Meet the Trophies: Coupe de SM Leopold III
It’s neither the largest nor the most flamboyant of the prizes sitting in the McLaren Technology Centre’s 174-metre trophy cabinet, but this unique and delicate memento from a bygone age is among the most significant.
For nearly 60 years the Coupe de SM Leopold III was awarded to the winner of the Belgian Grand Prix, beginning with Tazio Nuvolari in 1933, then passing through the hands of Rudolf Caracciola, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alberto Ascari, Jack Brabham, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart and Mario Andretti, to name just a few. In June 1968 it became a part of McLaren’s history, held aloft by Bruce McLaren himself after claiming our very first grand prix victory on one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous circuits: the 8.76-mile Spa Francorchamps.
This was the race where Denny Hulme was challenging Jackie Stewart for the lead when a driveshaft broke on his M7A. Bruce, who had qualified sixth but dropped back on the opening lap after being boxed in at the start, fought his way up to second place and crossed the finishing line relatively pleased with the race’s outcome.
What he didn’t know until he brought the car back to the pits was that Stewart’s team had got their fuel calculations wrong, forcing him to stop for a top-up in the final laps.
“It’s about the nicest thing I’ve ever been told,” said Bruce. “I had won a grand prix in a car with my name on the nose!
Emerson Fittipaldi was the next McLaren driver to hold the Coupe de SM Leopold III, claiming his second win for us in 1974 – a super-competitive season in which seven different drivers won grands prix, but Emerson came through to deliver our first world championship ‘double’. By then, Spa-Francorchamps was thought too dangerous to race on. Emerson’s victory – by just 0.35s from Ferrari’s Niki Lauda – came at the safe but unloved Nivelles-Baulers circuit south of Brussels. It never hosted the Belgian Grand Prix again, and today can be found gently decomposing as part of an industrial estate.
John Watson won at Zolder in 1982, slicing his MP4/1 past the Williams of Keke Rosberg on the penultimate lap. But, after the tragic death of the great Gilles Villeneuve during practice, nobody was in the mood for celebrating and the Coupe de SM Leopold III was quietly packed away for another year.
For the final years of the 1980s, the trophy was restored to its spiritual home: Spa-Francorchamps, now shortened to a safer and more manageable, but still challenging 4.3 miles. Between 1987 and 1990 nobody could touch McLaren here; Alain Prost won from sixth on the grid in 1987, just like Bruce had in 1968. From then on, one man made the Coupe de SM Leopold III his own: Ayrton Senna.
In 1988 Ayrton so dominated the race that even team-mate Prost was 30s adrift by the chequered flag; the following year he ran faultlessly in the wet to lead Prost home again; and in 1990 Prost, now driving for Ferrari, yet again finished second best to his great rival. It was time for the trophy to retire, for another to be awarded to winners from this Belgian Grand Prix onwards.
The Coupe de SM Leopold III had been temporarily the property of some of history’s finest drivers. Now, as Ayrton brought it back to our base in Woking, it rightly belonged to one of the greatest of them all.