The day McLaren won in a McLaren: 'We were all so excited'


Former McLaren F1 team manager Alastair Caldwell recalls his most satisfying moment in the sport, at the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix when Bruce McLaren won at Spa in his own car

McLaren in a McLaren

McLaren in a McLaren: Bruce on his way to a first world championship GP victory in a car bearing his name – Spa, 1968

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It was an incredible F1 achievement, and it quite simply hasn’t been replicated since.

Bruce McLaren’s win in his eponymous M7A grand prix machine at the 1968 Belgian GP was the just reward for years of toil and perseverance, and no driver in their own car has managed to step on the top step since – Emerson Fittipaldi came closest with a second at the Brazilian GP ten years later.

McLaren’s achievement is one recognised by his former mechanic and Alastair Caldwell as his favourite F1 memory in our January 2023 issue, saying “It was a great day for New Zealand, a great day for McLaren.”

Caldwell, who also recalls going on to win titles as team manager at McLaren with Fittipaldi and James Hunt in our latest Motor Sport Interview, joined the squad in 1967, and remembers an unerringly kind and good-natured fellow Kiwi at the helm.

Start of the 1968 Belgian GP

Hulme’s bright orange McLaren in the middle of the grid at the start of the 1968 Belgian GP

Grand Prix Photo

“I didn’t meet Bruce until my second day there,” he remembers. “I’d started as a cleaner, became a fabricator and then a mechanic on the cars. He was immediately very friendly, nice to me, and asked me about the trip from New Zealand.

“Bruce was a natural leader. He never criticised people, he led by praise and positive encouragement, so if there was no praise you knew you hadn’t done a good job.”

From the archive

Just months later Caldwell was in the race team, helping to engineer McLaren’s M5A at the ’67 Italian GP. Fifty-five years later, his fellow Kiwi recalls the humour which kept the team a happy ship.

“Before Monza in ’67 we were working late on the V12 BRM-engined car and Bruce turned up, went out and got us some oil to fill the tank,” says Caldwell.

“He kept on pouring it in until we realised there was no bung in the tank. Bruce retreated with his smart shoes covered in oil. All good fun. He was a very cheerful, positive person and that always goes down well with everyone.”

McLaren was an increasingly competitive prospect over time, and by 1968 the team had in the M7A a serious challenger.

McLaren and Pedro Rodriguez

McLaren, right, with Pedro Rodriguez on the podium, Spa, ’68

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It all built up to a moment which Caldwell still says is his best in motor sport.

“It was the only grand prix he ever won in his own car, McLaren in a McLaren, and the first one the team ever won,” says Caldwell with relish.

“It was interesting because Bruce had brought some fancy new driveshafts that weekend, insisted we run them, but Allan McCall, who looked after Denny Hulme’s car, found some burring on them, a little hot spot, the night before the race. I didn’t like the look of this so during the night I put the old Hardy Spicer driveshafts back on Bruce’s car.

“On race morning Bruce hobbled into the garage and instantly asked me why I’d taken off the new driveshafts. I told him what I’d seen, that I wasn’t confident they’d go the distance. He spoke to Allan, came back, and said, ‘Little Al says the new ones will be fine.’ Bruce then ordered me to use the new ones but I refused. The guys were astounded that I’d stood up to Bruce. We’d always done everything by mutual agreement between us. He wasn’t happy, stomping off.

“Then come the race Denny retired from second place after 18 laps. A driveshaft had failed. Bruce was running fourth, or fifth, but people were dropping out ahead of him. Seeing him come through the field, I was changing the pitboard, P3, P2 and then P1 as he crossed the line. After the race Bruce asked me, ‘What happened to Denny?’ I said, ‘Driveshaft,’ and it was never spoken about again. It was a great day for New Zealand, a great day for McLaren. We were all so excited.

“That’s a highlight if, or when, I’m looking back over life in grand prix racing.”