In the week of what promises to be a classic Le Mans 24 Hours it’s worth recalling that Bruce McLaren contested the event on eight occasions, winning at his sixth attempt in 1966, at the wheel of a works Ford.
Bruce McLaren was the first to admit that he had mixed feelings about Le Mans, but the race wasn’t just a chance to earn some useful pocket money, as it was for many F1 drivers. Working with manufacturers also exposed Bruce to the top managers and engineers of the day, something that furthered his racing education, and helped him to make his own team into the success that it became.
His debut appearance at the Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans came in 1959, at the age of just 21. He had just started his first full season as a works Cooper F1 driver, and had finished fifth in Monaco. It was therefore appropriate perhaps that his big sportscar opportunity came in a Cooper Monaco – with race number 24! He was invited to partner Jim Russell, and intrigued by the race, he jumped at the chance.
Unfortunately gearbox problems hampered the car in practice, second gear failed early in the race, and then it began jumping out of top on Saturday evening.
“I was all for nursing the car in an attempt to finish,” he wrote in From the Cockpit. “But Jim had spent a lot of money and time on the Cooper and was reluctant to give up so early.
“He started turning in fast times, considering he wasn’t using second gear and was having to drive with one hand holding the gear lever in top on the straights. But oil had been dropped at the fast, tricky White House corner, and Jim crashed. The Cooper caught fire, he was badly burned and rushed to a French hospital.”
Having experienced the dangers and frustrations of the race he made it clear that, like many of his F1 contemporaries, he had mixed feelings about it.
“My first Le Mans may have biased me against the round-the-clock endurance race,” he wrote in 1965. “But like a lot of drivers I now think twice about competing there.”
Indeed he didn’t go back in 1960, but from 1961 Le Mans became a regular part of his annual schedule. Now an established F1 star, his second attempt was with a Maserati T63, powered by a development of the V12 used in the 250F Grand Prix car, and entered by the colourful Briggs Cunningham. Unfortunately Bruce didn’t even get to drive in the race after team-mate Walt Hansgen crashed in the rain at Tertre Rouge while running fourth, having run just 31 laps.
Despite that disappointment, Bruce returned with the Cunningham team in 1962, again sharing with Hansgen. Their mount was the new front-engined Maserati T151, a car not dissimilar in looks to the Jaguar E-Type, powered by a 4-litre V8. They ran as high as second in the third hour, but Bruce was then delayed by a thrown tyre tread. He had Hansgen recovered to fifth before diff failure put them out in the 13th hour.
Bruce switched marques for his third attempt in 1963, joining the crack works Aston Martin team, which was returning after a short absence. He shared the DP214 with F1 veteran Innes Ireland.
Bruce was hugely impressed by the efficiency of the team under its legendary boss John Wyer, which he first experienced at the Le Mans test weekend. He noted: “I like the cars, and the confident, precise organisation of the team under John Wyer made a driver want to try hard and do well.” He also called the Aston “one of the best handling cars I’ve ever driven,”
Bruce must have drawn much inspiration from Wyer’s professional approach when he began to set-up his own team, which was beginning to take shape in his mind that very season.
Come the race weekend he was running sixth overall and leading the GT class when the engine failed in the sixth hour.
“I was roaring down the Mulsanne Straight on full, glorious song with the big car, when a sudden loud clatter from the engine, accompanied by a tingling sensation at the top of my spine, told me my rear wheels were covered in oil, and I was still doing the best part of 175mph.”
Before Bruce could pull off and park safely, the car created an oil slick that triggered a chain reaction accident – sadly it would cost the life of Brazilian Alpine-Renault driver Christian ‘Bino’ Heins, as well as injuring Roy Salvadori and Jean-Pierre Manzon.
A new chapter in the McLaren Le Mans story began in 1964, when he became part of the mighty Ford effort, which included the newly-recruited John Wyer. The line-up of three GT40s and two Daytona Cobras featured big names such as Richie Ginther, Masten Gregory, Dan Gurney, and Chris Amon, while Bruce was to share a GT40 with 1961 World Champion Phil Hill.
