Bruce McLaren: The birth of a legendary Formula 1 team

(Motorsport-Total.com) – When the McLaren team headed to Monaco for their first Formula One race in 1966, it didn’t have much to do with the highly professional premier class we know today. At that time, the team arrived with a simple station wagon from Ford and a trailer with a white racing car with dark stripes on the nose.

Bruce McLaren

Bruce McLaren was fatal at the age of 32

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The weekend itself became a debacle – for the team founder Bruce McLaren, who was also behind the wheel at the time, and his team were not able to do much. It was mainly due to the Ford engine that nothing went according to plan for the new team. Despite the bankruptcy, it was at least a start for McLaren. He and his colleagues had a base to build on.

The following week McLaren wrote in his column for ‘Autosport’: “I tell you something: It’s not that easy to be a Formula 1 designer (not that I thought it was). I remember that I said in this column some time ago that motorsport is about how much technology you can achieve with how little money. “

A good time to start Formula One

“Now I would like to add a third factor: in how little time!” Said McLaren, who was just 29 years old when he made the courageous decision to appear as a designer himself. However, he already had some experience in Formula 1. After coming to Europe from New Zealand in 1957, he spent eight years with Cooper – initially as a representative of Jack Brabham.

He made his Formula 1 debut in 1958, and in the following eight years he won three Grand Prix victories and 17 other podiums. However, his last Cooper season in 1965 was disappointing. The team seemed to be on the descending path, and McLaren was down to third and fifth in addition to numerous failures.


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That year McLaren made its first steps as a designer in the sports car sector. A move up to Formula 1 for the 1966 season seemed logical – given the situation at Cooper. And coincidentally, the engine rules changed at that time. Instead of 1.5, 3-liter engines were used in the future. A good time to get started, because the new rules have mixed up the pecking order a bit.

“I think the idea developed over the course of the 1965 season,” McLaren’s compatriot Chris Amon said about 35 years later, revealing: “Bruce had a pretty frustrating time at Cooper. I think he saw it there for him nothing. At the same time he had seen what Jack Brabham had done. I suspect that was how the idea came about. “

McLaren had already started building a good crew back then. The American Teddy Mayer took care of the administration and management of the team. His brother Timmy had a fatal accident in a Cooper used by McLaren in the Tasman series in 1964. But the tragedy only made Teddy’s connection with Bruce even stronger.

A good team with an enthusiastic leader

There were also some loyal mechanics like Mayer’s friend Tyler Alexander and some talented and hard-working New Zealanders. Amon was a logical choice as a second driver after driving the Parnell team in Formula 1 for three years. “Bruce was great to work with,” Amon recalled later, revealing: “You never knew what idea he had the next day.”

“Sometimes inspiration came to him, and when he made a decision, he didn’t let anything stop him from doing it. The whole team was incredibly enthusiastic. Some ideas made him need something in Teddy and Tyler’s enthusiasm brake and try to do it with the company’s resources, “said Amon.

“Personally, Bruce was a wonderful guy. He was one of those people who never said a bad word about someone. He gathered a good team around him. It was a very young crew with some very good people,” Amon recalled. In the car, McLaren decided to get a trained engineer on board. The choice fell on aeronautical engineer Robin Herd.

Herd had previously worked on the Concorde project, but absolutely wanted to work in racing. “I had a great job, but I wanted a bigger challenge,” he later said, explaining, “I got a message to call Bruce. We met the same evening and arranged everything. McLaren got into Formula One one and I designed racing cars! “

“I was only 24 and he told me that the car would have to start in Monaco next year. I had only designed something for practice until then, which showed that he was either incredibly trustworthy or incredibly stupid “And I too was either similarly arrogant or stupid. But I wanted it so much that I didn’t let it get me away,” said Herd.

First major setback: Ford engine “a joke”

A test contract with Firestone was a good start on the financial side. The next problem was to find a 3 liter engine. Because even the established teams had problems with that at the time. McLaren was part of Ford’s large Le Mans program and knew the resources there. So he let his contacts play and secured some 4.2 liter Indy V8 engines.

He then commissioned the California company Traco to adapt it to the Formula 1 limit. McLaren’s plan was to get Ford excited about Grand Prix racing and possibly get factory support in the future. Herd meanwhile took care of the first car, the M2A. It had an unusual Mallite chassis that was otherwise used in aircraft cabins.

The prototype was equipped with a 4.5 liter Oldsmobile V8 engine and Firestone test tires and was first launched in November 1965. In retrospect, these engines would have been a much better starting point for a Formula 1 engine. In fact, it was from this model that the Repco, with which Jack Brabham became world champion in 1966.

When the later M2B was ready for use, it was already clear that it was not a good idea to rely on Ford engines. Herd later recalled: “We were optimistic, but we kept hearing about setbacks. At some point, an engine finally arrived in England. We knew that it would be quite heavy. But in truth, it was much heavier than you were had told us. “

“It was like a ten-ton truck! But we packed it in the car and drove to Goodwood for half a day of testing before we left for Monaco,” Herd said. This shakedown was not a great success. Herd added: “At least he drove. And the sound was great. Probably the most power went there too! Bruce, who had previously tested the Oldsmobile car, came to the pits and said: ‘The thing has no performance, that is a joke.'”

A touch of Hollywood at the debut

The size of Ford’s V8 was part of the problem. As a result, any potential that the chassis could have was already gone. “We found that the engine and transmission together weighed about as much as the entire Brabham car,” recalls mechanic Howden Ganley. He is certain: “It was a very good chassis with perhaps the stiffest monocoque back then.”

