As you read these words, the Formula 1 ‘circus’ is on its way to the single mid-season ‘fly-away’ (ie, non-European) grand prix of the year: the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. I’ll be on my way there shortly too; I love both the circuit and the city.
McLaren has won the Canadian Grand Prix 13 times over the years – and I recall particularly well the team’s 1974 victory, at Mosport, a treacherous switchback 60 miles (97km) east of Toronto, since I was at the wheel of the winning McLaren M23 at the time.
That was a great weekend for me – I managed to secure pole position on the Saturday and victory on the Sunday, and it was on that autumn Sunday evening, post-race, that I began to feel we really could win that year’s world championship. And exactly two weeks later, at Watkins Glen, New York State, USA, we did just that.
I’ve always loved racing in North America. I won my first Grand Prix there – at Watkins Glen, for Lotus, in 1970 – and I spent the second half of my racing career driving in Indycar, in the United States, which was a fantastic experience for me.
McLaren first won the Indy 500 in 1972, Mark Donohue at the wheel of a beautiful blue-and-yellow Penske-run McLaren M16B. Two years later a to-my-mind-even-more-attractive bright-orange works-run McLaren M16C won the Indy 500, this time with Johnny Rutherford in the cockpit. Johnny and McLaren won at Indy again in 1976, this time with an M16E, signalling McLaren’s third and last Indy 500 victory. I have a model of the 1974 car, Johnny’s bright-orange McLaren M16C, on the desk in my office in Sao Paulo. It’s superb; I could look at it all day.
Emmo on Ayrton: Imola ’94, 20 years on
The historians among you may be interested to learn that, although McLaren never won the Indy 500 since its 1976 success, and no longer competes in Indycar of course, it broke one more Indycar record the following year, in 1977, when Tom Sneva, driving a Penske-run McLaren M24, became the first driver to qualify for the Indy 500 at an average lap speed of more than 200mph (322km/h) – 200.535mph (322.721km/h) to be precise. In the race he could manage only second place to AJ Foyt's victorious Coyote-Foyt, but what American race fans still remember most vividly about that year’s Indy 500 is Tom’s and McLaren’s epic double-ton average in qualifying.
In those days I was racing in Formula 1, of course, not in Indycar – but, at the end of the 1974 season, because McLaren had just won both the Formula 1 world championship and the Indy 500, I was invited to Indianapolis to test Johnny’s victorious McLaren M16C on the world’s most famous Speedway.
As soon as I laid eyes on the car, I remember thinking, “Wow… what a beauty.” I couldn’t wait to start driving it. Unfortunately, though, despite the fact that I was already a two-time Formula 1 world champion, I was an Indycar rookie, and I therefore had to endure my rights of passage just like any other Indycar rookie. So I was instructed to take it slowly at first, and not to exceed a pretty low preordained average lap speed, and quite soon I was taking the turns so fast that I could only adhere to that directive by lifting on the straights!
After a while I was allowed to drive freely, and I began to lap fast. The car felt absolutely sensational. I can honestly say that never, before or since, have I driven such a well-balanced car. Its engine was the venerable Offenhauser 2.61-litre (159 cu in) straight-four, a 1933 design that won the Indy 500 an incredible 27 times, and whose power output had been boosted over the years (latterly by turbocharging) to a stonking 1000bhp.
Everyone called it the ‘Offy’, and I have to say that the McLaren-Offy M16C I drove at Indy in late 1974 was massively impressive, boasting precisely twice as much grunt (as measured in bhp) as the McLaren-Cosworth M23 in which I’d just won the Formula 1 world championship, and sporting huge front and rear wings that gave it prodigious downforce and grip. I absolutely adored it.
Johnny was present at Indy for my test, fresh from his Indy 500 success with the car, to offer advice, and so was AJ Foyt, arguably the most legendary driver in the history of Indycar racing. AJ wasn’t a McLaren guy, but he’d decided to show up all the same, just because he wanted to.
