HISTORY OF MCLAREN: PART 2
How the team pulled through after the tragic death of founder Bruce
Wednesday 3 June 1970. The day after. On the Tuesday, this tight-knit team had lost their founder, their totemic inspiration, the upbeat, energetic, beloved lifeforce from which grand ambitions had been born. Bruce Mclaren had died instantly when his new Canam M8D shed its rear bodywork on the Lavant Straight at Goodwood and smashed into a marshals’ post. The impact shattered the hearts of his young family; the same was true for the band of brothers at his team, who had followed him without question. Now what?
What happened next is perhaps the most remarkable episode in the team’s history, packed with remarkable moments created by remarkable people. Bruce would not have wanted this to stop, they all agreed. The only thing to do was push on, not just in Bruce’s honour, but because there was no other choice – such was the team’s head of steam. There were cars to build and races to win, and that was that.
Teddy Mayer, the wealthy American from a powerful Pennsylvania family who had dropped everything to follow Bruce to Surrey in 1964, assumed control. There was a Can-am race at Mosport the week after Bruce’s death. Mayer called Mclaren’s old friend, Dan Gurney, and the devastated Californian didn’t balk at stepping up to partner Denny Hulme, who was still nursing badly burnt hands from a fiery practice shunt at Indianapolis. Tough times – but these were tough men. Gurney headed to Mosport, took pole, and won the race. Hulme finished third, and then needed help prising his heavily bandaged hands from the steering wheel.
A week later it was the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. No one could have criticised Mclaren had they missed it – but there they were, with three cars no less. Gurney, returning to F1 for the first time since his Eagle team’s enforced withdrawal, again stepped up. Then promising Piers Courage crashed horribly in his Frank Williams-run De Tomaso and perished. These were brutal days in motorsport.
Gurney, more than a decade into a brilliant career that should have delivered a far greater number of F1 victories, was already having doubts. He continued to fill the breach for dear departed Bruce, but would hang up his helmet for good by season’s end. Back in the States, Eagle required his attention – as did his family. He’d lost too many friends and enough was enough.
Under Bruce’s leadership a first F1 world title had looked within reach, but inevitably some of that momentum was now lost. Still, in such circumstances, Mclaren’s progress under Mayer astounds. In terms of grand prix success 1971 would prove frustrating, but the following season Hulme scored Mclaren’s first F1 win for two-and-a-half years in South Africa. That, and a strong haul of further podiums shared between the 1967 world champion and Peter Revson – handsome heir to the Revlon cosmetics dynasty, but much more than just a playboy racer – carried Mclaren to third in the constructors’ standings.
Meanwhile, over in Can-am, the thunderous open sportscar series upon which much of Mclaren’s income relied, the team kept on winning. In 1971 Revson claimed Mclaren’s fifth successive title, before Porsche’s monstrous 917/10 and then 917/30 moved the game on. By then, Mclaren had changed tack to campaign in USAC Indycars. It was a good decision: following Revson’s runner-up finish at the 1971 Indianapolis 500, Mark Donohue took Mclaren’s breakthrough Brickyard victory a year later in a Roger Penske-run M16. The works team would follow that with further Indy 500 glory in ’74 and ’76, courtesy of hard-as-nails Johnny Rutherford.
Then everything began to click in F1, too, thanks to an all-time great racing car: the Mclaren M23. Gordon Coppuck was the unsung designer behind a car that won grands prix across four consecutive seasons, capturing a pair of drivers’ world titles and a constructors’ crown along the way. He’d joined Mclaren back in 1965 at the invitation of former National Gas Turbine Establishment colleague, Robin Herd, in the wake of the brilliant young Oxford graduate’s own recruitment. Hired first as a
“THE MCLAREN M23 WAS TIDY, STRONG, AND BIGGER THAN EMERSON FITTIPALDI’S ICONIC JPS LOTUS 72 AND JACKIE STEWART’S STUBBY TYRRELL 005006. ITS SIZE WAS THE KEY TO ITS SUCCESS”
draughtsman, Coppuck gained promotion through experience following Herd’s departure in 1968. After Jo Marquart’s four-wheel-drive M9A, Ralph Bellamy devised the M19A, while Coppuck handled the new Indycar, the M16 that would claim that Indy hat-trick and in 1974 make its creator the only man to design winners of the Indy 500 and F1 world championship in the same season. That’s some achievement.
