McLaren: Life after Bruce

When the inspirational leader who drove the team died, McLaren could have spun into the ground. Instead it regrouped and vindicated his vision and his faith

Bruce McLaren with Denny Hulme Ron Tauranac and Teddy Mayer

Bruce McLaren with Deny Hulme; McLaren team principal Teddy Mayer; and technical director Ron Tauranac

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There was a lot to think about. But Bruce Leslie McLaren — boss / designer / engineer / tester / racer — preferred it that way. Three years of his New Zealand childhood had been spent in plaster, in traction or in a wheelchair because of a debilitating bone disease — and he’d been making up for lost time since. Always busy, the birth and maturation of his eponymous team had doubled his workload. The satisfaction he gained from doing his job(s) to the best of his ability, however, more than made up for this.

He took immense pleasure too from driving a car bearing his name, even at a Tuesday test. The victories gained since the team’s 1964 Tasman Cup beginnings were the icing; shaking down a new chassis at a deserted Goodwood was his recipe for success. He revelled in days like these. Lapping an unforgiving track at 125mph in a 650bhp sports-racer is not everyone’s idea of relaxation, but this was Bruce’s downtime, his space. And today, after fussing over Peter Gethin, present to test an F1 before replacing an injured Denny Hulme, it was a relief to slide in and buckle up. Denny’s burns, from an Indy fire, were horrible, and unsettling to the team, but he, and it, were made of stern stuff. They’d get over it. Back to business!

Bruce had done thousands of laps here in that smooth style of his. Whereas Denny ‘The Bear’ wrestled a Can-Am, he caressed it. It was bewitching, beguiling… Suddenly — rear bodywork lost. Downforce gone. Control lost. Bruce gone. The team’s heartbeat stopped at 12.20pm on June 2, 1970.

“What struck me was the sheer catastrophe, besides the sadness,” says designer Gordon Coppuck. “Bruce left an enormous void, which a lot of people thought we would never fill. Some left. And those of us who stayed weren’t sure we would survive. Bruce would have wanted us to try, though.”

Bruce McLaren in 1962

Bruce McLaren in Mexico City, 1962

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Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd’s blend of resourceful Kiwis, savvy Yanks and Brits schooled in the rigorous aerospace industry had by June 1970 made it a force on both sides of the Atlantic: it had dominated the Can-Am series since 1967, taken Hulme to within a race of back-to-back titles in its third season of F1 (1968) and, just three days before Bruce’s death, had impressed at The Brickyard with its debut Indycar. The team had come a long way from its first dirt-floor home in the corner of a New Malden contractor’s warehouse.

“If you’d dug down far enough with your heel you might have found some broken concrete. It was hardly ideal,” says an understated Howden Ganley. Another Kiwi trying his racing luck in the UK, he joined McLaren in June 1964. “I was its gofer. That soon changed when I was sent down the road to Cooper’s to fetch some chassis tubing for two proper car stands, to replace our large wooden packing crate! By the time I got back everyone had gone home and so I welded the stands up myself. I was promoted to fabricator the next day.”

Despite this humble start, shareholder/investor Teddy Mayer had big plans. Possessed of a shrewd legal brain and a healthy disrespect for the racing establishment, he had been with McLaren since the yeah-let’s-do-it talks of 1963.

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When curmudgeonly Charlie Cooper queered Bruce’s plans for the 1964 Tasman series, his number one driver decided to do his own thing, with help from Teddy and his younger racing driver brother, Timmy. The Mayers brought money, Climax engines and Tyler Alexander, the handsome all-American boy-cum-aircraft engineer who, along with Wally Willmott, Bruce’s trusted spanner man, built two lightweight Coopers: one took Bruce to the title, the other took Timmy, who shimmered with promise, to an early death at Longford.

“I went home and thought hard about what to do,” says Teddy. “I eventually realised people were going to continue racing no matter what I decided, so I returned to the UK to try to make the sport safer.” And make McLaren successful.

He instilled discipline and drove the team and its suppliers hard — probably too hard, but for Bruce’s soothing manner — and matters moved on at a hectic pace, especially when you consider Bruce was still employed by Cooper and heavily involved with Ford’s scorched-earth Le Mans campaign.

“McLaren had the most talented people by some distance — and Bruce glued them together in his easygoing way,”

“If anything, after Bruce’s death, I think I got tougher,” says Mayer. “I had to in order to keep control, to make sure we were all pulling in the same direction.” Making this task appear effortless had probably been Bruce’s greatest strength.

Ganley: “He had such charisma that if he’d come in one morning and said we were going to stop racing and walk across the Sahara instead, we would have all said, `OK’.”

By the end of 1964 the team had moved to the Belvedere Works in Feltham, won ‘Big Banger’ Group 7 races in the UK and US (with the modded Zerex Special) and built the first McLaren: M1, a spaceframe sports-racer. More, it had struck a deal with Peter Agg’s Lambretta-Trojan group that allowed M1As (and subsequent models) to be built under licence at Elva’s factory in Rye. This programme, soon relocated to Croydon, had several benefits: as well as royalty payments and promotion, it allowed McLaren to concentrate on prototypes and forced it to engineer properly, ie blueprints, not fag packet doodles. Ex-Cooper tech men Owen Maddock and Eddie Stait helped on a freelance basis, but it soon became clear that the team needed a full-time chief designer.

