Remembering Bruce

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On June 2, 1970, international motor sport lost one of its biggest stars and of its finest gentlemen, when Bruce McLaren perished in a testing accident at Goodwood. Mark Hughes talked to those who knew him best, as a driver, team owner, partner and friend.

Tyler Alexander (Team manager)

He was just a great natural leader. He wasn’t a flamboyant guy at all, but he was very determined to do something with himself and the team was an extension of that. He engendered terrific loyalty — some people have it and some don’t. Although he had a happy-go-lucky attitude on the surface, underneath he was quite a tough business guy. He was tough when necessary and we’d have some pretty hard arguments, but you always got an answer at the end. Plus, he would be there with you when you were doing the jobs, helping solve the problems. He was dedicated in a way that all the really top team owners are; working hours didn’t mean much to him. What was required was what was required and that spread through the whole team. First and foremost, Bruce was into looking after and developing the team. As a racer, he was no Rindt, but he was pretty quick. He could race with any of them when he had a mind to, and he enjoyed driving the cars, but he was always more interested in the design and mechanical parts of the car.

McLaren was a very special place to work, if you were the right sort of person for it. If someone knocked on the door with a toolbox in their hands and said they were from New Zealand, they had a job. We had quite a few very, very good people come in that way. The other thing was that although he said ‘well, this is what I want to do’ he’d go away, attend to other problems his moments. Denny [Hulme] was similar. Just quiet Kiwi blokes — there’s plenty of them here. It’s a bit of a trait. I don’t recall him being tough. We had this good cop/bad cop thing at the factory. He’d come and say so and so hasn’t delivered and I’d get on the phone and really give the guy some shit. Bruce would phone up later and you’d hear him say: ‘Oh, I’m terribly sorry, I didn’t know he was going to do that. Gosh. What can! do to help? And he’d have the part by the end of the day.! never did see him angry, though I’m sure he got terse.

I think the whole thing worked because Bruce had been given the perfect grounding by Jack Brabham and Cooper, and he was the sort of guy who could quietly apply what he’d learned — he was very studious. He was young, a nice guy and the team became the centre of the New Zealand racing community in England. It was Alistair Caldwell who said if you arrived at the door from New Zealand you were in because you’d already passed a 10,000mile initiative test. So you had this team, generally all in their 20s, significantly younger than other teams, bonded also by the Kiwi thing. Plus you had Bruce working alongside, often the last to leave. So of course there was a big team spirit. He had a clear vision of where he wanted to take the team. He really wanted to make that Indy Ford engine work because he desperately wanted to get Ford into Formula One. He could see the amount of money they were spending in sportscais, that people like Shelby were getting — armies of huge lorries from the States, mega money for the time. He liked the Ford people, they liked him. He worked and worked at getting them in. The irony is that the decision and funding eventually came from Ford Europe and it went through Cosworth and Lotus. I remember the day like it was yesterday. I’d arrived in the Autocar office and Martin Lewis said, ‘Have you heard about your mate?’ Then he just blurted it out that Bruce had been killed. I’d never had a brother but it was just as if someone had said, ‘your brother’s been killed.’ I caught the train straight back home, in a trance.

Robin Herd (Designer of Formula One McLaren)

There was something in Bruce’s personality that just drew talented people around him like a magnet. The group that was at McLaren when I joined was, by some margin, the most talented group of individuals I’ve ever encountered in motor racing. The whole thing just radiated from Bruce. He was the smiling front man who got it all together in the first place, but it wouldn’t have worked so well without Teddy Mayer; he used to tell me his main job was to protect Bruce from himself and that if he had turned his back for more than ten minutes, Bruce would’ve given the company away. Bruce had this likeable exterior but the racer’s ego was in there — nicely hidden, but definitely there.

He was a lovely guy, don’t get me wrong, but he could feel strongly about things. He understood the engineering side of things more than any driver I’ve met. There are drivers who can tell you what the car is doing very well, but without necessarily understanding why. He perhaps didn’t have a particularly linear mind but he had ideas which I could then bring into a structured format. He was a very good conceptual engineer.

Howden Ganley (Mechanic and Grand Prix driver for McLaren)

Bruce was a fantastic leader. If he’d come into the workshop one morning and said: ‘OK guys, what we’re going to do today is march across the Sahara,’ most of us would’ve said: ‘OK, Bruce. If that’s what you think we should do, that’s what we’ll do.’ Yet at the same time, he wasn’t over-bearing. If you had ideas he’d just let you go off and do them. I joined as a gofer, and one of my first jobs was to nip round to Coopers to get some tubing because they needed some axle stands. I did that, then when I got back I decided I’d just weld them up.

Bruce and the others saw these and asked how I’d got them and when I told them I’d welded them up myself, I became a fabricator! We worked incredible hours with very little equipment in retrospect, but Bruce could do everything himself, if it came to it. You knew that while you might be able to make a wishbone, so could he — and he could drive the car and design it. There was nothing he couldn’t do and he commanded a lot of respect for that, but he was so nice with it. He laughed and joked and kept everyone’s humour up, which is very important when you’re on your third

I can’t say enough good about him, basically. He was just one of those magical people. It was wonderful to have known him.

Patty McLaren (Bruce’s Wife)

He was very calm, it took a lot to make him cross. I certainly never saw him lose his temper. He had a wonderful nature really.

Eoin [Young] introduced us at a party in Timaru. I was working at the time and Bruce was racing. We had a courtship by post because Bruce went off to England shortly afterwards. I saw him again the following year and the year after that we got engaged and I went to England with him. We had quite a whirlwind courtship really, in that we didn’t see a great deal of each other.

He wasn’t a great one for DIY around the house. That would have to wait until his father came to pay us a visit. I think Bruce saved all that sort of stuff for the workshop. He adored our daughter, of course, but it didn’t change what the team meant to him. You could see how much satisfaction he got out of building the team up, and I was involvedin it myself. He was very excited about the road car project at the time of his death; that was going to be the next big thing.