That wedge-shaped M16 would form the inspiration for the M23. Coppuck’s first F1 design, drawn to take into account new deformable structure regulations for 1973, targeted improved chassis stiffness through a double-skinned, 16-gauge, aluminium-sheet monocoque, sandwiching injected foam. Effectively bookended by the M19’s rear and the M16’s wedge nose, plus neat sidepods to house the radiators, the M23 was tidy, strong, and bigger than Emerson Fittipaldi’s iconic JPS Lotus 72 and Jackie Stewart’s stubby Tyrrell 005-006. Its size was the key to its success.
Like most of his contemporaries, Coppuck hadn’t yet fully grasped ground-effect aerodynamics, but he knew the M23’s large underbody was creating significant downforce, even if he had no way of measuring it. The car’s effectiveness on fast circuits over the course of the next five seasons – it was quick and successful at tracks such as Kyalami, Paul Ricard, Mosport, Silverstone and (the old) Interlagos – is testament to its effective aero. And Mclaren being Mclaren, the M23 went through swift evolution, too, year to year and more significantly, race to race. The reputation for rapid in-season development came well before the Ron Dennis era.
Fittipaldi more than played his part when he joined for ’74, since he brought much-need Texaco and Marlboro money along with him. He joined largely because of the potential the M23 displayed during a choppy ’73 season, during which a headstrong South African had created significant waves.
Precocious Jody Scheckter showed his chops second time out by qualifying an M19C third on home turf at Kyalami. Then, in the M23 at Paul Ricard, he led for 41 impressive laps – until reigning champion Fittipaldi made his move. The pair tangled, much to Emmo’s disgust. The tsunami of Silverstone came next, when Scheckter triggered a nine-car pile-up that pretty much wiped out Team Surtees and left Andrea de Adamich with a broken leg. F1 had its new enfant terrible.
Fittipaldi hadn’t forgotten this when he jumped ship from Lotus, patience lost with Colin Chapman and smarting at a title lost to Stewart he felt should have been his. He vetoed Scheckter as a team-mate and, with the might of Texaco and Marlboro behind Fittipaldi, Mayer couldn’t argue. Jody lost his M23 for a Tyrrell 007 – good, but in hindsight, not in the same league.
Revson, too, had left, despite his wins at Silverstone and a mixed-up Canadian GP (adding to Hulme’s Anderstorp victory, inherited after Ronnie Peterson’s late retirement). A third Mclaren in Yardley livery
while Fittipaldi and Hulme took what was perceived as the premium seats in red and white, felt like a snub, so Revson headed for Shadow – and a fatal accident in testing at Kyalami. Former motorcycling king Mike Hailwood took the Yardley drive, only to suffer careerending (on four wheels, at least) leg injuries at the Nürburgring. We repeat: brutal times.
Assessment of Fittipaldi’s two seasons at Mclaren remains mixed. He certainly contributed to the M23’s longevity, carrying over the work ethic, development nous and attention to detail that had made him the youngest ever champion at Lotus, at 25. But it was consistency rather than outright speed that won him a second title, and Mclaren’s first, in ’74. In Stewart’s absence following his retirement, Fittipaldi only just saw off Ferrari’s Clay Regazzoni – fast and robust in wheel-to-wheel combat, but no platinum-grade ace. And in ’75, once Niki Lauda and his fabulous 312T got into their groove, he was indubitably second-best.
But with an M23 given a new lease of life in ’76 by Mclaren’s energetic development – lighter Kevlar panels, a bespoke, Hewland-based, six-speed gearbox developed by team manager Alastair Caldwell, benchmark-setting Cosworth DFV power from tuner Nicholson Mclaren, and trick fuel from Texaco – Emmo would surely have run Niki close, had he stuck around. He’d agreed terms for a new deal, but didn’t sign, leaving for Copersucar, his brother Wilson’s F1 team and an all-brazilian dream that would turn into a nightmare. Fittipaldi would not win another GP.
