On the 80th anniversary of the birth of our founder Bruce McLaren, we take a look at his record at Spa-Francorchamps, a track where the Kiwi always excelled – and memorably scored his team’s first Grand Prix victory in 1968.
The great Jim Clark was quite rightly regarded as the master of Spa in the 1960s, and while the Team Lotus driver was no great fan of the daunting original road circuit, he won there four times in a row.
What is perhaps less well remembered is that Bruce McLaren also shone at Spa, logging five top three finishes in seven starts in the Belgian GP.
In 1964 he led out of the last corner only to lose out in the very last moments, and on what turned out to be his last visit in 1968 he finally won the race. It was a track at which Bruce clearly excelled, but for which he had the utmost respect.
“Spa must be one of the hardest tests of driver-car combination in the world,” he wrote in his book, From the Cockpit. “The average speed is up around 130mph, with sweeping corners on a perfectly surfaced but now wide road between pine trees and brick buildings. It requires full concentration on its high-speed sweeps when it is dry. In rain, it is treacherous.”
Bruce paid his first visit to Spa as a works Cooper driver in 1960. It was to be one of the most traumatic weekends in the history of the World Championship, and one that forever coloured the place as a dangerous and deadly venue in the minds of his contemporaries.
The dramas started in practice when Bruce was following Stirling Moss and hoping to learn a few tricks from the maestro – and then the Rob Walker driver crashed in front of him.
“I was shattered to see Moss’s Lotus spinning wildly on the road in front of me,” he wrote. “It hit the left side of the road, rocketed across to the right and bounced wildly in the air. There was so much dust that I lost sight of the car.”
McLaren stopped and ran back to the accident – only to have a shock when he found that the cockpit was empty, as Moss had been thrown clear. He stayed with Stirling, who was having trouble breathing, and when other drivers also stopped, they found blankets and a pillow. Medical help took an age to arrive – it emerged that another driver, Mike Taylor, had been injured in a separate accident at the same time, and he was also receiving attention.
Worse was to come in the race itself. First, Bruce saw a crashed Yeoman Credit Cooper at the side of the road.
“I knew it was as bad as it could be,” he wrote. “For as I went past, an ambulance man pulled a blanket over the driver.”
Not knowing whether it was veteran Tony Brooks or talented rookie Chris Bristow, Bruce raced on. Just a few laps later he saw a set of tyre marks heading off the road a few hundred yards away from the first accident “On the next lap the whole area was a bonfire. This accident looked even worse than the one at Burnenville, but the race was still on.”
Bruce went on to finish second, behind Cooper team-mate and reigning World Champion Jack Brabham. There was no reason to celebrate, however.
“Jack and I, the worried victors, stopped at the pits. All we wanted to know was who had crashed. We had no idea who it was. For all I knew, it might have been Jack, and vice versa.”
It was then that they learned that the first accident had involved the promising Bristow, who was in only his fourth Grand Prix, while the second fiery crash had killed works Lotus driver Alan Stacey, who was in his seventh race. Not for the first time – and certainly not for the last – Bruce was reminded of the risks inherent in the sport at that time.
“Chris and I were good friends, and it’s easier to try and forget as soon as possible. To think at all is bad. It may sound callous and hard to accept accidents, but if you’re going to keep on racing, you must do so.”
Bruce’s next two visits to Belgium were to be disappointing. In 1961 he retired with an ignition problem, and the following year he was sidelined with an engine failure, having been in the lead battle early on.
However, there followed a run of three races that confirmed that he was not overawed by the challenging circuit. The 1963 event saw a typical Spa downpour, but Bruce kept up a good pace and stayed on the road.
“The rain teemed down and soon there was evidence on the track where several cars had spun. It was just a matter of plodding on and hoping the race would soon finish. Clark was flying out ahead as usual, and lapped the entire field during the race.”
Although Bruce found himself lapped by Clark, he moved up the order: “In the closing laps my pit crew emerged from shelter and began to signal enthusiastically that I was catching the man in front. Ahead I could see two columns of spray. I knew one was Jimmy, who had just passed me, so presumed the other sheet of water hid second place man Dan Gurney, in the Brabham. I pressed on as fast as I dared and overhauled both cars to move into second place.”
He may have finished almost a lap behind Clark, but he still beat everyone else in the tricky conditions. The result also earned him the World Championship lead.
The 1964 race featured one of the most dramatic last laps in the history of the sport – and it very nearly saw a victory for Bruce McLaren.
