As McLaren celebrates its 50th anniversary today, all the key players involved in any part of that glittering half-century are nurturing their own personal memories of an extraordinary snapshot of motor racing history.
Since September 2nd 1963, when Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd was formally incorporated, Bruce’s team has grown from a bunch of mustard-keen bit-part players to a global empire of motorsporting and automotive superstars. I exaggerate not.
Many F1 insiders believe that the team’s underlying and enduring success has its roots in the core values espoused by Bruce himself, but it’s also undeniable that a process of continuous (r)evolution has taken place during the past 50 years. Indeed, an arithmetical coincidence underlines the point: McLaren has been in existence for half a century; its current chairman, the mercurial Ron Dennis, has been at the helm for a third of a century.
But let’s go back to Bruce, since that Ron has issued a lengthy mclaren.com/formula1 Q&A himself this morning, and I have no need to try to trump the great man’s peroration on the subject about which he knows more than anyone alive – namely McLaren.
As good a starting point as any comes from ex-McLaren F1 driver Peter Gethin who, shortly before his very sad death, told me that he regarded Bruce McLaren and Chevron cars founder Derek Bennett, builder of the impressive range of 2.0-litre sports racing cars back in the 1970s, as the two men he admired most after a lifetime in motor racing: “When Bruce or Derek opened their mouths to say something, anybody with any common sense closed theirs and listened intently,” said Peter. “It’s rare to find anybody truly inspirational in this sport, and when you do it’s up to you as an individual what you get out of it. I like to think I was usually bright enough to keep my lips firmly zipped in such circumstances. Being at McLaren in the early 1970s, at the start of the post-Bruce era, was like attending a degree-class briefing in the best motor racing university. That was the legacy the great man had left. You only had to be bright enough to keep quiet.”
In the post-Bruce era the most powerful behind-the-scenes driving force was Teddy Mayer, elder brother of the late Timmy Mayer who had been killed driving one of the Tasman Series Coopers for McLaren on the Longford road circuit in Tasmania. Timmy was being lined up as a likely candidate for the Cooper F1 team, to contest the 1964 world championship. With his kid brother’s death, Teddy cast around for a new business - and duly found one, becoming a stakeholder in the emergent McLaren Racing operation.
Strange as it seemed, in the mind of anybody who’s had anything to do with either of them, Bruce and Teddy complemented each other very well. Not everybody shared that view though, a few of McLaren’s drivers at the time actively disliking Teddy. They weren’t alone in making that assessment, to be honest, but, despite his frequent acerbity, Teddy worked hard for the team and earned grudging respect from the UK motor racing industry.
In my role as a journalist I crossed swords with him on several occasions, the first being when McLaren wanted to ditch its sponsorship deal with the Yardley cosmetics at the end of 1973 and grab the bigger fistful of dollars being waved in its direction by the Philip Morris Marlboro cigarette brand. Yardley put out a critical press statement – and half an hour later Teddy was on the phone, bending my ear in an effort to persuade me that it would not be helpful if Motoring News (my then employer) were to publish the Yardley statement. Cravenly, I allowed myself to be intimidated, and agreed. I’m ashamed of that, even now. But Teddy got his way.
McLaren as an organisation was always quick to see potential and possibilities within its own ranks. Yet outside sources had to be tapped at the end of the 1970s after the company’s F1 design group dished up a couple of duds in the form of the M28 and M29. Having already been in a gentle dive since James Hunt’s fabulous world championship in 1976, despite three good wins in 1977, Marlboro not unexpectedly laid down the law to engineer the amalgamation between McLaren and Marlboro. From then on McLaren steadily re-climbed F1’s greasy pole. With scarcely a backward glance.
At that time, and onwards through F1 history until the present day, Ron became the chief custodian of the McLaren legend, but he’s always taken a structured, long-term attitude towards precisely where the Group should be going next. Perhaps the most significant signal is the name over the door, unchanged over the past half-century.
“I’ve always been conscious of the fact that circumstances have put me in the enviable position where I can contribute my own chapter to the McLaren history book,” he once told me, and he’s said much the same in similar words many times since. “But it’s important to remember,” he went on, “that there have been other chapters before I came into the story and I hope there will be more in the future after my time. That ongoing corporate bloodline is what makes McLaren so special.”
All of which brings me back to the name over the door. Ron could easily have rechristened the team in his own image and likeness, as Dennis Racing or Dennis Grand Prix or any other suitable formulation. Sometimes he must have toyed with the idea, since his contemporaries such as Frank Williams and Ken Tyrrell, and even Eddie Jordan and Peter Sauber, all enjoyed the extra fame conferred upon them by an eponymous link with their F1 teams.
But he never did, because he knew then and still knows now exactly what makes McLaren so special, and much of it is bound up in the name itself. So... three cheers, and happy birthday, to McLaren, and to all who sail in her!