Left without a lead driver, Marlboro and Mclaren had few options. Mayer is said to have wanted Jacky Ickx, but in F1 terms the Belgian wasn’t what he had been. Instead, the tobacco giant’s respected money man, John Hogan, picked up the phone and called a friend nicknamed ‘Shunt’.
James Hunt had won for Hesketh in ’75, outfoxing the wily Lauda at Zandvoort to cock a snook at an establishment who had written off the team as a bunch of Hooray-henry playboys, fuelled by champagne and high-jinx (all of which was true). Hunt’s face didn’t fit at Mclaren, and he didn’t care much for them either – but since the plug had been pulled on Lord Hesketh’s racing (trust) fund, they needed each other. No one could have predicted what would happen next.
The amazing story of 1976 – ‘Year Zero’, Hunt vs Lauda – is such that it even inspired Hollywood. But Rush doesn’t do it justice; the truth – of two genuine friends thrust into an intense rivalry between teams that shared a mutual contempt – is far more enthralling and sparked a worldwide frenzy for Formula 1 that was hitherto unseen. Lauda’s early wins, Hunt’s Spanish disqualification, the near-riot of Brands Hatch, Niki’s fiery accident, his superhuman comeback, the returned Spanish result, the robbery of James’s British win and the final drama of the Fuji deluge… it all represents the best and worst of F1, and lies at the heart of why it still captivates us, more than 40 years on.
Less celebrated points to be raised: Hunt’s perfect performance in Canada after a late (and very naughty) night at his hotel, and the subsequent win at Watkins Glen, more than justify his status as a worthy world champion. When fired up, he really was a formidable racing driver. Oh, and Caldwell claims he was the true originator of ground effect, when he experimented with ‘skirts’ under the M23’s sidepods, just before Chapman and Peter Wright’s fully realised Lotus 78 broke cover.
But it was ground effect that would prove Mclaren’s undoing in the late ’70s; that and Mayer’s recalcitrant approach to the role of team leader. ‘The Weiner’, as he was so uncharitably nicknamed, deserves huge credit for maintaining Mclaren on an even keel following
“TWO GENUINE FRIENDS THRUST INTO AN INTENSE RIVALRY BETWEEN TEAMS THAT SHARED A MUTUAL CONTEMPT SPARKED A WORLDWIDE FRENZY FOR FORMULA 1 THAT WAS HITHERTO UNSEEN”
Bruce’s death. His contribution to Mclaren’s legacy is immense, but detractors say it was no coincidence he was distracted by the company’s US Indycar interests in the mid-70s F1 heyday. When Mclaren withdrew from Indycar in 1979, the F1 team was in a tailspin – and Mayer had no clue how to pull them out.
The M23 was still fast enough for Hunt to claim pole in Argentina, Brazil and South Africa at the start of ’77, and its replacement M26 carried him to three wins that year when he drove better even than in his championship year. But at season’s end, the marriage of convenience was over. So too, for now, were Mclaren’s days as a frontrunning force. Coppuck’s attempt at cutting-edge ground-effect F1 cars – the M29 and subsequent M30 – fell flat.
Even the spark in 1980 of a mercurial Frenchman straight out of Formula 3 couldn’t revive Mclaren’s flagging fortunes. Not this time. But Alain Prost would be back. And by the time he returned, a revolution had taken place within Bruce’s old team – one of which he would have approved. Just as he had when Fittipaldi walked, Marlboro Man John Hogan weighed in again, turning to an old friend with an addiction to perfection. Enter stage right: Ron Dennis.
Below: Dan Gurney received the call to race for Mclaren at Mosport in Can-am in 1970, set pole and duly won the race Right: Teddy Mayer, who stepped into the breach to run Mclaren after Bruce’s death
In 1974, four years after Bruce’s death, the powerful pairing of Emerson Fittipaldi and the beefy M23, scored Mclaren’s first world titles
James Hunt was drafted in to replace Emmo at Mclaren, where he went up against Ferrari’s Niki Lauda, a rivalry for the ages
James Hunt learns that by finishing third at Fuji he has won the 1976 drivers’ championship. Mclaren would now face a long wait for their next world title
NEXT MONTH RON BUILDS AN EMPIRE 1981-1987