Exactly 50 years ago today – in other words on Saturday June 6th 1964 – the fourth annual Players 200 took place at Mosport, a circuit constructed in 1961 by the British Empire Motor Club of Canada, situated 60 miles (97km) east of Toronto, and described by my fellow mclaren.com/formula1 blogger Emerson Fittipaldi as “a treacherous switchback”.
Conveniently for the purposes of us mclaren.com/formula1 bloggers, the 1964 Players 200 was won by Bruce McLaren. The train-spotters among you will be interested to know that the car he drove to victory, exactly half-a-century ago today, was a Zerex Special, an oddball contraption built by Bruce himself, based on a 1961 Cooper T53 Formula 1 car and sporting eight straight exhaust pipes splaying near-vertically off a mid-mounted 3.5-litre Oldsmobile V8.
The Players 200 was a round of the Canadian Sports Car Championship, a little-remembered series inaugurated in 1961 and axed in 1967. But, having kicked off this blog with what must be considered an impressively arcane couple of paragraphs even by my standards, what I want to focus on from here on in is Mosport’s Formula 1 era, and specifically McLaren’s glorious part in that odyssey.
The first ever Canadian Grand Prix was indeed run at Mosport, in 1961, but it was a non-championship race; it was followed by five more Canadian Grands Prix of similarly non-championship status.
The first championship-status Canadian Grand Prix was therefore held in 1967, also at Mosport, and it was won by Jack Brabham, in a Brabham-Repco BT24, his team-mate Denny Hulme following him home in second place. Bruce was running as high as second in his new McLaren-BRM M5A during a rainy stage of the race, but he gradually dropped back as the rain abated and the track surface dried, and ended up finishing only seventh.
The following year, 1968, the Canadian Grand Prix moved to Mont Tremblant, where Denny and Bruce finished first and second in that order, each at the wheel of a McLaren-Cosworth M7A, thereby posting McLaren’s first ever one-two finish in Formula 1. Mont Tremblant would host the Canadian Grand Prix just once more, in 1970, Jacky Ickx and Clay Regazzoni finishing first and second in that order, each at the wheel of a Ferrari 312B.
So, yes, that’s right, train-spotters, there’s a tasty bit of Formula 1 trivia contained in the paragraph above: Mont Tremblant is the only circuit in Formula 1 history which can claim that 100 percent of its results have been one-twos.
(And here’s some more tasty Formula 1 trivia, since you didn’t ask. The intervening Canadian Grand Prix, the 1969 event, had also been won by Jacky Ickx, this time driving a Brabham-Cosworth BT26A, with Jack Brabham’s identical car second. So, yes, that’s right, train-spotters: that’s four Canadian Grand Prix one-twos in a row, and I’m not sure whether that’s a record or not, but, if you know better, please take to Twitter to tell everyone, mentioning @McLarenF1 and even @f1alanhenry if you like.)
After the Ferrari one-two in 1970 there would be only six more Canadian Grands Prix held at Mosport – in 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976 and 1977 – the race having been cancelled in 1975 and the Circuit Ile Notre Dame (now known as the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve) taking over permanently in 1978.
(That first Montreal year, at the wheel of a Ferrari 312 T3, Gilles fittingly won the inaugural grand prix at the circuit that would bear his name from 1982 onwards, following his death during qualifying for that year’s Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder.)
Of those six last Canadian Grands Prix at Mosport, Jackie Stewart won two – driving a Tyrrell-Cosworth 003 in 1971 and a Tyrrell-Cosworth 005 in 1972 – and McLaren then won the next three on the trot, courtesy of Peter Revson (1973), Emerson Fittipaldi (1974) and James Hunt (1976).
The 1973 Canadian Grand Prix was a truly extraordinary motor race. I’ve heard some strange pronouncements in my 40 years of reporting our sometimes peculiar sport, but none quite as odd as the request yelled by the clerk of the course across the Mosport press room an hour after the 1973 Canadian Grand Prix had ended.
The wretched official’s problem was that, bluntly, he hadn’t a clue who’d won the race. Formula 1 didn’t use electronic timing systems in those days, you see, so lap charts had to be done manually. Pit-stops were comparatively rare, so there was usually no disputing the clerk of the course’s decision re official classification. But on Sunday September 23rd 1973 the heavens opened over Mosport – and, after Jody Scheckter (McLaren-Cosworth M23) and Francois Cevert (Tyrrell-Cosworth 006) had collided on lap 33, and a pace car had been incorrectly deployed, its driver failing to pick up the leader and thereby allowing those left ahead of him to gain almost an entire lap by racing hell-for-leather while their rivals were dutifully following the pace car at a comparative snail’s pace, chaos reigned.
