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Life after death – The Bruce McLaren story

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Life after death – The Bruce McLaren story

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At just 32 years old New Zealander Bruce McLaren died in a violent crash. But his craft behind the wheel as well as the drawing board left a lasting legacy…

St. Mary’s is a fast left. A moment to exhale before swinging right for the sharp Lavant Corner, then opening up wide, winding out the steering wheel into Goodwood Circuit’s longest straight. A race car will quickly get up to 250km/h 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 burst through the humid air of that summer afternoon, its silicone-aluminium 7.6-litre V8 breaking the calm of the Sussex countryside. The car and the track were all to themselves on this test day of June 2, 1970. Bruce McLaren pulled into the pits to cull the oversteer of the M8D and adjust the enormous rear wing sprouting from the smooth bodywork. He was ready to go just past twelve, careened through St. Mary’s and Lavant one last time, the 670 horsepower 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 car went off the road at 270kph.

Papaya Orange littered the trackside, two 16in wide black rubber strips pointed straight towards a marshal’s embankment, debris everywhere. Young Bruce was thrown out of the car and died instantly. It was all over, but it had only just begun.

From the farm to Formula One

Today McLaren Racing is going through a lull with Honda power, having competed in the top tier of motorsport for 51 years, competing in more than 800 Grands Prix, amassing eight constructors’ championships and 12 drivers’ titles on the way, with 155 pole positions, 153 fastest laps, 182 race victories at last count, and a wining ratio of one in five races entered.

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 famously wrote, what would turn out to be quite prophetically.

The isolated island nation breeds can-do attitudes, and gravel farm roads breed car control.

Bruce came from the small country of New Zealand – Chris Amon, Denny Hulme, Howden Ganley, Mike Thackwell, rally driver Possum Bourne, the Millen family, Jim Richards (arguably the greatest tin-top racer of all time) all originate from there, a land of just four million people. They must have some high-octane water.

The isolated island nation breeds can-do attitudes, and gravel farm roads breed car control. With unpredictable weather, and in the countryside lax laws, boys perch themselves up into a car or farm truck from an early age and gain valuable experience slipping and sliding past the wire fences. 

All those mentioned above are great drivers, but Bruce McLaren and 1967 Formula One world champion Denny Hulme stand out. Their paths seemed destined to run in parallel – born just two months apart in 1937, both their racing careers began in their home country and both men ended up pursuing glory in Europe thanks to Australian Jack Brabham. McLaren, however, didn’t get a head start in racing, bitten by the bug only when he was about sixteen 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.”

Bruce was a fighter anyway. In his childhood he battled persistent health problems, suffering loss of bone mass in his leg. Doctors would keep him in hospital for weeks, and three years he had to be in plaster. Through sheer will, the condition eventually settled and he was left with a leg 1.5 inches shorter than the other, but that wouldn’t stop the boy.

Under ‘Black Jacks’s’ wing, an incredible Formula 2 victory at the Nürburgring followed by a win in Casablanca got Bruce into John Cooper’s good books.

Finishing second in the Autosport F2 championship first time out must’ve helped endear Bruce to the team. At the race of races, the Monaco Grand Prix, Bruce drove a 1.5-litre rear-engined Cooper while his competition used more powerful 2.5-litre motors, but 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 nearing the end of the 1959 Formula One season, the 22-year old McLaren’s consistent results at the front of the pack dicing with teammates Stirling Moss and Brabham, confirmed his status as a world-class driver. He was noted for his control behind the wheel of the rear-engined Coopers (the rest of the grid still had the ‘horse in front of the carriage’) that were particularly tail-happy.

In fact, the sport’s layout revolution has a disputed origin, depending on whether you believe one John Cooper or Bruce McLaren. The Kiwi at the time claimed, “Hanging the engine off the back of the monocoque was pretty much my idea.”

Black Jack won that year’s title by pushing his stricken car across the line in the inaugural United States 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 Argentine round in a car very similar to his previous year’s chassis. With this new rear-engined competition to contend with, however, it was clear 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’ auto workshop back home.

On the way back home from a race in Argentina, where the Cooper team got a bit of a scare from the speed demonstrated by the latest Lotus rear-engined design, Bruce got to drawing up a new car in the airplane…

Brabham and McLaren now spent as much time behind the wheels as in the drawing office. Cooper’s underpowered and unreliable Coventry-Climax engines would necessitate all their engineering input, 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. 

With 600 plus horsepower they lapped contemporary circuits two or more seconds quicker than F1 cars.

At the Zandvoort opener McLaren set 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 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.

Constantly on the edge of adhesion, Can-Am cars suited Bruce’s intimate feel of a racing machine, and his skill in both design and driving meant 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 closest ever finish of the race, inches ahead of the sister car of Englishman Ken Miles.

The pull of the grand prize, however, was never far behind and for the 1966 season Bruce first lined up his trademark Papaya Orange F1 car at the new McLaren team’s top-tier debut. Engine issues dogged the M2B chassis all season though, and Bruce could only manage two finishes scoring meager points at Brands Hatch and Watkins Glen. A BRM V12 hardly made things any better the following year, with just one points finish materialising in Monaco.

Fortunately, 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 Kiwi’s engineering talents, as the new M7A car (co-designed by Robin Herd of Concorde fame) took Bruce to victories at Brands Hatch and the daunting Spa-Francorchamps. Further wins by teammate, countryman and old friend Hulme in Italy and Canada, as well as non-championship success at Silverstone, bagged the McLaren team its first real achievement with second place on the constructors’ table behind Lotus.

bruce mclaren 2

Denny Hulme at the wheel of a McLaren M8F . “The McLaren Can-Am cars were the best I’ve ever driven,” said ‘The bear’…

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 enjoyed the Can-Am cars more, probably,” recalls Hulme. “They were much more exciting, the American people were much more enthusiastic, and certainly the money was a hell of a lot better. I thought the McLaren Can-Am cars were the best I’ve ever driven, and I still do. 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.”

This is racing of course, and sometimes you knock a wall, or a wall knocks you. When it happened one last time for Bruce, as the previous year’s Can-Am title defendant, crashing at Goodwood on that June afternoon days before the 1970 opener at Mosport in Canada, his words rang true. “To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy…”

His team picked themselves up and won nine out of 10 races that year, and Papaya Orange was but a speeding blur all over North America, from Mont-Tremblant to Riverside, through Watkins Glen and Laguna Seca.

Four years on and the Grand Prix squad began its glorious ascent and the trophy cabinets started overfilling. Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi gave McLaren its first drivers’ championship title in 1974, and from the eighties to the early nineties the team dominated with seven drivers’ crowns and six constructors’ titles, pioneering mainstay technologies like carbon fibre construction. McLaren’s 1988 MP4/4 chassis epitomised the team winning all but one Grand Prix of the season, and is still regarded as the greatest F1 car of all time.

What started as a little British team of adventuring Kiwis is today a group of successful companies, supplying the entire F1 grid with electronic control units, and challenging the world of super sports cars with McLaren Automotive’s road going range.

“… I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone…” Half a century later the achievements keep coming.

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