Graham McRae—three times Tasman Champion
THE FIRST time anyone outside New Zealand heard of Graham McRae was when he started taking part in the Tasman Series with a homebuilt single-seater powered by a Lotus twin-cam engine. This little McRae was usually the fastest of the 1,600 c.c. cars and received plenty of favourable comment. That was five years ago but McRae had been building his own race cars for several years before that with that special blend of enthusiasm and inventiveness that only a New Zealander seems to possess.
Now the 33-year-old New Zealander is the master of the Tasman Series, again with a car of his own manufacture and, for that matter, he is pretty well the master of Formula 5000 be it in New Zealand, Australia, America or Britain. Along the way McRae has picked up something of a reputation for boosting his own talent and in so doing acquired the nickname of Cassius, the offer of a race or two for Ken Tyrrell in Formula One and the very healthy sponsorship of Andy Granatelli’s STP concern. While the March organisation has found it difficult to put the STP banner into the Formula One winner’s circle, McRae has managed to do so on three continents in F5000. Now McRae’s plans include continuing to campaign for STP in Formula 5000 but also test drive and, perhaps, even race for Granatelli at Indianapolis.
So far, despite the Tyrrell offer which had to be turned down because of clashes with prior commitments, McRae, whose talent is undoubtedly of Grand Prix stature, has never as much as practised a Formula One car. One of the reasons is probably because McRae tends to be a loner, a man who does things his own way and to hell with anyone else. This reputation is fairly well known and this is probably why the offers have not been as abundant as they might have been. McRae himself relishes the thought of Formula One but only under his own terms. If we see him in a Grand Prix field one day, it will probably be in a car called a McRae. The Tasman Series which McRae has just collected was a great personal triumph for him for it was his third in succession. When he won in 1971 he was driving a black McLaren M10B which he had extensively modified himself. Last year he won with a brand spanking new design which at the time was known as a Leda LT27. The LT stood for Len Terry for this ex-Lotus designer had worked for the Leda concern for some time. Their own Formula 5000 car had not proved particularly competitive and, in mid-summer of the previous year, McRae had come to an arrangement with Leda Cars to garage and maintain his McLaren at their premises and share the costs of transport and so on. McRae got closer to the Leda project and then, with some help from Terry, drew up the new design which subsequently made its debut in the 1972 Tasman Series. The car proved an immediate success and McRae won his second championship down under, despite opposition from Frank Gardner in the latest Lola T300.
Leda Cars were based at the Malaya Garage in Hampshire and they also took under their wing the Tui Formula Super Vee project of another very talented New Zealander Alan McCall, while a road car along Morgan lines was designed and built. Terry’s workshop in Poole Dorset also became part of the set-up and the idea was to build and sell both Leda LT27 Formula 5000 cars as well as the Leda-Tuis with the possibility of developing the road car as well. Leda Cars also retained Trevor Taylor on their books for he had raced their earlier design the previous year so the plan was to field two Leda 5000s in the British Rothmans series for McRae and Taylor.
Unfortunately after the first three or four races the Malaya Garage people decided to withdraw from the project and McRae looked as if he might be left a little in the lurch. But a City businessman, John Haynes, came to the rescue and thus, between them, they were able to finance the continuing of a Formula 5000 build programme although naturally it was decided to change the name of the car to McRae GM1. STP had backed McRae’s 1972 Tasman Series and after shipping the car back to England he left it in their flame red colours, hoping the sponsorship deal would continue. After a few weeks of uncertainty they confirmed that not only would they back McRae’s British programme but would also finance him to run a second car in the L & M Continental Series in America, which started in June.
As is recent history McRae came out a clear winner of the rich American series and thanks to a large number of trans-Atlantic crossings was very unlucky not to win the British Championship as well.
Then McRae set sail for New Zealand again in an attempt to win the Tasman Series for the third successive time. The series consisted mainly of Australian and New Zealand drivers as Formula 5000 is popular in these two countries plus a sprinkling of British and US names. From America came Sam Posey with his Surtees, he was runner-up to McRae in the L & M so was expected to offer some keen competition although he never did, while another American, Evan Noyes, had a production McRae as did local driver Dexter Dunlop. Yet another McRae was in the hands of Britain’s Alan Rollinson, a very experienced F5000 competitor who spent 1972 racing a works backed Lola T300. Lola themselves had sent out a works blessed T330 for Australian Max Stewart while the second British entry was that of Steve Thompson in the ex-Redman Chevron B24. Thompson was sponsored by Servis Washing Machines who previously backed his old Surtees TS8. Amongst the faster down-under drivers were Frank Matich, with his own designed Matich with a Repco engine, the Lola T300s of Kevin Bartlett and young Warwick Brown, plus David Oxton’s New Zealand built Begg which is soon to be seen in Britain.
But the big surprise of the opening round in New Zealand at Pukekohe was the victory by the virtually unknown Australian John McCormack, while McRae limped home in fourth spot. But he soon made amends and cleaned up the next round at Levin but then found the opposition fairly tough at round three at Christchurch. McRae was led by both the Lolas of Max Stewart, which retired at two thirds distance with engine trouble, and Warwick Brown which was later hampered by gearbox trouble. Thus McRae went on to victory and into the lead of the championship which he was never to lose. Young Thompson from England put up a good show at Christchurch to finish third.
Round four at Teretonga was held in pouring rain and if there is a criticism of McRae’s driving talent it is that he tends not to excel in the rain. Even so McRae was up to second place at one stage although, after a couple of pit stops, he finally finished tenth. But a McRae car still won the race for Alan Rollinson splashed home to victory ahead of Posey, who had led but then made a pit stop. Max Stewart finished third but Steve Thompson’s great drive through the field to sixth was considered the drive of the day. McRae still led the championship at the end of the New Zealand section but Rollinson was now only six points behind.
The circus moved to Australia and to Surfer’s Paradise for the Chesterfield 100 held on February 4th. On his home ground Frank Matich came into his own and scored a convincing victory from pole position. After a poor start, McRae moved up to second place and held it to the finish to consolidate his championship lead. The British drivers were out of luck and Max Stewart was third ahead of another rising Australian, Johnny Walker. But sadly Warwick Brown was very seriously injured on the warm-up lap when he crashed at 150 m.p.h. The 22-year-old Sydney driver had been described by McRae as the find of the series.
The heat wave conditions of Surfer’s Paradise gave way to rain again at round six held at Warwick Farm near Sydney. This time Steve Thompson proved the wet weather driving ability he has shown on several occasions in England and he went on to score a superb victory over Frank Matich while McRae came in a useful third ahead of John Walker. So after six rounds McRae led the championship with 31 pts. from Matich with 24 and Thompson with 18. If McRae did well at Sandown Park near Melbourne the following week, that championship would be his.
The weather was in the 100s and this time McRae was obviously in top form. He took pole position, made a poor start but soon overhauled Frank Matich and roared on to victory and the championship. Matich later spun and lost time and McCormack finished second with Stewart third and Mauch fourth.
All that was left was the final round at Adelaide and this time McCormack finished the season as he had started with a victory. The two English drivers Rollinson and Thompson finished second and third while McRae travelled barely 50 yards before clutch trouble ended his race. But he had won the championship with 40 pts. to McCormack’ 29, Matich’s 27 and Thompson’s 22.—A.R.M.