To his astonishment, Jackie Oliver (Shadow-Cosworth DN1) consequently found himself leading the race, Peter Revson (McLaren-Cosworth M23) in second place. Peter then overtook Jackie, assuming a very fortunate lead – but Emerson, whose Lotus-Cosworth 72E had been one of the cars that the pace car driver had successfully picked up, spent the last part of the race hard-charging his way through the field, passing all but Revvie’s McLaren, and ending up an unlucky (and angry) second.
Emmo on Bruce, Denny, Can-Am and Indy
Predictably, the famously prickly Lotus boss, Colin Chapman, was also livid, and began to berate the clerk of the course for the mayhem he’d allowed to manifest itself unfettered, claiming Emerson as the rightful winner – hence the enquiry yelled across the press room.
In the end some sort of order was restored, and a decision made, but we had to wait three or four hours for the result to be confirmed, and when the announcement came the winners were declared as Revson and McLaren.
A win is a win, but it can’t be considered one of the finest of McLaren’s 182 grand prix victories, truth be told.
(It would be Peter’s second and final grand prix win, for he was killed while testing a Shadow-Cosworth DN3 at Kyalami in March the following year.)
The 1974 Canadian Grand Prix was a rather simpler affair – but no less exciting for that. By now Emerson had left Lotus and joined McLaren, and he duly took the Mosport pole in his McLaren-Cosworth M23. Alongside him, P2, was Niki Lauda’s Ferrari 312 B3.
Niki got the better start, but Emerson tucked in close behind, and sat behind Niki for lap after lap, never choosing to essay a passing manoeuvre but never dropping back either, rarely more than 1.5 seconds behind.
By lap 30, the Ferrari’s greater straight-line speed had enabled Niki to pull out a gap of 5.5 seconds – “I needed binoculars to see him on the straights,” Emmo quipped after the race – but the McLaren was quicker in the corners and Emerson hadn’t given up. Besides, he was 20 seconds ahead of Jody’s third-placed Tyrrell-Cosworth 007, so, although he didn’t want to jeopardise a secure second place, he wanted to make sure he stayed as close to Niki’s leading Ferrari as he could, so that he’d be able to pounce should a mishap befall the Austrian in the late stages of the race.
By lap 50, the gap was down, but not by much: Niki was 4.5 seconds ahead.
On lap 60, it was closer still: Niki was just 3.5 seconds to the good.
Emerson summoned one last effort, and began to powerslide the nimble M23 around Mosport’s long sweeping bends, inching his McLaren’s nose-cone ever closer to the Ferrari’s rear wing.
In the end the pressure told on Niki, who was in his first season for Ferrari, having driven without great success (whatever the makers of ‘Rush’ would have you believe) in 1971, 1972 and 1973 for March and BRM. On lap 70, as the two cars charged towards Turn Three, a fast and tricky right-hander, Niki spun off… leaving Emerson unchallenged in the lead.
He duly converted that lead into a win, and the nine points he thereby scored brought his points total level with that of Clay Regazzoni, Niki’s team-mate at Ferrari.
There was only one round to go – the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen – and Emerson held his nerve there to win his second and McLaren’s first Formula 1 world championship, passing Clay in a white-knuckle move that he’ll never forget at Turn Two on lap one.
As I say, there was no Canadian Grand Prix in 1975. By 1976 Emerson had left McLaren to join his brother Wilson at their all-Brazilian Copersucar-Fittipaldi outfit, and James Hunt had become the McLaren team leader.
James took the Mosport 1976 pole in the M23 he’d inherited from Emmo by the hefty margin of 0.4sec – a lot on a 72-second lap – and second on the grid was Ronnie ‘Super Swede’ Peterson in a March-Cosworth 761.
On race day, again, the pole-winning M23 was beaten off the line by the man in P2, but James wasn’t a chap who liked hanging about and by lap eight he’d dispatched Ronnie and had begun building a useful lead.
He’d reckoned without Patrick Depailler, however, who’d qualified his six-wheeled Tyrrell-Cosworth P34 only fourth but had quickly worked his way up to second place, passing Ronnie and his March team-mate Vittorio Brambilla in fine style.
By lap 35 Patrick was on James’s tail.
By lap 40 he was just 0.70sec behind.
By lap 50 he was just 0.50sec behind.
By lap 60 he was just 0.30sec behind.