Gurney had dominated the race before having to make a late pit stop for fuel, while Clark had to dash into the pits for water after suffering overheating. Starting the penultimate lap, Graham Hill led for BRM, with Bruce second. But then McLaren noticed his fuel pressure dropping, and he lost some vital time nursing the car around. Heading into the final lap he was nevertheless confident that he would make the flag.
“With just three miles to go the engine started to stammer badly, and once again the fuel pressure plummeted, so I slackened off to 70mph, and held it at that. Then Gurney’s Brabham flashed past. Well I thought third place is better than nothing, and I stuttered on at my 70mph crawl.”
Bruce was stunned to see Gurney parked at trackside, apparently out of fuel. He was then in for another surprise.
“I was down to 50mph on the long climb that we had brushed off at 150 earlier, and there to my amazement was Graham pushing the BRM! I was winning the race with an engine about to fade out completely. What a feeling. I was within 200 yards of the hairpin and the downhill cruise to the finish line. La Source looked like an oasis to a parched Arab. Then the engine started to falter and cough...”
He dipped the clutch and managed to crawl around the tight hairpin. Now it was downhill all the way. Surely he couldn’t lose?
“I started to coast down the hill at 10mph. I could see the man with the chequered flag. This is it, I’ve won the GP! But with less than 100 yards to go I was blasted out of my victory speech rehearsal by James Clark OBE, sizzling past to win in his Lotus.”
Clark also ran out of fuel after crossing the line, and at first didn’t realise that he had won. Later Bruce found out that his own Cooper team had loaned Team Lotus a can of water when Clark had pitted – making his stop for overheating a tad shorter than it might otherwise have been!
The 1965 race was another wet event, and once again difficult conditions at Spa brought out the best in Bruce: “You need the ability to control and keep controlling a racing car at high speed on a slippery surface,” he wrote in his Autosport column. “This definitely calls for fingertip-style using 50 per cent confidence, and 50 per cent nerve.”
He made the podium once again, finishing third behind Scottish duo Clark and Jackie Stewart, joking that “if my name hadn’t started with ‘Mc’ I’d have felt quite out of place at Spa. I hear the organisers are thinking of having a tartan flag instead of a chequered one next year!”
In 1966 Bruce launched his own F1 team at Monaco, but he was so disappointed with the Indy-based Ford V8 engine that he abandoned it in favour of an Italian Serenissima. Spa was its first race weekend, and with the fledgling team starring in John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix movie, it was important that he was in the thick of the action. Unfortunately the new engine proved troublesome in practice, and the car failed to make the race.
The ‘66 event was famous for the first-lap rain storm that wiped out much of the field, and a serious accident for Stewart. As Bruce noted, “If you had to miss a GP, Spa was certainly the one. Jimmy Clark’s Lotus had expired not far from the start and we consoled each other with the fact that the race we were missing was not a very pleasant one anyway.”
Bruce also discovered that spectating, and not knowing what was going on around the 8.76 mile track, was more nerve wracking than he thought: “Sitting at the pits amid all the fingernail-biting was a bit scary, I can tell you.”
He then missed the 1967 Belgian GP weekend completely when the BRM-powered M4B with which he started the season was damaged in a fire in testing.
After a break of two years Bruce was finally back on the Spa grid in 1968 with the DFV-powered M7A. The team had started the season well as Bruce won the Race of Champions, and team-mate Denny Hulme the International Trophy. A first pukka Grand Prix for McLaren could not be too far away, and it came in Belgium.
It was to be a race of attrition. Bruce’s friend and countryman Chris Amon took pole and led initially until his Ferrari’s radiator was holed by a stone. Then John Surtees led in the works Honda, before he suffered a suspension failure. Hulme then took a turn in front before he broke a driveshaft, handing the lead to Stewart in the Matra.
And then, as in 1964 it became a question of fuel – and Jackie didn’t have enough. When he ran out on the last lap, and with BRM’s Pedro Rodriguez also in fuel trouble, McLaren sailed past to win. At first he was blissfully unaware, believing that he had finished second. He turned right and drove into the paddock, and tried to reach the team the transporter.
“Second place wasn’t too bad. Our crew seemed really pleased too and they had been jumping up and down as I crossed the line. There were so many people milling about at the back of the pits that I had to stop the car and climb out.”
It was only then that he learned from a passing BRM mechanic that he’d won – and become only the third driver/constructor after Brabham and Gurney to do so.
There was no Belgian GP in 1969, amid a controversy over safety standards. The race returned in 1970, but sadly Bruce didn’t – it was the be the first Grand Prix held after his tragic death in a testing accident at Goodwood. Ten years after that awful 1960 Spa weekend it was yet another reminder of the dangers of the sport.