A quick glance at the last week’s Formula 1 headlines might lead you to believe that the sport lacks something in the way of leadership at the moment. After all, when certain figures within the sport are choosing to dismiss their own product you start to wonder whether they need to attend a management refresher course in the three weeks between the Chinese and Spanish Grands Prix.
But who am I suggest such a thing?
In terms of leadership, however, McLaren Racing has always been well served throughout the decades. But while some motor racing historians may wish to portray Bruce McLaren as the solitary genius who forged the McLaren template, the truth is actually rather more prosaic.
Bruce was able to unlock the secrets of motor racing success by virtue of surrounding himself with a group of very capable and accomplished lieutenants, with whom he shared a mutual respect, worked diligently alongside, and listened closely to what they had to suggest.
It was very much a two-way street: Bruce was never the sort of guy to buy a dog and then waste time and energy barking himself. He empowered people with both the skills and self-belief to go out and get the job done.
Perhaps Bruce’s greatest gift was the Midas touch he possessed in selecting suitably qualified confederates; sharp-thinking and like-minded operators absolutely like himself.
I was recently reminded that one such member of this little group was a spiky little American lawyer called Edward Everett Mayer – known to one and all as Teddy.
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Back when Teddy was a big player at McLaren – he was team principal for the entirety of the 1970s – he briefly made my life hell when I was starting out on the road towards establishing myself as a member of F1’s journalistic community.
Now, Teddy was no shrinking violet by anybody’s standards – in fact, he could kick up one hell of a storm when provoked. That was a talent I discovered much to my cost during the summer of 1973 when, as freshly appointed F1 correspondent on Motoring News, I found myself manoeuvred into the position where I was ‘politically steamrollered’ by the McLaren director.
The issue seems minor and trifling in retrospect: basically, Mayer pulled strings within the Motoring News management to get a news story I had submitted about the team’s future sponsorship arrangements pulled from the news pages. It was a salutary lesson for me at an early stage in my journalistic career, and one I remembered for a very long time.
It was a mark of Teddy’s ability to wrangle in order to get things done.
Well connected in US motor racing circles since the early 1960s when he ran a couple of F3 cars for his dazzlingly talented younger brother Timmy and Peter Revson, Teddy was always able to get whatever was needed to keep his racing ambitions afloat.
After Timmy was killed in Longford, Tasmania, practicing for a race at which he would play the role of Bruce’s team-mate, Teddy suddenly found himself at something of a loose end, unsure of exactly where his career would take him next.
But a timely opportunity came Teddy’s way – and, by chance, it was within Bruce McLaren’s orbit. Bruce was looking for somebody with good US motor racing connections to handle the purchase of the big V8-engined cooper-Zerex sports car. He’d agreed to purchase the model from Roger Penske, the US racing entrepreneur who would become one of of the McLaren team’s most serious rivals in the decade that followed.
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From that point on, it was only a short hop and jump into F1 for the McLaren gang and all their associates – including Mayer.
“Bruce got involved with Firestone and their tyre test programme,” Teddy told me almost 20 years later, “and, because he was also tied up with Ford for their Le Mans programme, we tried to persuade them to give us some help with an F1 project based round their 4.5-litre V8 engine.”
That was a project which came to not-very-much-at-all; and deservedly so, according to Mayer. “By the time it had been re-worked as a 3-litre engine for the 1966 season, there really wasn’t much hope.” Be that as it may, Mayer had now got his feet firmly under the table at McLaren and quickly made himself an indispensable part of the company’s equation as racing in general and F1 in particular entered a more professional era in the late 1960s.
After Bruce’s tragic death testing one of the CanAm McLarens at Goodwood during the early summer of 1970, it was Mayer’s connections and also his dollars which helped steady the McLaren ship going into the next decade.
And if the ultra-conservative UK motor racing community found Teddy a little hard to get on with at times, there was precious little criticism of the amount of graft he was prepared to expend in order to give McLaren a competitive break.
Mayer would be presiding over McLaren as team principal during the team’s mid-1970s surge: a competitive zenith that saw Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt storm to world championship glory in 1974 an ’76 respectively. It was a short-lived spurt of success, and was followed by a depressing slump which first saw the hopeless M26 contender reduced to the role of also-ran, then witnessed the even-more-hopeless McLaren M28 slithering about vainly in search of grip.
The downturn was proof – if ever it were needed – that you ought not subscribe to the theory that things can only get better. In McLaren’s case, at the start of the 1980s, it looked as though Mayer was set to preside over F1’s equivalent of an air crash.
To be fair, Mayer never ducked responsibility for whatever went wrong with the M26 during his tenure at the top of the McLaren management tree. And he was even more self-critical when it came to assessing the M28.
“The M28 was ghastly; a disaster,” he told me with a candour rarely demonstrated in the F1 pitlane. “I’m afraid we ignored all the crucial F1 design precepts that a car should be as light, agile and compact as possible.”
He was right, of course. Even the most cursory of glances at M28 told you all you needed to know: you didn’t need to be a designer to appreciate that the boat-like tub and stubby bodywork fell far short of the standard set by the sleek and ergonomic Lotus and Williams chassis, the ground-effect cars the M28 most wished it could emulate.
If M28, following in quick succession after the unloved M26, effectively did for Gordon Coppuck, it was also the final nail in the coffin for Mayer, who stayed on to witness the birth of the difficult and intractable M29 before 1980’s Ron Dennis and Marlboro-led buy-out of the team took place.
Mayer, who sadly died of Parkinson’s disease in 2009, may not always get the recognition he deserved, but he was the lynchpin that held the company together and perpetuated Bruce’s straightforward pragmatism through perhaps its most crucial decade.
If he were with us still, he’d have been the first to put the current politicking to one side in order to get on with the racing!