On the morning of my test AJ drove me around the Speedway in a golf cart, giving me pointers all the way around, and I remember him telling me that, if my car got “loose on the banking” (ie, if its rear end stepped sideways on a turn), I should steer into the skid rather than applying opposite lock. I was amazed. But he repeated the advice, explaining that, when you’re running on steep banking at 190mph-plus (306km/h-plus), you’re never going to be able to catch a tail-slide, and that attempting to do so was likely to cause your car to get into a tank-slapper and then hit the wall nose first, breaking your legs (or worse). By contrast, if you steered into the skid, you were likely to go off backwards, thwacking the outside wall with the rear end of your car. That way, your Offy would bear the brunt of the impact, not your legs.
It was a lesson I never quite managed to learn, even when I was driving Indycars full time (from 1984 to 1996). Clearly, catching a tail-slide with opposite lock had been hard-wired into my racing brain, never to be expunged, from karting via Formula Vee via Formula Ford via Formula 3 via Formula 2 and finally, of course, via Formula 1.
Anyway, the plan was that I would compete in the Indy 500 in 1975, in a McLaren-Offy M16C branded the Texaco Star, bank-rolled by Texaco (which was a McLaren sponsor in Formula 1 at the time), but in the end I decided against it. The car felt simply fantastic, as I say, but oval racing in the USA in the 1970s was simply too dangerous. Ten years later I finally felt able to go Indycar racing, but only because the cars all had carbonfibre chassis by that time.
People often ask me whether Indycar drivers are cut from a different cloth than Formula 1 drivers, and I always reply that in truth they aren’t. In every category of racing, the aces are always the same: they’re quick, of course they are, but they’re also smart, dedicated and tactical, and they race hard but fair.
Throughout my Formula 1 career (1970-80) all the great drivers I raced against were like that – Jackie Stewart, Jochen Rindt, Ronnie Peterson, Carlos Reutemann, Jody Scheckter, Niki Lauda, James Hunt – and I’d say exactly the same about the good ol’ boys I raced against in the 1980s and 1990s in Indycar. I’m thinking of the Unsers – Bobby, Al and Al Jnr (although Bobby, who was a brilliant driver, had retired by the time I started Indycar racing) – Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan, Bobby Rahal and of course the Andrettis. Michael, John and Jeff Andretti were all very good drivers – Michael especially – and so was their father, Mario, one of the most successful all-round racers of all time.
I raced Mario in Formula 1 as well as in Indycar, of course, and, although he was extremely serious about his racing, I always used to think that he took a few risks more than I was prepared to take. Put it this way: if you went into a turn side-by-side with him, you didn’t feel 100 percent confident that he was going to leave enough room for both of you to get through unscathed. But he was quick, very quick, and he’s a fantastic guy.
Anyway, returning to the theme of McLaren’s history in Stateside racing, if the company was successful in Indycar then it was super-successful in Can-Am. From 1967 until 1971, for five consecutive seasons, the team’s wonderful bright-orange cars were more or less unbeatable, Bruce McLaren becoming Can-Am champion in 1967 and 1969, his team-mate Denny Hulme becoming Can-Am champion in 1968 and 1970 (the year of Bruce’s death) and Peter Revson holding up the heart-broken team’s morale by becoming Can-Am champion in 1971. In 1969 McLaren won all 11 Can-Am races (Bruce, six; Denny, five): one of the most impressive performances by any race team, in any race series, in any era, ever.
Even now, when I look at a McLaren M8 – the iconic Chevrolet-engined Can-Am McLaren, dominant in all its championship-winning iterations – M8A, M8B, M8D and M8F – I marvel at its elegant brutality. And the sound that that 750bhp 8.1-litre (494cu in) Chevy V8 makes when its driver puts the hammer down never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. If you’ve heard one in full cry at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, you’ll know what I mean.
I never drove in Can-Am, but in 1974 I was granted permission by McLaren to race a Porsche 917/10 Interserie car at the Nurburgring Nordschleife, just before that year’s German Grand Prix, which I wanted to do in an effort to learn that famously daunting circuit even better than I knew it already.