“But there was nothing to drive it. We were going to use two cars, but it was enough work to put one together,” said Ganley. Unlucky Amon didn’t have a cockpit for the season. He later recalled: “In the beginning everything was very exciting – but also very frustrating. We all believed that the engine had enormous potential, but instead it was a total disaster.”


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The team didn’t have a truck, so the car was transported on a trailer hanging from a Ford Fairlane borrowed. Herd and the mechanics drove from the team’s workshop in Colnbrook to Lydd, from there they took a freighter to Le Touquet and then began a long journey south. McLaren, his wife Patty and Teddy Mayer later flew to Nice.

When you got to the paddock, alongside teams like Lotus, Ferrari, BRM, Brabham and Cooper, the M2B received some compliments. It was a good car, and it looked flawless thanks to mechanic and perfectionist John Muller. That weekend, the Formula 1 cars got less attention than the Hollywood fakes of John Frankenheimer’s film crew.

At that time, the film “Grand Prix” was released, which was released in the same year – and McLaren was even part of it. They jumped in as a double for the fictional Japanese Yamura team, which flushed useful money into the team box office. On the real track, the M2B performed respectably, which was also due to the fact that all of their new cars had to get a grip first.

Premiere ends after just ten rounds

In qualifying, it wasn’t exactly helpful that McLaren had left his racing shoes in the hotel. He therefore had to drive with casual shoes and saw off his toes. “We were the first car out, and Bruce qualified tenth,” Herd later recalled, explaining, “The car was so heavy that it had phenomenal traction.”

He was three seconds slower than pole-setter Jim Clark, but was able to leave six cars behind. The start and the first three laps were captured by Frankenheimer’s cameras, and the film shows McLaren moving up to sixth. The joy, however, was short-lived. After ten laps he had to come to the pits with an oil leak.

Bruce McLaren

McLaren’s debut in Monaco ended in 1966 after just ten laps

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At that time, the rules prohibited refilling oil. “An oil pipe came off in the front of my car, and half of the oil spread around the track, the other half in the cockpit,” McLaren wrote in his column. “Oil is bad enough on the road, but I guarantee that it will be worse in the cockpit. Because it came from the engine, it was pretty warm.”

“The oil ran into Bruce’s shoes,” Ganley recalls, revealing: “There was a moment when his foot slipped off the pedal. We got it back, but it was way behind. Bruce was afraid of the engine to destroy. So he didn’t go out anymore. ” The next day there was an informal debriefing on the terrace of McLaren’s hotel room. All team members were invited.

“We were all given the opportunity to speak,” says Ganley, adding: “Every suggestion was taken into account. Even if your ideas were not adopted, you knew that your voice was heard. You were not just a simple employee. For team building it was a great move that I later took over in my own business. “

1968: The first victories in Formula 1

The team was so disappointed with the Ford engine that a much lighter Serenissima V8 engine was used at Spa, Brands Hatch (where McLaren finished sixth) and Zandvoort. However, it turned out to be hardly any better. The revised Ford engine got a second chance in Watkins Glen and Mexico City, and McLaren was fifth in the United States.

A second car for Amon never came. In 1966, Formula 1 was a lost year for the young driver. That year, however, he and McLaren were able to celebrate a historic victory for Ford at the Le Mans 24 Hours. The 1967 season started with a BRM V8 engine, and McLaren finished fourth in Monaco.

Bruce McLaren

1968 in Belgium Bruce McLaren got the first victory for his team

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That year he also drove three races in Dan Gurney’s Eagle after Richie Ginther
had resigned. He never saw the checkered flag. Later that year he returned with his own team – now with the BRM V12 engine. However, the reliability ensured that great successes continued to fail to materialize. He celebrated it instead at sports car races.

He won the Sebring 12 Hours with Mario Andretti and grabbed the CanAm title with two victories in six races. 1968 was followed by a victory in the Tasman race in Teretonga for BRM, and later in Formula 1 it finally ran. The Cosworth DFV was available to all paying customers, and the new M7A was a competitive package.

McLaren won the Race of Champions in March and the first Grand Prix victory for his team followed in Belgium in June. Later in the year, two further second places were added in Canada and Mexico. He also qualified second in Italy, and teammate Danny Hulme won there and later in Canada. Hulme also won the CanAm title for McLaren.

Sudden death and a great legacy

The M7C for 1969 was very competitive. McLaren did not win a race himself, but he finished eight times in the Top 5 and finished third in the World Championship. He also won his second CanAm title with six race wins. The team dominated the series because the other five victories went to Hulme, who won another race in Formula 1 that year.

In 1970 McLaren was already well established and expanded its use in the IndyCar series. Bruce McLaren also developed a prototype road car, and you felt that anything was possible under his guidance. There were even rumors that he could cut back in Formula 1 himself. With the new M14A, however, he took a strong second place in Spain.

At the following Grand Prix in Monaco, he retired. Nobody knew then that it would be his last race. On June 2, he traveled to Goodwood for a routine test. First, he drove the Formula 1 car while the mechanics and Cary Taylor did a shakedown of the M8D CanAm chassis. That should then be shipped to North America for the start of the season.

McLaren then switched to the car that was nicknamed “Batmobile”. He drove several short runs and kept making small changes in the box. Shortly before the planned lunch break, the mechanics heard a big bang and then only silence. The rear had come loose at around 270 km / h and the orange car had slammed into a concrete track post.

Team members jumped into a car and drove straight to the scene of the accident, but there was nothing left for Bruce McLaren to do. He died at the age of 32. McLaren’s legacy was his team, and then it was the job of his employees that inspired him to move on and implement his vision.

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