The McLaren racing team hadn’t been specifically designed to veer from drama to drama as it frantically thrashed through its early formative years. But, with a skeleton crew, minimal resources, and an appetite to take on the world and win, it was never going to be an easy ride.
However, McLaren gained resilience through those early trials in the 1960s and ’70s, gathered experience and hardened character. Through its first tough decade, it may have lost a leader, but it found direction and purpose. It found success as well, winning not only in Formula 1, but in Can-Am, where it utterly dominated, and at Indy, too, where it won three times in the 1970s.
They say it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog, and it’s a mantra that holds true for McLaren. It became a globally renowned racing car constructor, winning races around the world, yet operated from a humble red-brick factory at the end of a cul de sac on an industrial estate near Heathrow.
As we chronicle here, it was never an easy ride.
1. A brave beginning
Bruce spent two years during childhood on his back in a metal frame as he battled Perthes’ Disease, an illness that left him with one leg shorter than the other, and a permanent limp. It may have set him back, but he never, ever let it stand in the way of his career.
“The effect of Perthes’ disease was not a handicap because he had his shoes built up. It wasn’t until he put his racing boots on that he would hobble down the road. He would walk on the toe of that foot. It was quite noticeable then, but, otherwise, you were never aware of it. The rumour was that it was actually getting worse. He was very stoic about it. He never mentioned pain or anything like that.”
Wally Willmott, McLaren mechanic
“Apparently, there were very real fears that he might never walk again. His legs were in plaster casts and he lay on his back in traction for months.”
Eoin Young, Bruce’s secretary
2. My empire of dirt
Talk about starting at rock-bottom. Our first factory was a shared concrete shed in London suburb New Malden, in 1963. It had few creature comforts, and even featured a dirt floor – a far cry from the spotless race bays the team now inhabits. There was no time to think about comfort – there was work to be done as the small crew readied Bruce’s Cooper-Oldsmobile for its first race.
“My God, it was horrendous: filthy, dirty. I think we were on the only bit of cement – if you could find it under the dirt floor – in the whole building. There were all these bits of earth-moving equipment all around us. You could barely walk around the race car.”
3. A death in the family
Bruce’s first proper foray as an entrant – in the 1965 Tasman Series – ended in tragedy when his young team-mate Timmy Mayer was killed. It was a tragic but pivotal moment – with good cause to stop, Bruce, Tyler Alexander and Timmy’s brother Teddy all chose to put their grief behind them and pursue their path in motorsport.
“To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.”
“We used to laugh and say, ‘We’re on our way. Let’s not stop now. We’ll bust our ass 'till we beat them all...’”
4. The orange monsters
There has probably never been a more thundering, iconic racer than a Can-Am sports car. These mighty North American sports cars were largely untamed by rules and regulations, running wild with mighty, growling Chevy V8s and large barn-door rear wings. They were quick, dangerous and violently loud. McLaren entered Can-Am in 1966, and never looked back.
“It was a kind of adventure. We were setting out with the aim of winning, but I don’t think we ever really thought that we were going to do it. I wouldn’t say, for instance, because we won the first three races [in 1967], that we went to the fourth round and felt that we were entitled to do the same.”
5. Charging fearlessly from back to front
Shortly before the start of the 1967 Can-Am race at Mosport, the team discovered a fuel leak in Bruce’s car. Miracles were performed to fit a new tank, and he joined the field 40 seconds after the start – but nearly a whole lap behind. He rewarded his determined crew by charging to second place behind team-mate Hulme.
“Fifty gallons is an awful lot of petrol. Getting it out of the tanks involved filling every vehicle we had around and some we didn’t. When we got to the stage of pumping it out faster than we could empty the cans into the trucks and cars, we simply dumped it over the fence. By the time we had fitted a new rubber fuel bag, filled the tanks and got the engine running, the race had started. I made it into second place with 10 laps left. Another lap and I would have caught him.”
6. Life after death
Following Bruce’s death, in June 1970, his shattered team were devastated and directionless. After all, they’d lost their boss; their driver; their best friend. By rights, that should have been it for McLaren Racing. But it wasn’t – it was another beginning…
“We told all the staff to take the next day off, but the incredible thing is that between 7.30 and 8 o’clock the next morning, everyone turned up. To a man. That’s when I realised, if you ever needed proof, that anybody would do anything for Bruce. They must have all talked to each other and said Bruce would have expected them to be there, so they all turned up.”
Phil Kerr, managing director
“What struck me about Bruce’s death was the sheer catastrophe of it, besides the sadness. He was very hands-on, and knew what each of us was doing on each day. As such, his parting left an enormous void, which a lot of people believed we would never fill…”
7. Denny The Brave
Denny Hulme shouldered a great deal of the team’s burden in the days and weeks following Bruce’s death. In any case, he was in considerable pain: he’d badly burnt his hands in a fiery accident at Indianapolis a few weeks earlier, yet still got back into the Can-Am car for the first race since Bruce’s accident. He mustered a fire and an energy from deep within to finish third.
“Dan Gurney won the race and Denny finished third. When the race was over, Denny sat in the car for a very long time. He didn’t really have the strength to get out and couldn’t get one of his hands off the steering wheel because of the unhealed damage from fire. Those two guys on that day brought Bruce McLaren Motor Racing back to life. Denny really had balls and guts to to what he did considering how bad his hands were. Later on he told us that he just had to do it for his friend, Bruce.”
8. Take a punt on Hunt
Emerson Fittipaldi dropped the bombshell in November: he wouldn’t be driving for McLaren in 1976. And, if he wasn’t, who was? It was a super-late call, and there was only really one obvious candidate, but he was a loose cannon and a real gamble for a team used to working with world-champion calibre pilots…
“I was going over to Teddy’s house for dinner that night. When he opened the front door, I thought he was looking a bit paler than usual! He’d just received the call from Emerson. We had a quick discussion and two names came up: James Hunt and John Hogan, the guy dealing with Marlboro’s motor sport stuff. Teddy went into action straight away…”
9. “Absolutely determined not to think I was champion”
In the chaotic closing laps of the 1976 finale, at a rain-lashed Fuji in Japan, Hunt finished third, doing just enough to clinch the title from Niki Lauda. But in the confusion, even Hunt wasn’t sure he’d achieved his goal…
“When he drove back into the pits, he didn’t believe that he’d done enough. He was shouting at me, saying terrible things. But I kept shouting at him, ‘James, you’ve won!’ He couldn’t hear us. It took him two or three minutes to calm down enough for it to sink in.”
“I was absolutely determined not to think I was World Champion and then be disappointed. It was only really when I checked the laps and when the organisers said I was third – and there were no protests in the wind – that I allowed myself to start believing it!”
10. Put the rookie in the car, parts I & II
In 1972, McLaren took a punt on a fiery young South African called Jody Scheckter, by 1979 he was a World Champion with Ferrari – indicating that McLaren’s instincts had been right all along. In 1977, McLaren signed an almost unknown Canadian named Gilles Villeneuve for a one-off outing in a third car at Silverstone. He’d been spotted by James Hunt in a Formula Atlantic race the previous autumn, and immediately impressed upon his F1 debut. Sadly, there was no seat for him in 1978 – but once again the team had demonstrated its willingness to try top young talent.
“It became obvious that Gilles had spun at every corner on the race track! So I asked him about it. Did he have a problem? He said, ‘I'm just finding out how fast I can go round the corners. You can't tell how fast you're going unless you lose control of the car.’ He hadn't told us about the spins, and nor had he dropped much on the lap time. His car control was so good that he'd do a 360, go down through the gears, and lose virtually no time at all...”