With a respectful nod to New Delhi and Abu Dhabi, imminent as those Grands Prix are, as the Austin Texas Grand Prix approaches hot on their heels I find myself pondering the not inconsiderable contribution made to McLaren’s 50-year history by Americans.
In fact, it was an American, Dan Gurney, who was recruited by Bruce McLaren’s deputies, Teddy Mayer and Tyler Alexander, Americans themselves, to drive the team’s gloriously potent M8D at the Can-Am season’s inaugural race at Mosport Park (Canada) on June 14th 1970, not quite two weeks after Bruce McLaren himself had perished in a testing accident at Goodwood (UK).
Dan won from pole position, and McLaren won nine of the 10 Can-Am races that were held that season. Truly those boys were made of the right stuff, able to dredge triumph even from the darkest adversity.
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Dan was the lanky, affable son of an opera singer, and his expertise and sure touch were just what McLaren needed at that most fragile time for the team’s morale. Even so, in Formula 1 he was perhaps past his prime. Having said that, as I watched the practice sessions for the 1970 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, two drivers made a strong impression on my memory by careering into the gravel trap at Clearways and only just managing to tease their cars back under control as they avoided the unyielding earth bank that fronted the spectator areas. The two were Dan in the McLaren M14A and a young Austrian who seemed to be making very heavy weather of F3 qualifying at the wheel of a McNamara. Little did we know it at the time, but this out-of-control kid was a future McLaren world champion in the making: Niki Lauda.
Midway through the 1971 racing season, McLaren team principal Mayer decided it was time for another change on the F1 driver front, opting to replace the popular British driver Peter Gethin with the unusually cerebral Mark Donohue, another American. With the collaboration of Roger Penske, for whose teams Donohue drove Stateside, Mark was drafted into the second McLaren M19A for the Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport Park. In heavy rain he splashed his way to an impressive third place behind Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell and Ronnie Peterson’s March.
Many F1 insiders confidently expected McLaren to make a pitch for Donohue’s full-time F1 services for 1972, but instead he stayed on his own side of the Atlantic where he nonetheless brought added lustre to McLaren’s reputation by winning the Indy 500 at the wheel of a Penske-run McLaren. Instead, yet another American, the Revlon cosmetics heir Peter Revson, moved over the pond to take McLaren’s spare F1 seat alongside Denny Hulme for a second year in 1972 and 1973, winning the latter season’s British and Canadian Grands Prix.
Despite Revson’s success and popularity, he had a slightly strained relationship with Mayer, of whose late brother Timmy he had once been a classmate at Cornell University and a fledgling Formula Junior team-mate in the early 1960s.
As a result, in 1974 Peter switched to the emergent Shadow team, whose new DN3 challenger looked very promising. Tragically, though, he was killed when his car suffered a suspension breakage in the final pre-season test at Kyalami, South Africa.
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The following year, tyre failure caused Donohue to crash his Penske-entered March in practice for the Austrian Grand Prix at the Osterreichring. He appeared to be unhurt initially, but the next day he began to complain of a headache and admitted himself to a hospital in Graz for a check-up. Another day later he died of a cerebral haemorrhage, the result of a bang on the head sustained during the shunt that neither he nor anyone else had thought serious at the time. F1 was like that, back then.
As I say, Donohue was an unusually intellectual racer, having earned a degree in mechanical engineering at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. He was serious about body as well as mind, too, and started each day with 300 press-ups. But in terms of in-cockpit derring-do Revson was arguably the more naturally talented of the two. Indeed, there are those who believe that he was potentially the best F1 driver ever produced by the United States, better even than Gurney or Phil Hill or Mario Andretti, the latter two being the country’s only F1 champions (in respectively 1961 and 1978). Had Revson been able to stay at McLaren for 1974, rather than leaving for Shadow to escape Mayer, he might well have been able to go head-to-head with Emerson Fittipaldi for the F1 world championship. Emerson it was who won it that year, of course, McLaren’s first ever.
Moreover, to go with his talent, Revson had bucket-loads of charm, and his presence in the glossy lifestyle magazines of the early 1970s pre-dated today’s generation of rather less sophisticated publications by decades (Loaded, anyone?). But your humble correspondent (ie, me) also recalls him as a courteous and very helpful chap who was always prepared to chat about cars and motor racing with anyone who presented themselves for the purpose.
When, we wonder, will F1 deliver another driver from the land of the free? And will he, like the incomparably nicknamed Revvie, win Grands Prix for McLaren?
“Soon” and “yes”, I hope, are the answers.