MARCH 1965 Before Can-am came Group 7 — big-engined sports cars competing at a time when Formula 1 motors were restricted to 1500cc, normally aspirated
MARCH 1965 — WHEN COLIN CHAPMAN AND LOTUS FAILED TO GAIN TRACTION IN GROUP 7 RACING, THE FIELD WAS LEFT OPEN FOR BRUCE MCLAREN’S FLEDGLING COMPANY TO DOMINATE CAN-AM RACING
It seemed as if Colin Chapman could do no wrong in the early to mid 1960s. Has one man ever had so much influence over as many forms of motor racing in such a confined period of time? By the time he turned 30, on May 19, 1958, Lotus was a two-car F1 team. Stirling Moss won the 1960 Monaco Grand Prix in a Lotus, and the works team took its first world championship victory in America at the end of 1961, courtesy of Innes Ireland, whose reward was to be dumped from the team while fellow Scot, Jim Clark, was elevated to team leader.
As well, Chapman introduced the little Lotus 23 sports, Lotus Formula Juniors invariably ran at the front of the pack, his ground-breaking Elan was introduced, and if all of this wasn’t enough, he wheeled out the latest F1 car. The Lotus 25 featured monocoque construction at a time when space frames ruled. This, combined with the jewel-like Climax V8 and the emerging brilliance of Clark, meant Lotus was soon embarking on a major winning streak.
Not content with dominating Formula 1, Chapman spent the May of 1962 at Indianapolis, and it gave him an idea — the upshot being that, as well as introducing the monocoque to Formula Junior, and combining with Ford to give the world the Lotus-cortina, he and Clark came oh-so-close to winning the Indy 500 at their first attempt in 1963.
With Clark crowned as the youngest world champion to date it seemed that if the car was painted green and yellow, it would probably win. The term ‘riding the crest of a wave’ understates the enormity of Chapman’s achievements. By now he was 35, and seemed to have a Midas touch.
Most companies would have been delighted if they’d been able to match the achievements of Lotus in 1964 — but they paled compared with the team’s successes in 1963 as Clark and Lotus lost their world championship crowns to John Surtees and Ferrari — but only just. As well, despite starting that year’s Indy 500 from pole and leading 14 laps, success at the Brickyard proved elusive.
But if Lotus performance in 1963 was beyond the wildest dreams of most racing car companies, 1965 was something else. Half a century ago, Clark and Lotus started the year by clinching the Tasman Championship, they won the Indy 500 in May and had sewn up the world championship long before the final rounds. Clark hadn’t managed to win back-to-back British Touring Car Championships, but the new Lotus 35 was good enough to win a handful of Formula 2 races.
Everything that Chapman touched turned out to be a winner. Well not quite — cars that we would come to know as Can-am sports racers combined American grunt and noise to British audiences who had become accustomed to Formula 1 engines being restricted to 1.5 litres, and normally aspirated. Power outputs were a fraction of what was offered by the hairy-chested sports cars, and it was clear that crowds liked the noise and spectacle of the stock-block V8s.
By 1964 Chapman was well entrenched with Ford, via its Cortina/indianapolis initiative plus F2 and F3, and given
that a suitable engine already existed combined with the fact that Lotus had succeeded in everything else, it was only logical that a strong challenger could be produced. Besides, in addition to the fabulous 23, Chapman’s previous sports cars (the Lotus 19 and 19B) had been particularly handy devices.
Called the Lotus 30, the new car was powered by the 4.7-litre (289ci) ‘Mustang’ V8 — Clark debuted it at Aintree in April 1964, but was beaten by Bruce Mclaren in the Zerex Oldsmobile in a combination that continued to be the one to beat.
Undeterred, Chapman released the Lotus 40 for 1965. Lola and Mclaren produced their T70 and M1A models respectively, but Clark relied on the 30 to kick the season off 50 years ago this month at Silverstone, beating the Surtees-driven Lola-chevrolet in a field that featured Hill and Mclaren in Oldsmobile-powered M1AS.
In April, Clark — still in the 30 — beat Mclaren at Goodwood, and it looked as if Lotus would sweep clean all before them in yet another category, until a couple of things happened. Lola and Mclaren kept on developing — and Chapman unleashed the 40, a car former Ferrari/brm and Honda F1 driver, Richie Ginther, famously described as being “… the same as the 30 but with 10 more mistakes.” Those early successes proved to have given false hope.
Indeed, Team Lotus never won another major sports-car race, while Denny Hulme proved sheer grunt wasn’t everything by winning the prestigious Tourist Trophy in early May driving a 2.0-litre Climax-powered Brabham BT8. Later that month Bruce won his first race on British soil in a Mclaren at Silverstone. Mclaren’s new understudy — Chris Amon — won the 50-lapper at Silverstone in July. Everyone was back for the next bigentry event at Brands Hatch at the end of August. Surtees eventually won from Mclaren and Jackie Stewart, also in a Lola, while the Lotus challenge ended in a crash in heat two after finishing a distant eighth in the first heat.
As a result, Chapman left Group 7 racing — the forerunner to Can-am — to Lola, Mclaren and others, meaning that big-bore sports-cars racing would be the only branch of motor racing that Lotus competed in and failed to conquer. It meant Chapman was human.
However, with Lotus out of the equation, the fledgling category provided an ideal springboard for a new company to shine. Bruce Mclaren Motor Racing was barely a year old, but already its founder had assembled in Colin Beanland, Wally Willmott, Tyler Alexander, Howden Ganley, Bruce Harre, Johnny Muller and Chris Amon — plus Eoin Young — just about the most talented, hardest-working and skilled bunch of young guys that was possible. And, with the exception of Tyler, every one of them was a Kiwi.