If you were paying close attention to the 2010 F1 championship you’ll recall that the McLaren team took a total of 16 podiums over the course of the season. So, with today being day 16 of Badger’s advent calendar, we thought it a perfect time to take a look back at the man who gave the F1 heavyweights their name: Bruce McLaren.
McLaren is widely recognised around the world as one of Formula One’s great teams, alongside such names as Ferrari or Lotus, and a list of people who have driven for them would include the great and the good of F1: James Hunt, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Keke Rosberg, Niki Lauda, Gilles Villeneuve, Mika Häkkinen, David Coulthard (and not forgetting the great and the surly of F1, such as Kimi and Fernando).
What many people aren’t necessarily aware of though is just who Bruce McLaren (the man the team’s named after) was and why he is such a major figure in the world of motorsport. Hopefully this article will put that right.
Bruce McLaren was born in Auckland, New Zealand in 1937. His parents ran a petrol station and garage where young Bruce spent most of his spare time. However, at the age of nine, Bruce was struck down with Perthes disease, a degenerative bone disease which affects the hip joint. As a result of this Bruce had to spend two years in traction and often had a slight limp as his left leg was slightly shorter than his right.
One anecdote from this time that reveals much about his character and determination is the story of how he led a group of fellow young patients on a night-time run around the winding, downhill paths of the hospital on their four wheeled spinal trolleys, including a multiple shunt in the flowerbeds, before getting them all back into their places in the ward undiscovered and unharmed.
Despite the difficulties caused by the disease and its treatment, or more likely because of it, Bruce entered his first motor competition at the age of fourteen, a hill climb in an Austin 7 Ulster. Two years later he was competing in motor races proper and progressed from the Austin 7 to a Ford 10, then an Austin-Healey, eventually driving an F2 Cooper-Climax sports car, which he had modified himself and which he drove to the runner up position in the 1957-8 New Zealand Championship Series.
These impressive performances did not go unnoticed especially by the New Zealand International Grand Prix Association, who were setting up a scheme called ‘Driver in Europe’, which was aimed at giving promising Kiwi racers the opportunity to compete at a high level against the best drivers in the world. Bruce was chosen as the first recipient of this award in 1958 and travelled to Britain with his mechanic Colin Beanland, where they joined the Cooper team.
At the 1958 Nurbürgring in a combined F1 and F2 race Bruce came in fifth overall and first of the F2 cars, which caused Jack Brabham to comment: ‘I don’t know. A couple of Arabs came over with three spanners and a spare wheel just to fill up the entry list and then they win the bloody race!’
He stayed with Cooper for seven years, notching up three race wins and coming second in the Drivers’ Championship in 1960 and third in 1962. His first race victory in the 1959 US Grand Prix made him the youngest driver at the time to win a Grand Prix. When he won the opening race of the next season in Argentina he became the youngest driver to ever lead the championship, a record which he held until it was finally beaten by Fernando Alonso.
In 1966 he founded McLaren Racing with Teddy Mayer, the American motorsport entrepreneur, making it the oldest surviving team in Formula One apart from Ferrari, and designed and raced his own cars, initially as the sole driver. He claimed the team’s first Grand Prix victory at Spa in 1968 driving the M7A in its distinctive orange livery and went on to achieve second place in the constructors’ championship that season. By that stage he had been joined in the team by fellow Kiwi Denny Hulme, who had won the 1967 Drivers’ Championship for Brabham: the original team logo featured the famous NZ bird on a shield and his car carried the ‘Speedy Kiwi’ logo.
As well as competing in Formula One the McLaren team also took part in the Can-Am sports car series with such success that in 1969 they won all eleven races, and took all three podiums in two of them. Bruce also won the 1966 Le Mans 24 Hour with yet another Kiwi, Chris Amon, as his co-driver.
On the 2nd June 1970 Bruce was testing his new M8D Can-Am sports car at Goodwood when the rear bodywork came apart at speed, causing the car to spin and crash into a concrete bunker. Bruce died instantly, to the great shock of all in the motorsport world.
In 1964 Bruce McLaren wrote a book, called ‘From the Cockpit’. In it he talked of the death of fellow driver Timmy Mayer, the younger brother of Teddy, and that quote has for many people become Bruce McLaren’s own unofficial epitaph. It is one of my personal favourite quotations, and I can think of no better way than that of concluding this tribute to one of the truly great drivers, designers, engineers and all round human beings in the world of Formula One.
‘The news that he had died instantly was a terrible shock to all of us, but who is to say that he had not seen more, done more and learned more in his few years than many people do in a lifetime? To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.’