Taking a ride in Denny Hulme’s new Can-Am McLaren
All American motor-racing commentators are alleged to thrust a microphone at the sweaty and hot winner of any given race and enquire: “Say Mario, what was it like out there?” Mario (or who ever the winner was) is rarely coherent at that stage to express any sort of lucid opinion; he says the car performed beautifully, he would like to thank his sponsors and mechanics, and can he have a Coca Cola please?
But what was it really like out there? How did it feel to have 750 b.h.p. behind your left ear? What sort of sensation would one feel braking madly from 180 m.p.h. to 40 m.p.h. to take that hairpin bend every lap? What did one physically feel as the car snaked through that fast left and right kink? How can the race spectator in the grandstand ever know the physical feeling and sensation of cornering a modern racing car on the limit with the vast tyres exerting a grip of over 1½G sideways. How does one feel as the engine shrieks up to maximum revs in top gear and the speedometer, if racing cars had them, would be hovering close on 200 m.p.h.? For that matter, how does a motor-racing journalist who earns his daily bread describing all the action know these answers, unless he is a racing driver of considerable talent himself?
This last question occurred to former World Champion Denny Hulme, who reads his motoring magazines more avidly than most. Hulme remembered that three years ago the late Bruce McLaren had given Michael Tee of Motor Sport a ride round Riverside during an official Can-Am practice session. That story you can read in the Castrol Book of Motoring Sport. Hulme was keen to repeat the idea and, after consultation with Phil Kerr, joint managing director of Bruce McLaren Motor Racing, a date was arranged when Hulme would give selected motoring journalists the chance to sit alongside him as he drove round Goodwood in the latest McLaren M20 Can-Am car. I was one of the lucky ones included in the rather apprehensive party who made their way to the Sussex track—now in semi-retirement.
My memories of Goodwood were always pleasant for, somehow, the sun always seemed to shine when I reported races from there. Nothing had changed much and the surface is very good and the famous chicane still in position. Hulme knows the circuit like the back of his hand for McLaren use Goodwood a great deal for their testing programmes of all their various models. It was here, of course, that the team’s founder, Bruce McLaren, lost his life—a sobering thought reminding one that the risks of motor racing, even at testing sessions of this nature, are ever present. Sometimes Hulme does as many as 250 laps round the circuit in one day and he knows every inch of that tarmac strip.
The actual McLaren M20 which was ready and waiting was not, as I had expected, the prototype test car but the actual M20 that Hulme is now racing in the Can-Am, and at Goodwood it was literally only the second time it had turned a wheel. The M20 is the work of Gordon Coppuck, chief designer at McLaren Racing, and it supersedes the M8 series which has reigned the Championship for five years now, each season’s model being updated but not redesigned. Coppuck’s new design is not radical but it is obviously a very sensible progression from the M8F of last year. He decided to concentrate more of the weight within the wheelbase and thus the car has side water radiators instead of a front-mounted rad. Another factor he felt important was that of insulating the cockpit from radiator heat because, in the past, the 200-mile Can-Am races have fatigued even strong men like Denny Hulme considerably. Obviously the fit driver is a fast driver.
Thus the monocoque hull for the new car bears little resemblance to the M8 series. It is waisted in at the rear for the radiators, the full load of 70 gall. of fuel is carried more centrally now (again with polar moment of inertia in mind), and the front steel bulkhead has been eliminated with just mild steel brackets riveted to the aluminium skin to take the suspension pick-up points. The mounting of the aluminium Chevrolet V8 has also been altered. Thus the new chassis has a lower c. of g. than before, and more weight towards the centre of the car. Other features of the M8 have been retained, for the front and rear suspension, braking system, oil tanks and other various components remain generally the same although altered in detail. Again the McLaren team are relying on the 8.1-litre (495 cu. in.) V8 engine with an all-aluminium Reynolds block, to the Chevrolet ZL-1 design. Various off-the-shelf ZL-1 high-performance Chevrolet parts are used in the building of these units by McLaren’s own engine shop in Detroit, which is run by Gary Knutson. In normal fuel-injected form the engines give up to 800 b.h.p. but, if the McLaren team find they are having problems with Mark Donohue’s turbocharged Porsche, they too may try turbocharging. The McLaren engine is a semi-stressed member of the car bolting up to the back of the monocoque section but supported by two tubular A-frames which pick up on the bell-housing. Naturally one of Hewland’s big four-speed LG Mk. 2 gearboxes transmits the power.