Porsche had campaigned a very similar car in Can-Am – winning the Can-Am series with it in both 1972 and 1973, courtesy of George Follmer and Mark Donohue – and the Can-Am Porsche 917s had even more power than did the McLarens that had conquered all before them in the series in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Porsche 917/10 I raced at the Nurburgring Nordschleife in 1974 was awesomely powerful – its twin-turbocharged 5.0-litre (305cu in) V12 engine belted out more than 1100bhp – and all that power made it a real handful, but I was pleased with myself for managing to qualify it on the pole, despite having no experience of the formula.
On race morning I woke up to heavy mist and torrential rain, and I have to admit that the thought crossed my mind that what I was about to do – race a 1100bhp missile on the world’s most challenging racetrack in a downpour in very poor visibility – was foolhardy at best, crazy at worst.
When I arrived at the circuit, I found the Porsche mechanics in a panic. “Emerson, your engine is running on only 10 cylinders – we’ll have to change it,” they cried.
“No, leave it,” I implored them, “I don’t need more than 10 cylinders today, on this circuit of all places, with standing water everywhere!”
They did what I asked – and, on only 10 cylinders, I still finished in sixth place. In fact I think the car would have been barely any quicker had all 12 cylinders been firing properly, because I had wheelspin in every gear even though I was running on only 10.
It was a scary car, and a hairy race, but I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do: learn the trickiest racetrack in the world that bit better.
Incidentally, the race was won by Helmut Kelleners in a McLaren M20 Can-Am car – which leads me neatly back to the subject of this blog, namely McLaren’s fabulous record of success in North America.
Emmo: the crafty art of overtaking
Sadly, I never met Bruce McLaren – my first grand prix was the 1970 British Grand Prix, which took place on 18th July of that year, six weeks after Bruce had been killed testing a McLaren M8D Can-Am car at Goodwood (UK) – and never having got to know such a legendary figure is a great regret of mine. Even so, I've always held him in the very highest regard, and hugely admire not only what he achieved in his lifetime but also what the team that still bears his name has accomplished since.
Bruce’s equally all-conquering Can-Am team-mate, Denny Hulme, though, I knew extremely well. He was my McLaren team-mate in 1974, my first season driving for the team in Formula 1, and we all called him ‘the Bear’. He looked like a bear and he sounded like a bear, and people who didn’t know him tended to find his manner rather, er, overbearing.
He was sometimes surly and always superstitious – he refused even to sit in a race car on Friday 13th, for example, and even had that eccentric stipulation written into all his contracts – and he didn’t appear to care what people thought about him. But once you got to know him, you realised what a fantastic guy he was.
He was very quick too – deceptively quick, I’d say, even when we were McLaren team-mates in Formula 1, in 1974, in which year he turned 38. Even though I was 11 years his junior, we became firm friends that season, and we stayed in touch long after we were no longer racing together.
I remember that he came to the 1991 Gold Coast Grand Prix, at Surfers Paradise (Australia). I was racing a Penske-Chevrolet-Ilmor PC20-91, qualified it sixth, and retired it on lap 28 with driveshaft failure. As such, the race was nothing special – except that it was special, very special, because I never saw Denny again.
The following year, in the Bathurst 1000 (Australia), at the wheel of a semi-works BMW M3, he had a massive heart attack, halfway down the famous Conrod Straight, at more than 140mph (225km/h). He managed to bring the car to a stop, parking it next to the guardrail, but he died in it more or less straight after it had come to a halt.
He was 56 – and, as I write these words, I find that I really miss that rough diamond of a racing man. I knew him best when we were McLaren team-mates, 40 years ago, in 1974, in which season we worked so well together to win McLaren's first ever Formula 1 constructors’ world championship, and in which season he unselfishly helped me win McLaren’s first ever Formula 1 drivers’ world championship.
He won the first grand prix of that historic 1974 season, in Argentina, and I remember being very pleased about that because, although I’d made a silly mistake and had ended up finishing only 10th, Denny’s victory had demonstrated that our car, the McLaren M23, would be capable of winning grands prix that year – and, as it turned out, world championships too.
And as I watched a smile break out across his uniquely craggy face while he was spraying champagne on the Buenos Aires podium that hot and sunny January afternoon, I remember thinking, “That man embodies the spirit of McLaren.”
And he did. And he does still. He always will.