The papaya orange of the iconic early McLaren race cars may have gone, but the legend of Bruce McLaren lives on. And while the current chrome represents a barely recognisable company, engineering excellence remains at McLaren’s core, and the ghost of Bruce would marvel at what his team has achieved since his passing.
Not one world championship and just 4 Grand Prix victories can easily get lost amongst other, more impressive Formula One statistics, and as a driver, Bruce McLaren is often overlooked. But perhaps it’s not as a driver he should be remembered; it was his passion and talent for engineering and leadership that firmly placed him at the top of the sport; a place where the name McLaren remains, 43 years after Bruce’s death.
A man of great vision and skill, Bruce Leslie McLaren was peerless in his role of driver, creator, designer, engineer, constructor and team owner – a role that would have seemed an impossible achievement to the young school boy growing up in Auckland, New Zealand with Legg-Perthes Disease. The illness tended to descend out-of-the-blue on previously healthy 9-year-old boys and would, in Bruce’s youth, require the patient to be placed flat on their backs in traction for up to two years at a time. It was a never fully efficient hip-joint following his recovery that caused Bruce’s occasional limp.
It’s without doubt that during that long period of tedious recovery, Bruce’s sense of humour, resilience and patience began to flourish. But one tale in particular demonstrates Bruce’s impeccable leadership skills, bravery and cheeky rebellion; powered by a bout of childish adrenalin, Bruce led other, similar aged Perthes sufferers in a late-night foray aboard four-wheeled “spinal-chairs”, along the winding downhill paths of the orthopaedic hospital’s grounds. The handling would prove to be lamentable and a far cry from what Bruce would one day become accustomed to, and the adventure would end with a somewhat predictable pile-up into the flower beds. Importantly, thanks to Bruce’s leadership and a real team effort, each patient returned to their beds; matron knew nothing of it.
At 16, fully recovered and encouraged by his father, Bruce became a secretly terrified competitor in hill climb events. The fear didn’t slow him down and with success came the chance to travel to Europe, thanks to New Zealand’s International Grand Prix Association’s “Driver to Europe” scholarship.
Before long, Bruce was causing a stir at Formula 2 events in a Cooper he and his friend Colin Beanland had cobbled together, making quite an impression in the 1958 German Grand Prix, a combined F1 and F2 race at the Nurburgring. Bruce finished fifth overall and first of the F2 runners, rubbing wheels with the likes of Jack Brabham and the day’s winner, Tony Brooks. Bruce had truly arrived and his career in the big time had started.
Formula One beckoned, naturally, and following a period under the tutelage of Ken Tyrrell, Bruce joined Jack Brabham – another driver with a remarkable engineering mind – at the factory Cooper F1 team and his first Grand Prix victory was just around the corner…
…the several corners, in fact, of Sebring where, at the end of 1959, aged just 22, Bruce became the youngest winner of a Grand Prix.
Bruce would stay with Cooper until the end of 1965, taking two more victories for the British team, but a desire burned inside him to create his own race team; to emulate his former team-mate Brabham, who had left Cooper for success with his name above the door as well as on the car.
Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd. was already competing in the increasingly popular and powerful Can-Am Series, a championship that allowed Bruce’s engineering ingenuity and team leadership to flourish, but despite the remarkable success in the team’s early days – championship wins for Bruce in 1967 and ’69 – it was in Formula One that McLaren was destined to leave his legacy.
Legend has it that Bruce was testing a car when he noticed the fuel filler cap fluttering violently at high-speed. His initial feelings about the errant cap were ones of anger at sloppy workmanship but then, why wasn’t the airflow forcing the cap down? After pulling into the pits, Bruce retrieved tools from a mechanic’s toolbox and began carving away at the bodywork surrounding the filler cap. Bruce introduced to car design “nostrils” that aid airflow and stop flapping filler caps, a feature that is still in use today.
With engineering and design genius like this, coupled with his natural ability as a leader and likeable nature, it was no surprise that it didn’t take long for Bruce Mclaren Motor Racing to succeed in Grand Prix racing. Bruce’s talent for driving helped too when he took the chequered flag at the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix in only the team’s third season. It would be the first of many, many victories for the team but for Bruce himself, it would be his last.
In 1970, on a blissfully sunny summer’s day at Goodwood, the rear bodywork of McLaren’s new M8D Can-Am car came adrift, destabilising the car at high-speed. Bruce was at the helm of his team’s latest creation and was powerless to stop the car from destroying a marshal’s bunker – an impact that would end his life.
The team survived thanks to the likes of McLaren’s friend Teddy Mayer and later, Ron Dennis, who played a major role in the remarkable success of the team. From McLaren himself, through the likes of Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, Mika Hakkinen to Lewis Hamilton, McLaren’s history reads like an honour role of Formula One’s greatest achievers, all thanks to Bruce.
When he died on the 2nd of June 1970, Bruce McLaren left more than a name and a memory, he left a legacy; what was a tragic end was really, just the beginning…