed most of it, new team mate Denny Hulme taking three wins, while Bruce took two victories and the title. It helped secure a supply of Ford Cosworth engines for the 1968 F1 season. It was the breakthrough deal for the Grand Prix team, since 1967 had been another trying year, now with the 2-litre BRM V8 in the back, a disaster even prompting Bruce to momentarily jump ship to one of Dan Gurney’s Eagles mid-season. In Canada he returned with BRM’s new 3-litre V12 powering his M5A but this led to no results either.

Another coup had been securing the services of young and talented designer Robin Herd, who was only 26 at the time he set to work on McLaren’s first F1 and CanAm cars. The latter cars swept the board for three years in 1966, ’67 and ’68 and Herd also designed the Cosworth-engined M7A before moving to Cosworth itself to pen the ill-fated Cosworth 4WD F1 car, and on to March after that. Bruce and the McLaren-Cosworth M7A were an instant winning combination, first by taking the Race of Champions at Brands, then lucking into a win at Spa, where he had always done well. Using the same machine, his new team mate, reigning champion Denny Hulme, came within a whisker of taking back-to-back crowns, only to lose it in the last two races. The two of them were the leaders of the pack again in CanAm, but this time Denny took the title.

Premature end, but a legacy to this day

The Bruce & Denny Show would continue to steamroller the opposition in 1969. In a perfect display of domination not even equalled by McLaren’s 1988 performance when it won 15 of 16 Grands Prix, the two New Zealanders shared all 11 wins amongst themselves. Denny scored five victories while Bruce took six to lift the silverware for the second time.

In F1, the season was dominated by Jackie Stewart in Tyrrell’s Matra, and so Bruce, who finished a distant third to the Scot in the championship, didn’t add to his four GP wins. Going into 1970 with the new M14A, Bruce and Denny were set to redress the balance, now that Stewart had to race an interim March. The new car looked like being able to challenge the Brabham and Lotus cars, leading to two second places at the start of the season, one each for Hulme and McLaren. Meanwhile, as Bruce continued testing his own cars, he entertained some thoughts of concentrating on his management duties but dismissed them for the lack of a suitable driver replacement. Whatever the decision, he wouldn’t quit altogether, since he loved to hone his creations by testing them to perfection. It’s sad but probably only logical that Bruce McLaren died on June 2, 1970, at the age of 32, test-driving his latest M8D CanAm car at Goodwood, right at the moment that the team were on the verge of embarking on a new adventure in Indycars. It wasn’t a driver mistake, but a failing fastener that allowed the rear bodywork to break entirely free right as McLaren steered into the 170mph knick on Lavant Straight. The car whirled off the track uncontrollably and hit a concrete marshal’s post, killing Bruce instantly.

Organisation, endless testing and meticulous preparation were key factors in the team’s early history, leading to Grand Prix wins and CanAm domination. It’s a way of thinking that was shared by Teddy Mayer and Phil Kerr and carried over to every new member of the team, and even to its new owners. In that respect the spirit of Bruce McLaren is still present in the McLaren team today.