Fitting words for Bruce

On the day before the Goodwood Revival I drove the short distance from home to the circuit where I have spent so many happy days over the past six decades. Madame Mégane knows the way too, her turbocharged diesel pulling us effortlessly up and over the Sussex Downs.

Tucked away under the trees on the edge of the paddock is a memorial garden, the centrepiece of which is a headstone inscribed with these few words: ‘Bruce McLaren – Engineer, Constructor, Champion and Friend’. On June 2, 1970 Bruce was killed testing his Can-Am car at Goodwood. Forty years later we came to remember him. Parked next to the memorial was Denny Hulme’s beautifully restored M8D chassis 01, the car in which he won the 1970 Can-Am title. The team leader’s car was cut up and destroyed after the accident.

Bruce’s sister Jan, who runs the Bruce McLaren Trust in Auckland, spoke movingly about her brother and the trust’s work. Bruce’s widow Pat was there with mechanics, designers, friends and fans from the old days. Among them was Neil Trundle who, with Tyler Alexander and Ray ‘Tex’ Rowe, was recently made a ‘Fellow of McLaren’ in recognition of his loyalty and long service to the team. Ray, who left Cooper to start McLaren with Bruce, still works in the gearbox shop, while Tyler only recently retired from the F1 team.

We were reminded of some words written by Bruce after his friend and team-mate Timmy Mayer was killed in 1964 while practicing for the final race in the Tasman series at Longford.

“Who is to say that he had not seen more, done more and learned more in his 32 years than many people do in a lifetime?” wrote McLaren. “To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.”

With these words in mind, we moved into the paddock to make some noise. There we found Bruce’s big M1A and M1B sports cars, forerunners of the all-conquering Can-Am winners. As five mighty 8-litre Chevrolet V8s zapped into life everyone grinned, the massed trumpets of the injection systems sucking in the autumn air. We had come not to mourn him, but to celebrate the life of one of motor racing’s great men. Bruce would have approved, the pragmatic engineer probably wondering what was happening on the Chevys’ temperature gauges. There had been a similar scene in June when Denny Hulme’s car was fired up inside the pristine McLaren Technology Centre as its workforce looked on. Ron Dennis himself stood behind the car, in the thick of the noise.

As I walked away I thought of the days I’d spent with the team, watching as they tested the Can-Ams, sticking bits of blue cotton to the orange bodywork to better understand the airflow. One day they used splodges of ink. Round and round they went, nearly 900bhp launching them out of the chicane towards Madgwick. Finally I plucked up the courage to ask for a ride. I’ll never forget those laps with Hulme – no seat, no seat belts, just bracing myself against the mind-blowing power. A fire extinguisher sat between my legs. I hung on to the rollover bar to stop myself falling onto Denny’s left shoulder. Between the power slides and rocketing down the straights he glanced across at me, grinning.

Back in the pits Bruce mentioned, with that famous smile, that we’d been doing over 160mph towards Woodcote Corner. Then he walked round the car, with that famous uneven step, a legacy of a childhood illness, and went back to work.

From 1967-70 the ‘Bruce and Denny Show’ annihilated the opposition, taking four Can-Am titles on the trot, and in 1971 Peter Revson gave McLaren a fifth. Three years later Emerson Fittipaldi captured its first Formula 1 World Championship. The cars may not be orange any more, and the Kiwi badge has gone, but Bruce would surely be enormously proud of what is being achieved.