Although the M20 is a completely new car it still looks very similar to last year’s car bodywise, although experts will be able to easily distinguish it by the front-mounted wing which replaces what used to be the radiator intake and, of course, the new side radiator intakes. Naturally the car is finished in Gulf-McLaren orange for the team is sponsored substantially by Gulf who place great store in the Can-Am programme.
Enough of the technical stuff—what was it like out there? Well for a start the team, with their usual thoroughness and efficiency, had fitted seat belts to the very narrow passenger compartment and moved the battery to make room for the passenger’s feet. Denny Hulme had even brought along his spare helmet and some overalls. but I had my own anyway. By the time it was my turn to become one of the fastest Can-Am passengers in the world the engine was starting to show signs of a leaking head gasket, or something and Hulme laconically reckoned it was probably only giving about 700 b.h.p. The New Zealander was already surprised to find that the passenger seemed to make no difference to the handling at all. He was keeping a little in reserve but even so, with colleague Alan Henry from Motoring News alongside him, he lapped Goodwood at 1 min. 11.0 sec. (125 m.p.h.)—only three seconds off his best.
Once I was installed in the car with instructions on how to brace myself and not to get my feet tangled up with Hulme’s—space in the footwell was rather limited—my chauffeur enquired if I knew the way round Goodwood. Fortunately I did and this made everything rather less frightening for, at least, one knew which way the next corner was going. We were push-started and off we burbled for a first warming-up lap. It was really rather pleasant, the cornering forces were as high as I had expected, the brakes similarly impressive, and the acceleration rapid. The Chevrolet V8’s noise was rather left behind, and I wondered what all the fuss was about. That was only the warming-up lap. As we passed the pits for the first time I gestured a thumbs-up sign as Hulme floored the throttle and we surged forward. The acceleration was staggering and I tried to tuck down under the screen. It was a different dimension altogether. We lunged at Fordwater at an impossible speed but obviously it wasn’t impossible because I had every confidence in Hulme, he knew exactly what he was doing and of what the car was capable. The big M20 stormed through the corner on a perfect geometrical line with complete neutral handling, not sliding at all, but the sideways G it was generating was phenomenal. The G tried to drag my head right from my shoulders and my whole body was compressed against the side of the car. So we continued at shattering speed left and right and right again and down the Lavant Straight, reaching 180 m.p.h. on the way before the staggering braking into Woodcote which wrenches the body against the seat belts. I can’t honestly remember much else. The second lap I was determined to watch Hulme as closely as possible while still revelling in the unbelievable sensation of the road flashing by like those speeded-up films they sometimes show of the Motorway.
Hulme was completely calm and relaxed, looking almost as if he was on a Sunday afternoon drive. That was the way he looked but obviously he was concentrating on only one thing, he was almost as one with the car and in perfect control. For him the side-forces, the acceleration and retardation were all things that he lived with almost every day of his life. For him, and a few dozen other people in the World they had become the norm but for us lesser mortals the skill the concentration and the sheer guts are a quality we can never hope to possess. This was just driving round minding his own business; in a race Hulme will have many more problems to worry about in the heat of competition.
So for the second lap I tried to watch Hulme his measured movements always exact and efficient, his gear-changes lightning fast and neat, his face—what I could see of it—revealing no emotion. The lap was over almost as it began and for the final “victory” lap we cruised round in top still pulling enormous sideways G around the corners and the car decelerating like, a Trident 3 on full reverse thrust but about three times as quickly. Quite how man is able to judge distance and speed and these kinds of velocity is inexplicable? But the short answer is that Hulme is one of only a handful of men who can do that and undoubtedly the best in Can-Am racing.
Almost before it all started, this shattering, and I might say enjoyable, experience was all over and I was stepping out of the car trying to pretend that these sort of things happened every day. I wasn’t frightened and the reason was that the car was the McLaren M20 and, above all, the driver was Denny Hulme. It was a staggering experience I will remember all my life because I know what it is like out there.
A. R. M.