“Take it off before anyone sees it!”
Accepted Formula 1 history has it that wings appeared on an F1 car for the first time at the 1968 Monaco Grand Prix, on Graham Hill’s Lotus 49B. History could have been very different – had events taken a different turn, wings might have adorned McLaren’s M2B on our F1 debut at Monaco in 1966.
Flash back to November 1965, a frantically busy time for McLaren – then just a handful of people, led by Bruce McLaren himself as both designer and chief engineer. We’d just moved workshops for the second time in two years, begun racing the prototype M1B sportscar on both sides of the Atlantic, and been secretly designing a prototype single-seater in readiness for entering F1 the following year.
Since Bruce was still racing for Cooper in F1, McLaren press man Eoin Young could answer any questions honestly that the prototype, called the M2A, was "not" a Formula 1 car. After all, it had a 4.5-litre sportscar engine in it. But it was certainly a test bed for the technical ideas, chassis design and Firestone tyres that would make up the M2B in which Bruce would make our F1 debut at Monaco in 1966.
“On our initial design we erred,” 26-year-old designer Robin Herd would reflect later, “and tended towards technical ingenuity rather than race-winning engineering…”
McLaren’s first single-seater marked the first use in motor racing of a composite material called Mallite, a combination of sheet aluminium and balsawood that was also used in aircraft cabins, and which was both lighter than steel and stiffer in torsion. Bruce and his team of bright young things weren’t afraid to experiment, as mechanic Ray ‘Tex’ Rowe remembered:
“My first job was to build the test car [M2A]. Bruce would go through everything with you. If he was satisfied, he was off and away. But if, going through the night, we had a problem, he’d be there. You’d have to chase him home and remind him he had a race in the morning.
“Bruce was like the boss who happened to drive the car. And being an engineer, he could follow it through and be involved. He could do the sums. He designed the front end for a car coming back from a Goodwood test.”
One of Herd’s first jobs had been at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, working on the Concorde supersonic aircraft project, and along with Mallite he thought to try something else out as an experiment: a wing.
“The lads all took the mickey,” he said, “telling me a racing car was meant to stay on the ground, not take off. But we made something up and ran it [on the M2A] at the end of a three-day test at Zandvoort.”
“Bruce did a few laps,” said Rowe. “The lap times were very fast [three seconds a lap faster than before, in fact]. When he came back in, he had a smile all over his face. He said: ‘Take the blinking thing off before anyone sees it!’”
“We took it off, three seconds slower,” said Herd. “We didn’t want anybody else to know, so we took the wing home, sawed it in two and put it in the bin, saving the idea for later.”
‘Later’ turned out to be much later. The lessons learned with the M2A fed through to the M2B, including the Mallite chassis, and we duly made our F1 debut at Monaco. But in the rush to get the car ready – sourcing a competitive engine was one of the bigger challenges – the wing concept fell by the wayside.
“Put that down to short memories,” said Herd. “We really were fully extended on other ideas…”