From his early tests with the car, Bruce completely won over the Ford folk with his meticulous approach and ability to pinpoint any room for improvement. Ford programme boss Roy Lunn told Eoin Young: “He would come in with the car after a test run and tell you exactly what had happened, and what’s more he could tell you what to do to put it right. He was just a wonderful combination of driver and engineer and car builder and he could also communicate with you.”
One can speculate that, just as he learned about management from the organisation, so Bruce learned from his interactions with the Ford engineers, who at the time were at the very forefront of racing technology – moreso than contemporary F1 teams, certainly in terms of available resources.
An electrical misfire ruined practice, and had not been traced by the time the last session ended. In those days the race cars were often driven back to garages away from the track. Unusually Bruce took Lunn as a passenger – at full speed – in an attempt to demonstrate the misfire on the French country lanes, in total darkness.
“By the time we got up to 160mph he leaned over and said, ‘Can you hear it missing?’” said Lunn. “Hear it missing? I was hearing angels singing...”
Alas it was to be a disappointing race for McLaren and Hill. After a cautious Hill stopped on lap one to complain about a misfire they slipped down to 44th in the first hour, but they recovered to fourth before gearbox failure stopped them in the 14th hour. The other Fords also hit trouble, and Ferrari triumphed.
The Ford bosses were not happy, but much was learned, and the company was better prepared for 1965. Bruce was partnered at Shelby American by Ken Miles, and the pair led the race in the early stages, before retiring, again with gearbox problems. The sister GT40 of Hill/Amon took pole, but was also an early retirement as again the Ford effort fell apart, and Ferrari won.
Meanwhile Bruce’s Ford links had a direct impact on his F1 plans. His fledging team developed the X1 sportscar for the Detroit giant, and the money helped him to get his team going. Hoping to trigger full works support, he also sourced free Indy-derived Ford V8s for his first F1 car – which was towed to its Monaco debut in May 1966 by a loaned Ford Fairlane station wagon!
It’s often been said that a new manufacturer needs three attempts before it can win Le Mans, and that certainly applied to Ford. Nothing was left to chance in its 1966 campaign, with no fewer than eight entries, and this time the cars combined speed with good reliability. It became not a question of would Ford win, but which driver pairing? The likes of Graham Hill, Mario Andretti, Mark Donohue and Denny Hulme were now in the line-up.
This time Bruce was teamed in the latest MkII at Shelby American with his close friend and countryman Amon, and not surprisingly, they worked well together.
“I think that they considered Bruce and I were reasonably reliable drivers,” said Amon. “And not likely to get carried away and race with our own team.”
They opted to hang back and let others set the pace, while conserving the car. Only eighth in the early rain-hit going, delayed to chunking tyres, they worked their way up the field – helped by a highly unusual switch from Firestone to Goodyear. Because Bruce was contracted to the former in F1, the McLaren/Amon car had been given special dispensation not to use Goodyears like the other Fords, but circumstances dictated a politically incorrect mid-race change.
Having lost a lot of time, they abandoned their “tortoise” approach, and went for it during the night. They took third in the 10th hour, and traded the lead from the 16th with the Miles/Hulme entry.
“Bruce reckoned that he never liked sleeping at Le Mans,” said Amon. “Because he had always been woken up in the past by someone telling him the car had broken. I never did get to sleep properly in 1966.
“It was the first time I’d seen the dawn at Le Mans and I must say it was a very pleasant surprise to see the sun start to come up and we knew we had the night behind us. But then I looked at my watch and I realised we still had another eleven hours to go!”
Only three of the Fords survived into Sunday morning. However, Ferrari had fared even worse and lost all its cars, so the surviving Fords were told to run way off their potential pace, which actually proved difficult for the drivers to manage without losing concentration. More rain didn’t help.
