McLaren M8B

This is a bit like Desert Island discs – there is a number of cars over the years you ought to pick. But I think what I’d select would actually be a McLaren the M8B Can-Am racer of 1969. It’s a very straightforward car, but very successful. There were 11 Can-Am races that year and it won every one. A 100 per cent record hasn’t happened that often in international motorsport we almost did it in Fl in 1988, apart from ‘The Miracle of Monza’, and Ferrari did it in 1952 when grands prix were being run to Formula Two regulations and the opposition wasn’t very strong.

One of the creeds of motor racing is that you design your car to win every race it enters, and it’s easy to lose sight of that goal. Chapanals were always very innovative cars, and I was a big fan of them, but in the hard light of day they did Can-Am for five years and won one race. Not that impressive a record, despite having the kudos of being so advanced. There have been many occasions in grand prix racing when people have fallen into that trap as well. I used to go and watch those Can-Am cars at Brands Hatch when I was 11 or 12, before they disappeared from England at the end of ’66, and they always impressed me the sheer blood and thunder of them. There’s just something about a very large capacity stock-block engine it vibrates your chest as you stand there. They’re very crude but there’s an aura about them too. They had over 600bhp and probably double the amount of torque we have in a current Formula One car. Impressive lumps really, and a completely different style of driving finesse wasn’t exactly the prime requirement

I was an enthusiastic youngster then, and Bruce McLaren was an icon to me team owner, engineer and driver all rolled into one something to aspire to. From that point I wanted to be a racing car designer. It’s coincidental that I ended up working for McLaren, because it’s a completely different organisation than it was in those days. But I think anyone in their 40s or 50s will have fond memories of that type of racing. And of course probably half the grand prix drivers were competing too, with Americans like Mario Andretti and Mark Donohue racing against the Europeans. The first time I actually saw an M8B, however, was at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed there was a replica someone had built. It was interesting to see just how small it looked compared to how I remembered it from the pictures 30 years ago. You associate a big engine with a big car, but it was actually quite compact

To call the M8B crude is probably being a bit rude, but there was nothing particularly dever about it; all the elements were done well. It was a development of the M8A, the 1968 car. It was a half monocoque, ending at the front of the engine; the engine may have taken some loads, but there was a tubular substructure around it with simple wishbones and outboard spring/damper units. Probably the only innovation was the high-mounted wing.

Of course the idea had been used three years earlier on the Chaparral, but it was a novelty as far as McLaren were concerned, even though they had dabbled with the idea many years before. You might have seen pictures of a Minivan with a wing sprouting from the top which they played with in and around the streets of Colnbrook; people didn’t spend much time in wind tunnels then, and that was their way of testing it. I’m not sure if the M8B ever had a designer accredited to it I imagine Gordon Coppuck was the chief designer at that time, but! guess it was a group effort developing what they had done the year before. Obviously Bruce himself was an engineer, an inspiration to the team, a great motivator. It was all very different to the massive drawing offices we have today. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was just one engineer and a draughtsman working on that car, largely by eye, with a few stress calculations. And I doubt Wit ever saw a wind tunnel it would have been largely intuitive. There were several people around with aircraft experience, and that’s maybe where they stole the wing profile from.

The bodywork was a development of the year before, looking at lessons they’d learned and at other cars, and very likely through Bruce and Gordon walking round it in the workshop and saying, ‘We’ll chop this out here and move this along’. Intuitive engineering on limited budgets; Can-Am was relatively lucrative, but the total prize money can’t have been that great. McLaren only had Chevy pick-ups and trailers to ferry the cars around and they were the best team of the time.

That said, Can-Am probably helped to keep McLaren alive financially. They knew there was a job to be done and they developed a car to do exactly that without trying to be clever. They did not have anything anyone else couldn’t have the others just weren’t as focused. In those days you did not have the technical resources to mess around you just had to do something straightforward. You’ve got to finish races, which the Chaparral rarely did.

Last time I was at the Canadian GP, a few years back, I went up to Ste Jovite where they used to have Can-Am races, and I was staggered at the circuit it’s like Cadwell Park with a long straight. The thought of Can-Am and grand prix cars on it is hard to comprehend. Must have been exciting to drive round. The two Canadian tracks, Ste Jovite and Mosport, were twisty three-dimensional circuits while Riverside had a mile-long straight, and there were a couple of ovals; Can-Am had a very varied schedule, but in those days they were just tweaking springs and dampers and changing gear ratios visually the cars didn’t appear to develop during that period, give or take a Gurney flap.

I think a good engineer would be good at whatever car he turned his hand to, but the levels of commitment then were so different; you could do a Can-Am car early in the year and get it racing, and then start on your Fl car in late summer or autumn. What it took to design a car was so simple then that you could do two or three projects throughout the year.

I came straight into GP racing and I’ve never felt the desire to leave it for another category; despite the technical limitations, it’s still very interesting. For me the peak of F1 was probably 1993, when we had such freedom it was technically very, very interesting, and the racing was good that year, particularly by the end, with a lot of cars of differing concepts evenly matched.

Neil Oatley was talking to Gordon Cruickshank