The elegant M7A tends to be mistaken for the first single seater McLaren that was designed specifically for Formula 1, doubtless because it was the first to succeed. It was another product of the fruitful Robin Herd/Gordon Coppuck pairing.
Like the M6A the new car proved a winner not just first time out but on its first two outings. Bruce won the 1968 Daily Mail Race of Champions at Brands Hatch in March, and the following month Denny fought back from a problem when a stone smashed a lens in his goggles, to win the Daily Express International Trophy race at Silverstone. Both were non-championship events, but the M7A was to make the McLaren marque a Grand Prix winner that season, too.
Herd conceived McLaren’s first Ford Cosworth DFV—powered contender around a simple, three-quarter length monocoque, following Lotus’s lead in using the V8 as a structural element. Transmission was provided by a standard Hewland DGSOO five-speed transaxle.
The chassis was of the so-called bathtub type, open to the top in the fashion of the Lotus 25, and was skinned mainly in 22-gauge L72 aluminium sheet or, in a few places, 20-gauge magnesium sheet, which was riveted and bonded to three internal 20-gauge steel bulkheads. 40 gallons of fuel were distributed between four rubber bag tanks, one each longitudinally on either side of the tub, another behind the driver’s seat, and the fourth in the scuttle. Sleek glass-fibre bodywork completed the attractive package. Other notable points were the use of Lockheed brakes, at a time when every other British team opted for Girling.
The suspension was conventional and derived from the M6A’s, via outboard coil spring/dampers units both ends and single lateral links and trailing arms at the front and single lateral top links, reversed lower wishbones and twin radius rods at the rear.
There was a story behind the suspension, for Herd had left McLaren to join Cosworth shortly after drawing the M7A’s chassis. Bruce had schooled him in the rigours of applying his impressive aerospace knowledge to the practicalities of motor racing, and felt aggrieved when his design protégé upped and left. It was left to Coppuck to do the detail design on the suspension, after Bruce had largely been responsible for the geometry.
McLaren was now reasonably well funded via commercial deals with both Goodyear and Shell, and the two non-championship race successes provided a much-needed boost following Denny's fifth place with the M5A in the opening race in South Africa. Once the Grand Prix season resumed in Spain and Monaco in May, Graham Hill put Lotus back on top. But then came Spa and the Belgian Grand Prix 5, on June 9th, which would prove to be a Red Letter Day for the marque.
After early leaders John Surtees in the Honda and Chris Amon in a Ferrari had dropped out, Denny was embroiled in a battle for the lead with Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell-Matra-Ford. Then Denny retired after 18 laps with a driveshaft failure, leaving Bruce fighting the BRMs of Pedro Rodriguez and Piers Courage, and Jacky Ickx‘s Ferrari, for second place in Stewart’s wake. Gradually Bruce dropped his three challengers and was convinced he had finished as the runner-up as he crossed the line.
But Stewart had pitted for fuel on the penultimate lap, leaving Bruce to emulate Jack Brabham as only the second man ever to win a Grand Prix in a car bearing his own name. He discovered this from one of BRM‘s mechanics, who said: "You've won, didn't you know?“ Bruce recalled later: "It was about the nicest thing I’d ever been told."
As Matra and Ferrari, on Dunlop and Firestone tyres respectively, won subsequent races, and Graham Hill and his Firestone-shod Lotus set the pace aerodynamically after full-blown wings had appeared on the Ferraris and Brabhams at Spa, McLaren lost pace. Its wings were less effective, mounted in the middle of the car on the sprung mass rather than, in Lotus style, at the rear on the unsprung suspension uprights, and Goodyear suffered a dip in competitiveness.
But its new G9 tyre came as a boost by Monza in September, where Denny scored a great victory in the Italian GP. He repeated the feat in the next race, at St Jovite in Canada, albeit after faster runners Amon, Jochen Rindt and Jo Siffert had all met trouble, and Bruce brought his M7A home behind him to record McLaren's first-ever 1-2 in a Grand Prix.