Last weekend’s Australian Grand Prix took place close enough to home that the spirit of Kiwi driver Bruce McLaren, whose racing equipe marks its 50th anniversary this year, might just have been hovering around in the high-octane ether over the Melbourne circuit to cheer the boys on as another Formula One season began.
If the still-revered New Zealand-born founder of Bruce McLaren Racing Team – now the McLaren Group – was somehow a presence at the race he would have perhaps been a bit disappointed to watch cars bearing his name struggle to finish 9th with Jenson Button at the wheel and 11th in the hands of Sergio Perez.
But McLaren, who against the odds made the leap from hill-climbing in an Austin 7 Ulster in New Zealand to the Formula One circus in Europe – only to lose his life a decade later in a testing accident – would have appreciated the heart and professionalism his namesake team put into the event, however things turned out.
McLaren was just 32 when the Can-Am car he was testing at Britain’s Goodwood circuit in 1970 shed its newly installed rear bodywork and crashed, ending his life. But the personal philosophy that drove his career as racer and constructor remains as to the point today as it is was to prove poignant and prescient.
McLaren competed in an era when motor racing was akin to a blood sport and, in the 1950s and 1960s, claimed the lives of many of its participants. To the young New Zealander, the risk, however, was worth the reward. Following the death of a fellow racer, he wrote: “To do something well is so worthwhile, that to die trying to do better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of a life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.”
McLaren’s reward was a decade in the spotlight and a legacy that endures to this day in his homeland, where he’s remembered through the Bruce McLaren Trust – and in the racing team that still bears his name, and which has won 182 GPs, 20 World manufacturers and drivers championships and three Indy 500s. His personal score in the big leagues included four Grand Prix wins, nine Can-Ams (including the 1969 race at Mosport) and two championships, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 12 hours of Sebring.
World championships may not have yet been on the dream menu McLaren scrolled through as a boy in his bedroom over his parents’ garage in Remuera – after days spent rocketing around the shop floor on his tricycle bothering the mechanics.
But, as he says in his autobiography, “motor racing was in my blood.” Undoubtedly he was influenced by the DNA of his “Pop” Les – a motorcycle racer who later switched to cars. Even a bout with Perthes disease (that affected his hip joint and resulted in a couple of years in a nursing home strapped into a frame) didn’t dampen Bruce’s competitive spirit. He and pals staged wheelchair races on the paths surrounding the home.
By 1951, he had ditched his walking sticks and was attending technical school when Les brought home the bits and pieces of an ancient Austin Ulster racer. When this was put back together, Bruce learned to drive it on a figure-eight course set up in a fruit tree orchard. As a newly licensed 15-year-old, he competed in hill-climbs, gymkhanas and sprints, before moving on to his father’s Austin-Healey and then a Bob-Tail Cooper T39.
As the 1950s progressed, so did McLaren, and he came to the notice of another Down Under driver, Australian Jack (now Sir Jack) Brabham, in 1958. A word from his “godfather,” as McLaren describes him, likely contributed to his selection as the New Zealand Driver to Europe scholarship’s first participant.
McLaren promptly cut short his university education and headed for Britain early in 1958, turning up at the John Cooper works as its “new-boy” Formula 2 driver. He and his mate and mechanic Colin Beanland were pointed to a corner of the shop and told to get on with building his F2 car.
He moved up to join Brabham on the Cooper F1 team in 1959 and scored his first win – the youngest driver to accomplish the feat – at the U.S. Grand Prix, and then won again in Argentina. In 1960, he was runner to Brabham in the World Championship. His other GP wins were at Monaco in 1962 and Belgium in 1968, the latter in his own car.
McLaren wasn’t just good at driving a racing car, he felt he could build them, too, and set up the Bruce McLaren Racing team in 1963 to do so, producing its first, the sports racer M1A, a year later. Its successor, the M1B, appeared in the new North American Can-Am series in 1966 and, that same year, the first McLaren Grand Prix car competed at Monaco, failing to finish.
Serious success in Grand Prix racing eluded the team for much of the 1960s, with McLaren himself winning once, and teammate Denny Hulme three times, including the Canadian Grand Prix in 1968. But Can-Am became “The Bruce and Denny Show” for the remainder of the decade. Fellow New Zealander Hulme and McLaren sharing two championships each between from 1967-1970 in their thundering Chevy V-8-powered McLaren-orange racers. In 1969, McLaren racing won all 11 Can-Am events.
McLaren is remembered as a racer and constructor of racing cars, but also as a great “bloke.” A universally loved figure, wrote Frank Falkner in a Road & Track piece following McLaren’s death. “He would say he had a marvellous life; that he hoped we wouldn’t forget him and that we would always talk about him and of the myriad of exciting and happy times. We won’t forget and we will do as he would want.” And many still do.
As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, McLaren has created a short video honouring its founder. Click here to watch: McLaren 50 – Courage.
|Back in 1970|
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