Mob rules at Brooklands

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The great and the good of McLaren’s glorious past recently descended on The Track to swap yarns and recall so many absent friends

The recent ‘MOB’ – McLaren Old Boys – reunion evening at Brooklands was a remarkable success. It overran well into the small hours before the dozens of staff veterans only reluctantly dispersed into the night. After presenting our Motorfilms archive movies late that evening, I found myself trundling the trusty Land Rover – over on its ear at about 20 degrees – around the Members’ Banking in pitch darkness to show what the old Motor Course was all about to Jennifer Revson – lovely sister of poor Peter and Doug Revson – plus a couple of her friends and veteran Scarab, Can-Am and Indy McLaren owner/driver Don Devine.

They had made the pilgrimage from the US, and former team engineer Matthew Jeffreys had done a stupendous job of contacting so many team veterans worldwide and persuading them to attend. From New Zealand came a large party including Bruce’s sister Jan McLaren, his widow Pattie Brickett, and Greeta Hulme, Denny the Bear’s ex-wife and widow.

Drivers present included Howden Ganley, who was also Bruce’s fourth employee when the team was founded back in 1963-64, John Watson and the ebullient Bruno Giacomelli. Veteran team members and associates included team co-founder Tyler Alexander, Ray Rowe, Hughie Absalom, Mike Barney, Ron Smith, Bruce’s secretary Susie Dunbar, Kerry Adams, Dave Ryan, Howard Moore, Cary Taylor, Neil Trundle and almost one hundred more.

Brief interviews by McLaren’s former McLaren for 1968 after he’d won the World Championship with Brabham in ’67 came as a complete revelation: “With Jack’s team, going to each race just seemed to happen, at a few days’ notice. But when Denny joined Bruce we couldn’t believe the difference. Within the first few days, Phil Kerr provided Denny with a full schedule for more or less the entire year, lights, hire car reservations, hotels, contact names and numbers, everything, already mapped out. To us, such forethought was amazing…”

Designer Gordon Coppuck – of particular M8, M16 and M23 fame – recalled some wonderfully evocative moments, such as an incident during his irst two weeks with the team as a humble draughtsman: “I was still finding my feet at the Colnbrook works when I went down into the workshop and I think Alastair Caldwell” – who, incidentally could not attend the Reunion since he was instead rallying in America, with his mum who’s in her 90s navigating – “…had decided it was time they all needed a break from building the cars. So instead he began riding a monkey bike around the workshop.

“Inevitably – we’re all competitive people – someone produced a stopwatch, so it then became a real battle to see who could lap fastest. Then they insisted that, as the new boy, I should have a go. What they didn’t realise was that I’d had a works Greeves ride and experience in the International Six Day’s Trial, so I knew my way around ’bikes. And then after a first couple of quick laps I shot up to the turn just by the workshop lathe only to find that after checking the watch someone had tipped a can of oil all over the loor…

“It was at that moment that I realised I’d landed on my feet. McLaren’s really was the place I wanted to work.” James Hunt’s son Freddie was present to meet his dad’s former mechanics, while Bruno Giacomelli recalled his few McLaren F1 drives with Italianate emphasis and affection: “Was incredible for me. In 1968 I stood wiz my papa on the back straight at Monza and saw Denny Hulme and McLaren win the Italian Grand Prix. Ten years later I was there driving for McLaren in the Gran Premio – aymazing!”

John Watson ruefully recalled another Monza experience as “…my Chuck Yeager moment, acting as test pilot and seeing how a moulded carbon ibre-chassised car would react if you were daft enough to spin one into a crash barrier at around 140mphplus.

I hit the Armco at the Lesmo Curves with one hell of a thump and the car broke in two, yet I stepped out unhurt… An absolute revelation. In an aluminium car I’m sure the outcome would have been very different….”.

Hughie Absolom recalled Johnny Rutherford at Indy explaining how he said he “…just seemed to win the 500 on alternate years, and that’s precisely what he went on to do”, while Ayrton Senna’s erstwhile race engineer James Robinson recalled the Brazilian giant’s amazing win in the 1991 Belgian GP:

“He’d lost fourth gear and found the car stuck in third, and explained later he’d over-revved the engine and seen smoke behind and thought he was finished. But then he found one gear, and then another, and another. And he told me how he’d thought through the problem, and recalled spending time with Neil Trundle in the gearbox rebuild shop at some point over the winter. Having watched Neil and chatted about his work he remembered that the two gears giving the most trouble were on the same shaft, so logically if he avoided using them, and only used the others, he might just make the finish.

The ‘roll-pin’ that pinned the selector fork to the shaft had sheared through and so would not move those two gears when requested. It was however ‘hanging on’ enough to hold the gear in neutral and prevent selecting two at once.

“Given that the gearbox was manual with the H shift pattern, actually to remember lap after lap that he had to miss out two important gears some five times every lap takes some processing. And that’s exactly what happened – and he won again. He really was a fantastically intelligent driver, and through following that car’s assembly he’d equipped himself both to identify the core problem, and to drive around it…”

Steve Nichols, soft-spoken prime creator of the 1988 MP4/4 and sometime race engineer to Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, recalled Niki’s implacable determination to win the World title in 1984: “In the car on the way to the French GP at Dijon, Niki was way behind Alain in the Championship” – actually by 15 points – “… and he just said ‘Shit, he is so fast, sooo fast … but I know I can catch him! I will catch him!

I will work and work and work and I will beat him’ – and that’s exactly what he did, to win that year’s Championship by half a point. He was just utterly, implacably, determined to win. And he did it. And later with Senna and Prost I remember assuring Alain that no way would I as his race engineer allow him to be in any way disadvantaged, technically. I pointed out that I am competitive too, and I wanted my driver and car to win just as much as he did.

“But they were both good guys. Alain used to come in after a good qualifying lap, grin and say ‘Aah, not too bad for a liddle Tadpole, huh?’. In fact he and Ayrton were really very similar, but kind of mirror images of each other. One was hard as nails on the outside, yet really soft and friendly inside, while the other was soft and friendly on the outside, yet made of spring-steel inside.”

The Brooklands Clubhouse was a splendid venue, and in the darkness, as I told the girls and Don the story of ‘Pearly’ Lambert’s ghost and the Brooklands hauntings, this Reunion was – indeed – a most memorable event.

Doug Nye

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