Lap after lap after lap, he sought a way to barge his P34 past James’s M23, but corner after corner after corner James parried his every move.
Suddenly, on lap 75, Patrick had slowed slightly, and James was 3.0sec ahead. James reeled off the last five laps without error, and eventually crossed the finish-line in first place, 6.3sec ahead of Patrick.
What had happened to Patrick in the closing stages? His Tyrrell had developed a fuel leak, that’s what, and the split in the pipe had occurred in such a place and in such a way as to cause petrol to be sprayed directly at his helmet throughout the final five laps.
“The fumes were incredible,” he said afterwards, “and by the end I was quite drunk, driving by automatic pilot.”
That sort of thing used to happen in those days.
So that’s the story of McLaren’s hat-trick of Canadian Grand Prix wins at Mosport – but what happened at the very last Canadian Grand Prix to be held there, the 1977 event, I hear you asking?
Well, that was a dramatic race too – and again Hunt and McLaren played starring roles.
Mario Andretti had taken the pole in his Lotus-Cosworth 78, and James had qualified second-fastest in his new (but never that fast) McLaren-Cosworth M26, the team’s venerable M23 having at last been retired after having won a mammoth 16 grands prix, two drivers’ world championships and one constructors’ world championship in its brilliant career.
Yet again, despite having qualified on the front row of the grid, the leading McLaren was beaten into the first corner by its front-row companion, and so it was that Mario led James on lap one.
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Lap after lap after lap the two circulated more or less nose to tail, lapping at a lick embarrassingly faster than anyone else, and by lap 60 an eerie tension had descended in the press room: there were just 20 laps to go, and just 1.0sec between the two aces, who were never the best of friends, still less so when a grand prix win was clearly at stake.
So far ahead were they, in fact, that on lap 61 they’d lapped every car except that of James’s McLaren team-mate, Jochen Mass, who was running in third place, albeit 72 seconds behind the leading pair.
Would Jochen make things difficult for Mario, in an effort to assist his team-mate? He would. As Mario shaped to lap Jochen into Turn Five on lap 61, the McLaren number-two gave the Lotus number-one no room, causing Mario to take avoiding action, putting two wheels on the grass. He almost spun, in fact, and James duly took the opportunity to nip through into the lead.
For the rest of lap 61, the three cars ran in line astern: Jochen, a lap down, followed closely by a joyous James and an incandescent Mario.
For some reason known only to himself, Jochen waited until Turn Three on lap 62 to wave the leaders through, pulling to the outside of the corner and leaving the inside line free. But, as he did so, James had already lost patience, and was already attempting to lap his team-mate around the outside of the turn. Disaster: the two McLarens touched and spun off, allowing Mario back into the lead.
Jochen was able to restart, but James wasn’t, and that was the end of a truly brilliant drive by him, for his M26 had had no right to be lapping as quickly as it had been, outclassed as it was by the grip-boosting ‘wing car’ aero technology of Mario’s prodigiously rapid 78.
Mario now led by a lap, and was cruising to what looked like certain victory, but the drama wasn’t over yet. With just three laps to go, his ‘development’ Cosworth V8 went pop, leaving Jody as the happy and grateful victor, despite having qualified his Wolf-Cosworth WR1 only ninth and never having been in with a shout all afternoon.
A sheepish Jochen ended up third, behind Patrick’s six-wheeled Tyrrell-Cosworth P34.
So that’s Mosport. Could modern Formula 1 cars race there? In a word, no. It was perilous 40 years ago, and it would be doubly so now. Its run-off areas were stingy back in the day; now, they’d be woefully inadequate.
Moreover, it was proper quick. In its last Formula 1 year, 1977, the fastest lap was set by Mario, at 124.009mph (199.568km/h). That same year, in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza (which he’d won), he’d also driven the fastest lap, at 130.920mph (210.689km/h). So Mosport was (and still is, because it’s changed very little in the intervening years) as-near-as-dammit as quick as 1977-vintage Monza – since when, in 1994, 2000 and 2007, Monza has been slightly altered and subtly slowed.
So would modern Formula 1 cars lap Mosport as fast as they now lap Monza? Yes, in a word, they would. Put it this way. The last time a McLaren took the pole at Monza was two years ago, courtesy of Lewis Hamilton, in an MP4-27. His lap-time was 1min 24.010sec, which equated to an average lap speed of 154.255mph (248.242km/h).
At Mosport, with damn-all run-off, that would be very quick. Very very quick. Too damn’ quick.
I’m glad I saw it in its prime.