Back in the pits with victory guaranteed there was much debate about whether McLaren/Amon or Hulme/Miles should win. Matters were complicated by the fact that Miles had gained ground by ignoring orders to slow, while Bruce did what he was told. The car then also lost time with an unusually long pit stop – he suggested in a letter to his father that it was stage managed – and suddenly Bruce’s 30secs lead had become a 40secs deficit to the other car.
Word then went out from team boss Carroll Shelby that the car leading after the last pit stop would be the winner. Worried also that his Firestone deal had put a spanner in the PR works, Bruce went to the top Ford management, pointing out that it would now be unfair for the cars to hold station, given that Miles had not followed orders. He suggested instead that Ford try to stage a dead heat and have the two cars cross the line together, with the third placed car in the picture as well.
However, this stunt became complicated when it was confirmed by the organisers that McLaren/Amon would have travelled a longer distance, as they had started further back on the grid. Thus if it was a photo finish, they would be declared the winners.
After the last stop Bruce was in the car for the final stint. He eventually crossed the line a length ahead of a frustrated Miles – who had apparently backed off in protest, and spoiled the 70mph photo finish. In fact Bruce was worried that the American was hanging back to prepare to jump him on the line, and he was prepared just in case…
It was a strange way to win such a big event, but after retiring in all his previous attempts, Bruce was not going to complain. Especially as he had suggested the dead heat that stopped the Miles/Hulme car from staying out front: “I didn’t think ten minutes of politics could win a 24-hour race – but there you are. Nice guys don’t win ball games, they say...”
The two Kiwis were then swept to the USA, where they driven around in Lincoln limos and feted as heroes at Ford corporate champagne receptions. Sadly Miles, who missed the chance to win Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans in the same year, was killed in a testing crash at Riverside a few weeks later.
Bruce returned to Le Mans with Ford in 1967, this time paired with Donohue in a Mk4 run by Shelby American, alongside the sister car of Gurney and AJ Foyt. The latter was making his European debut having just scored his third Indy 500 win, while Gurney would go on to win the Belgian GP in his own Eagle the following week.
As ever Bruce proved adept at setting the car up and honing it through practice. Foyt and Gurney meanwhile had different ideas – as in different to each other, and not just to Bruce – and they were completely lost. As Ford’s Roy Lunn noted, “They got the car really screwed up on the two days of practice, just getting progressively worse,” while in contrast the McLaren car was “beautifully set-up.”
Indeed Gurney and Foyt were so fed up that they’d even talked about dropping the clutch and blowing the engine up early in the race, so they could go home. Instead the team transferred Bruce’s set-up across before the start – in effect giving the two Americans a car that they had not driven before the race.
Despite an early puncture McLaren and Donohue were in contention in the early going, running second in the 10th hour. Then just after halfway Andretti had a heavy crash at the Esses after suffering brake failure, triggering a costly incident that also took out the Fords of Roger McCluskey and Jo Schlesser.
Bruce managed to thread his way through the wreckage, but he picked up a puncture, and had a long slog back to the pits. Later he had problems with the clutch in the pit-lane, and he also lost the engine cover. All of this saw the car slip down to an eventual fourth, while Gurney and Foyt went on to score a famous win – with McLaren’s set-up, of course – and that famous racing tradition of spraying champagne was enacted for the very first time.
After that ’67 race Bruce choose not to go back to Le Mans, despite having the obvious opportunity to continue with Ford, who would win again in 1968 and ’69. With his team growing and busy programmes in both F1 and CanAm, he had too much on his plate. Had he lived, and pursued his pet GT road car project, the race might have been the ideal proving ground for future models.
The McLaren name would not be back at Le Mans until 1995, and it was as a manufacturer. And against all expectations – and turning that ‘three years to win’ rule on its head – the McLaren F1 came away with victory at the first attempt.
Bruce would surely have been proud.