Heading across the North Atlantic in early summer for a weekend in Montreal is, for many folks in Formula 1, one of the highlights of a bustling, busy year.
Not only is the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve a sharpened blade of a racetrack (more than capable of blooding the very best at the aptly named Wall of Champions), Montreal is a beautiful city of great cultural richness, and the Quebecois a knowledgeable, passionate and truly reverent bunch of grand prix disciples.
If prevailing thought suggests that winning in Canada represents a metaphorical rolling of the dice – the race is often unpredictable, wild, crash-strewn and hugely exciting – then McLaren is pretty deft at calling the odds: the team has won in Canada on no fewer than 13 occasions, taking the chequer first in Montreal nine times, and winning the last three Canadian Grands Prix.
McLaren has always gone well in Canada, in fact.
Canadian Grand Prix FP3 and Qualifying Report
Indeed, the BRM V12-engined McLaren M5A came spectacularly close to posting the team’s first victory in an F1 world championship-qualifying round at the inaugural Canadian GP in August 1967 – held at the rough and ready Mosport Park, a short journey outside Toronto.
The M5A was something of an interim GP challenger for McLaren. The chassis had been readied quite early in 1967, but the delay in finally installing the BRM V12 in its engine bay rather drifted. The season’s title battle started with typical vigour, only for Jim Clark to thrash the entire field in the Dutch GP at Zandvoort, driving the new Cosworth DFV-propelled Lotus 49.
As everyone doubtless knows, that race was something of a marker in the metaphorical sand: Clark’s victory was so comprehensive, that it immediately became clear that McLaren would have to follow the DFV route themselves for 1968.
That meant that the M5A was pretty much outdated before it even turned a wheel in competitive action. Even so, it acquitted itself rather well.
By the standards of today’s high-tech and very precise F1 engineering, the M5A was all a bit of a compromise. The fact that the BRM V12 engine turned out to be a tad longer than the factory assembly crew had expected meant that there had to be some compromises when it came to packaging some of the ancillary equipment, too.
Those compromises included the water pump and distributors, which both strayed into the cockpit. The fateful decision not to equip the car with an alternator was eventually its fateful undoing – at least as far as a good result in Canada was concerned.
In rainy conditions, Bruce ran up with the leaders until he had a spin on the rain-slicked track surface. As the track began to dry out, Bruce hauled back to chase future team-mate Denny Hulme’s Brabham-Repco for the lead.
But then Bruce’s BRM engine started to misfire, the battery having overheated and run flat. Bruce had to make a pit stop for a replacement battery to be fitted - a costly delay that totally ruled him out of contention. He settled for seventh, a respectable enough result on a debut performance, but less by far that what they had expected.
Yet the M5A still had some decent promise to display over the remaining races of the 1967 season. At Monza, Bruce qualified on the front row of the grid and was flexing his muscles with 20 laps to go, racing wheel-to-wheel with John Surtees’ Honda, when a cylinder liner in the BRM V12 suddenly shattered.
McLaren and the Indy 500
Sadly, the car also failed to finish in the US GP at Watkins Glen. Its very last outing as a works entry came in the 1968 South African GP at Kyalami where Denny, newly recruited from Brabham to partner Bruce, finished fifth.
The car was then sold to Jo Bonnier whose most respectable result was sixth at Monza later that year. The car ended its life as a piece of modern art hanging on the – admittedly very high – wall of Bonnier’s lakeside villa in Switzerland.
Although switching to Cosworth DFV power was supremely logical, that didn’t stop Bruce from experimenting with freebie Alfa Romeo V8s from the start of 1970. Disappointingly, they proved to be disappointingly uncompetitive and ended up as scraps on the McLaren table for 1971, from where they were swept up by the ambitiously emergent March team. But they couldn’t do anything worthwhile with the Alfas either, eventually throwing them in the rubbish bin too.
Meanwhile, Bonnier sadly lived to enjoy his ‘suspended McLaren’ for less than a year after hoisting and securing it to his wall. The aristocratic millionaire Swede, heir to a publishing fortune, was killed at Le Mans in 1972 when his Lola sports car vaulted into the trees after crashing into the back of a Ferrari Daytona.
If the M5A venture proved anything, it was that McLaren was keenly ambitious and audacious about engaging with different engine suppliers in order to gain a competitive advantage. That’s truer than ever today: with Honda waiting in the wings, and a new engine formula about to roll out, we’re once again reminded that history is indeed cyclical.