Bruce McLaren in 1966 McLaren Ford

Bruce in Monaco 1966, the McLaren team’s debut grand prix

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“My mate John Muller was Alan Rees’s F2 mechanic,” says Ganley. “He’d told me how Alan kept mentioning his clever friend who was involved with Concorde at Farnborough…”

Robin Herd, who had a brilliant double-first in engineering from Oxford, was working for the National Gas Turbine Establishment (NGTE) when Bruce called. That night he chatted informally over dinner with him and Teddy — and was formally offered the post. At 23, it was his first job in racing.

“McLaren had the most talented people I have ever come across, by some distance — and Bruce glued them together in his easygoing way,” says Herd. “Each man was capable of doing everything, and although there was a delineation of responsibilities, we all chipped in. It wasn’t design by committee — I took absolute responsibility — but it would have been stupid not to utilise their knowledge and experience.”

It speaks volumes that these hardened racers united behind a whizz-kid with zip experience, and that a shy postgrad could stand his technological corner. Hence Mallite. A sandwich laminate of sheet aluminium and end-grain balsa, it had been developed for aircraft floors, but Herd’s background meant he wasn’t in awe of innovative materials and practices, while his boss, his engineering eyes opened by Ford, proved receptive to new ideas: M2A would have a Mallite monocoque. This car was the team’s 1965 tyre-test hack — McLaren had signed a deal with Firestone prior to the inaugural season of 3-litre F1 (1966), Bruce’s first away from Cooper. More-glue-less-rivets M2B, the GP car proper, would impress in terms of build quality and stiffness. Sadly, its engines were dire. Both V8s — Ford’s linered-down Indy quad-cam and the Serenissima — were gutless, and Bruce did well to score three points.

Engine problems continued in 1967. A new BRM V12 was on order but late arriving, so Bruce gratefully contested three GPs in an Eagle after his stop-gap F2-based M4A burned to a crisp at Goodwood. When its motor was finally uncrated, however, M5A (aluminium monocoque) proved competitive: Bruce might have won first time out in Canada had not the oil catch tank boiled the battery on this alternator-less car. Ironically, though, the delayed debut had done them a favour.

Although Gp7 racing had fizzled in the UK, it was fizzing in North America. Can-Am brought big bucks to the tracks in 1966; McLaren, shaded by Lola and Chaparral, went winless. It could not afford to let it happen again. So, as M5A sat forlorn in the factory — in Colnbrook from 1965 — Herd, with help from former NGTE colleague Gordon Coppuck, set about a new Can-Am challenger. M6A, McLaren’s first monocoque sports-racer, went from paper to track in 11 weeks and clocked 2000 miles of testing before alighting Stateside. Its win on debut — Hulme at Elkhart Lake — sparked a five-season run of 39 wins from 43 starts. This, along with the Goodyear deal it signed in 1967, was the team’s pay dirt.

Bruce McLaren in the grid at Zandvoort for the 1968 Dutch Grand Prix

Bruce McLaren at Zandvoort, 1968

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Everything was now in position to have a proper crack at F1 in 1968: off-the-peg DFVs, reigning champ Hulme (from Brabham) and M7A, another promising bonded monocoque. At which point Herd dropped his bombshell: he was leaving. “I knew where my weaknesses were and felt I was riding on the back of the quality that was at McLaren,” he explains. “Bruce offered me far more money than Cosworth, plus shares, but I was leaving to learn, not to earn more money.

“Looking back, though, I should have stayed. Bruce and Teddy were fantastic. Bruce related the engineering to the driving and vice versa — the vital link that allowed us to become successful quickly — but without Teddy’s work I think it might have all been a bit of a balls-up. He had a ‘bad cop’ reputation only because he was more prepared than Bruce to make the difficult decisions.”

M7A won first time out — a dominant show by Bruce in the Race of Champions — and scored wins that year at Silverstone (International Trophy, Denny), Spa (Bruce, the team’s first GP win), Monza and Mont Tremblant (both Denny), as the squad blended, filled and smoothed after Herd’s departure.

Bruce originally asked Coppuck to become chief designer. Whereas Robin had basically been plucked from university, Gordon, barring National Service, had been working diligently through the NGTE drawing office since 1952.

“I had a very secure, if very sober, job,” he says. “But after Robin called to ask if I was interested in joining McLaren, I took two weeks’ holiday and spent them at Feltham. I was impressed by the atmosphere — magnificently friendly, full of good humour — and the speed at which drawings became parts; I was used to waiting a year.” He was hooked.

Coppuck was undemonstrative, determined — and honest: he told Bruce that he didn’t yet feel ready to be chief designer. So Swiss-born Jo Marquart was recruited from Lotus, and although it soon dawned on Coppuck that his new colleague had no more experience than he, they got on well.

