What has made McLaren so successful over the past 50 years, whether we are considering Bruce McLaren as the prime driving force behind its founding on September 2nd 1963, or the starkly drawn statistics that underpin the company’s extraordinarily impressive progression since that date, the historian comes back to a basic truism: namely that this Kiwi-Brit corporate bastion of motor racing excellence has always achieved the best results from the conditions that prevailed at any point in its history.
The more you look at it, the more you are compelled to conclude that the McLaren story is a quite remarkable litany of achievement – all the more so when you do the arithmetic and remind yourself that, astonishingly, only 12 short years separated Bruce’s 1958 arrival on the international motor racing scene and his tragic death at Goodwood in 1970.
Yet, 43 years farther on from that dreadful day, Bruce’s spirit lives on, embedded in the DNA of one of the most famous, prestigious and successful organisations the sport of motor racing has ever seen.
Bruce would have liked that, for, even though he might have found the somewhat ascetic vibe that the team projected particularly throughout the 1980s and ’90s, he would certainly have found much to attract his attention and interest throughout that period too. He would also have been at the front of the queue when it came to complimenting Ron Dennis on building a businesslike foundation on which to move the company forward to glory after glory after glory.
But the exercise of indulging in that kind of fantasy necessarily raises speculation as to how Bruce would have shaped the team’s future had he survived. On the face of it, the sheer ordinariness of the company and its management was initially its strongest card. Born in the comfortable Auckland suburb of Remuera on August 30th 1937, Bruce found himself absorbed into a world of cars and motorsport from the cradle. His father was a respected member of the New Zealand motor racing community, the owner of a successful garage who imbued young Bruce with a sound technical background that lit the path of the road that he would later follow to such great effect.
In truth, though, there was even more to it than that. Of his compatriots, it was only Denny Hulme, who would win the 1967 Formula 1 World Championship for Jack Brabham’s Brabham team, beating ‘black Jack in so doing, would eclipse Bruce in terms of in-cockpit achievement.
As a constructor, or ‘garagiste’ as he and his ilk were dismissively characterised by none other than Enzo Ferrari, McLaren was soon, and indubitably remains, pre-eminent in the annals of New Zealand’s motor racing history. Ironically, though, BMMR (Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd) was established as a result of Bruce’s frustration with the Cooper team, for which he was driving in the early 1960s. Charles Cooper, the team’s authoritarian founder, believed that one of its standard Formula 1 cars would be more than capable of winning the Tasman Series which Bruce was slated to enter. With that thought in mind, he vetoed Bruce’s plans to produce his own specially modified ‘McLaren’ version of the car, and thus forced Bruce to go it alone.
Looking at it all in a historical perspective, that disagreement was the key catalyst responsible for underpinning Bruce’s one small step, whose culmination has been the one giant leap that the company that bears his name has made, and continues to make, towards its present pre-eminence as the mind-bogglingly impressive corporate edifice that is McLaren Group and McLaren Automotive. For Ron and his colleagues and staff, as for Bruce, only the best has ever been acceptable. Or, to put it another way, ‘good enough’ has never been good enough for anyone at McLaren, and surely never will be.
Bruce’s plan worked – and success in the Tasman series made it inevitable that he would extend his ambitions, moving his team into Formula 1 in anticipation of the new 3.0-litre regulations that would replace the 1.5-litre formula for the start of the 1966 season. For many teams, including Bruce’s, the change of rules triggered a spate of feverish technical innovation, using pretty much any power unit available. McLaren was for example forced to rely on the BRM V8 and even the Serenissima V8 in 1966, and then the BRM V12 in 1967, before the Cosworth DFV V8 became the preferred engine of choice for most of the grid and McLaren duly began winning Formula 1 races with it on a regular basis from the 1968 onwards, starting with non-championship victories at Brands Hatch and Silverstone.
The team’s first victory in a World Championship Grand Prix came at Spa-Francorchamps later that year, fittingly with Bruce himself at the wheel, leading home Pedro Rodriguez’s BRM in second place and Jacky Ickx’s Ferrari in third. A young Scot named Jackie Stewart finished fourth in a Matra. It was Bruce’s first and only World Championship Grand Prix win for McLaren.
Fittingly, too, it was the very first World Championship Grand Prix in which wings had been used to confer aerodynamic downforce – on the Ferrari driven by Ickx’s team-mate Chris Amon, which duly secured pole position but was stopped by a broken radiator. Why ‘fittingly’? Why... because aerodynamics is a black art that, over the 45 years that have passed since the McLaren team’s inaugural World Championship Grand Prix victory in Belgium in 1968, it has consistently and relentlessly shown itself to be unsurpassably adept at mastering, year in year out, month in month out, race in race out.
Long may it continue, starting again in Australia next month.