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


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


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


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