“In truth I don’t think either of us was confident enough to replace Robin; he was in a league of his own,” says Coppuck. “Our first project was M8A: Jo did the front, I did the back. It turned out OK.” It won five of 1968’s six Can-Am races.

Marquart’s F1 cars, however, were less successful: the four-wheel-drive M9A swallowed up a huge amount of the 1969 budget for zero return, and his reworking of the M7-series, 1970’s M14A, was steady rather than spectacular. Can-Am was still its banker, but the team’s European arm was looking shaky in the aftermath of Bruce’s death.

Denny Hulme in 1968 McLaren Ford

Denny Hulme at Zandvoort, 1968

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Australian Ralph Bellamy was recruited to buttress the drawing office and he designed M19A after Marquart tipped him the wink about his imminent departure. Its use of rising-rate suspension made it difficult to sort, while its Coke-bottle shape restricted straight-line speed. The team won only one GP in 1971-72, while Bellamy, no fan of McLaren’s inclusive working practices, moved to Brabham after only a year.

It was time for Coppuck to run the show. His 1970 M15 Indycar, basically a single-seat Can-Am, had put the wind up the 500’s regulars. Its successor blew them away. M16, with its wings, wedge nose and hipster rads, was a Lotus 72 for ovals. Mark Donohue recorded Indy’s first 180mph lap — a 10mph increase! — in testing and was running away with the race when his gearbox broke. A more conservative approach the following year, however, saw his Penske-run M16B prevail.

“M16 changed my life,” says Coppuck. “I always felt Can-Am was an inherited success. In contrast, no one expected us to turn Indy on its head; it was this success that convinced me I could do it. It also proved we were still credible as a team.”

It would be another year, however, before Coppuck was completely convinced of McLaren’s rosy future: Denny Hulme’s first GP pole position, at Kyalami in 1973, swung it for him. M23, Coppuck’s first F1 design, had managed less than a day’s testing before being flown to South Africa. “My knowledge had expanded beyond the drawing board,” says Coppuck. “A lot I learned at Indy went into M23. We’d found bigger was better. There was a long-held scepticism in F1 about exceeding a 100-inch wheelbase; we went way beyond with the first M23, and got bigger and bigger.”

Three GP wins — Sweden (Hulme), Britain and Canada (both Peter Revson) — came in 1973, but car and team were better than this. The discrepancy could no longer be countenanced, for McLaren’s focus was changing. Although its Indycar programme would survive until 1979 — and win Indy again in 1974 and ’76 — Porsche’s turbowagens had capped McLaren’s Can-Am gusher in 1972. Neatly, F1 was about to strike it rich and its spiralling importance demanded that McLaren land a top-line driver and a major sponsor.

“By 1973 F1 was more commercially important to us than our American programmes,” says Mayer. “Financial parity had probably been achieved at about the time of Bruce’s death, and so it wasn’t a difficult decision to leave Can-Am.”

Denny Hulme in McLaren Ford in 1972 Argentine Grand Prix

Hulme recovered from Indy burns to lead the team after Bruce’s death. He’s shown here at Argentina, ’72

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Coppuck: “I didn’t feel we were stepping away from Bruce by leaving Can-Am. He always stressed that the company had to be commercially successful. He would have made the same decisions.” His shadow, however, was beginning to fade.

“We still had a very good atmosphere, but it was more intense. It wasn’t a miserable place to work, but Bruce had been the leader you’d always hoped for. The company was growing now. Eventually, even Bruce would have been able to keep tabs on everything only via his heads of department.”

Of these, it was Alastair Caldwell who was barging the team through this period of transition. Another Kiwi, he’d joined in 1967 and worked “lunatic hours” ever since.

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“Bruce was a fantastic guy, a great leader and a friend,” says Caldwell. “His death was a disaster. If I’d had the fare I’d have returned to New Zealand. It’s sad but true, however, that the F1 team did quite well without him. I was made racing manager in 1970, but actually I’d been running our F1 show for a long time [as chief mechanic]: Tyler was in the States and Bruce could only concentrate on one job at a time. He’d spend time with us during winter but veer to the other programmes when they kicked off. I felt we were third in the pecking order.

“This, though, was changing. The arrival in 1974 of Marlboro and Emerson Fittipaldi and his Texaco money were the keys to our future success. M23 was strong and we soon made it reliable, while its big flat bottom gave it the potential to become the first ground effect F1; over time, we put skirts on it, cut a hole in its floor to a create negative pressure… That’s how we survived, by pushing, pushing.” And winning.

“The truth is that no one person held the team together. No one made any speeches. No one jumped into Bruce’s shoes. We had lots of good people, and the team held itself together.”

It had taken it three years to recover from the debilitating loss of its talismanic leader. And it had done so by doing its job(s) to the best of its ability. Would Bruce have approved?

“Yeah,” says Mayer. “He probably would have kept his M6GT road car programme running, but otherwise he would have been happy with how the team progressed. He and I had always considered the ultimate challenge to be F1…”

And the team won the drivers’ and constructors’ title in 1974. Yeah, Bruce would have approved.