In part two of our look at McLaren’s first World Championship win, we look at how the 1968 Belgian GP weekend unfolded – and how Bruce McLaren himself reported it at the time
By the early summer of 1968, the times were definitely a-changin’.
Bob Dylan had long since eschewed folky finger-picking preferring instead a noisy stew of electric rock. The sweltering streets of Paris had become the unlikely backdrop for a cultural revolution, as clashes between students and the people almost brought the country to its knees.
In England, the Rolling Stones’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ was headed for number one in the top 40, its scythe-like guitar riff and deathly lyrics truly representative of the fast and gritty pace of modern British life and the gradual death of the hippy dream.
Even inside McLaren’s tiny Colnbrook factory, situated near Heathrow Airport, the winds of change were blowing.
After a strong start to the ’68 season, Bruce McLaren and his team went to the Belgian GP at Spa with high hopes. Along with the Nurburgring it was the most daunting and challenging track on the schedule, a nine-mile triangle of snaking Belgian farm roads, most of it driven on the absolute limit at almost 200mph with absolutely no room for error.
Still, despite the danger, it was a place where Bruce had always excelled, logging four top-three finishes in his Cooper years, including second places in 1960, 1963 and 1964.
It was also a venue where teams sometimes got their fuel calculations wrong. Indeed, in 1964 Bruce had jumped up the order in the closing minutes of the race as others hit trouble. Dan Gurney and Graham Hill both stopped, while Bruce himself crawled round on his last dregs of fuel. When he rounded the La Source hairpin for the final time, he too was in trouble.
“I started to coast down the hill at 10mph,” he wrote later. “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.”
Losing in the final seconds like that was frustrating for Bruce, but, four years later, fate would repay him the compliment.
The Spa treatment
Bruce arrived at Spa in June 1968 with high hopes. For a start he was happy to be back in the cockpit after missing the previous two races at the track. In 1966 Bruce had 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 engine.
Spa was its first race weekend, and with the 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. He then missed the ’67 Belgian weekend completely after the BRM-powered M4B with which he started the season was damaged in a fire in testing.
While the ‘68 season had started well, with wins at the Race of Champions and International Trophy, Bruce was actually disappointed with the team’s form in the car’s first World Championship events in Spain and Monaco. His car had also been involved in a couple of incidents, and needed some fettling. Plans to send the transporter straight to Belgium were cancelled, and the two M7As thus returned to base.
Bruce wrote in his Autosport column: “We also wanted to have a day at Silverstone or Goodwood to see whether our developments with the cars really were developments. Basically it seemed that either everyone else had become more competitive, or we had lost a little something that we’d had a little earlier in the season.”
The test went well, but when the team got to Spa, where Bruce was running a new chassis and both cars had updates, such as a different brand of shock absorber, the small crew still faced some problems. In Friday qualifying Denny Hulme was fifth and Bruce seventh, and they were well off the pace of the frontrunners, especially the Ferrari of Chris Amon and Matra of Jackie Stewart.
“Everything that we did to the cars only made them worse,” Bruce wrote. “And everything we did gingerly because we thought it might make them worse made them quite a lot better!”
Ever the tinkerer, Bruce fitted wider front rims and lower-geared steering on Friday night, seeking to address a high-speed stability problem. However, the second qualifying session on Saturday was marked by heavy rain, and neither McLaren driver recorded a flying lap. Denny and Bruce were thus set to start from fifth and seventh places they earned on the first day.
As ever at Spa there was the threat of rain on Sunday, and talk of a delayed start, and even of setting the cars off at 10 seconds intervals. In the end, the race started in dry conditions, and on time at 3.30pm. Unfortunately Bruce had a bad getaway, initially dropping as low as 11th at the end of the first lap.
“I’m not absolutely sure what happened at the start,” he recalled. “But I do remember having all four wheels on the grass at one stage. I think Surtees was a bit slow away and got sideways with wheel-spin, so that left a few of us bunched up trying to go to his left.
“Roaring up the hill into the forest I must have been nearly last, but I was well aware of Spa’s reputation for last-lap dramas. Having put paid to my chances on the first lap in Monaco, I decided to be ultra-careful for at least the first half of the race.”
It was to be a wise strategy. This was the first chance for Bruce to sample the Friday-night changes properly in dry conditions, and with full tanks – fuller than some rivals’ as it turned out – the car was handling well.
Bruce followed Graham Hill’s Lotus 49 for a while, but the winner of the previous two grands prix was not happy, and he waved the McLaren driver past, and he set off after the cars ahead.
“The group that I caught was Courage and Rodriguez in the BRMs, and Jo Siffert’s Lotus. I felt I could go a bit quicker than they were travelling, but I didn’t want to get involved in a thrust-and-parry match around Spa for the rest of the race, because if I did mix with them, I would only get held up in their slipstream. I sat behind to await developments, and Siffert was the first to drop out. Then it was worth having a try.”
The race comes alive
As Bruce opted for the long game and weighed up his options, there was a lot happening up ahead. It was to be a race of high attrition, and he began to climb the order.
Brabham’s Jochen Rindt dropped out early with engine gremlins, while Bruce’s friend and countryman Amon led initially from pole until his Ferrari’s radiator was holed by a stone. Then Surtees led in the works Honda, before he suffered a suspension failure.
By lap 11, Hulme had worked his way into the lead, ahead of Stewart in the Matra – and by that stage Bruce had made it up to third, making some passing moves after initially biding his time, and was holding off Rodriguez and Courage. The pit signals told him that his team mate was leading, so was more than satisfied at that stage. However, the race still had a few plot twists to come.
“It seemed that every time I tried to open up a gap, we would come up on a slower car. One lap it was Denny limping back to pits with only one half-shaft, and now the pit signals were telling me I was second. Twice Rodriguez passed me, and it was developing into quite a race.
“For the last six laps I tried as hard as I could. The car was getting twitchy again with the fuel load gone, but the nose of the BRM was getting just a little farther back with each lap, until on the last one it was small enough in the mirror to stop me worrying about any last lap Mexican coup.”
Bruce was now confident that he would bring the car home safely in second. He was blissfully unaware of a drama that had hit Stewart – and which more than made amends for what had happened to him at the same track just four years earlier.
“What I didn’t know was that at the start of the last lap Jackie Stewart had stopped at his pit for fuel while he was leading. My pit signals on that last lap were a bit frantic with all sorts of ‘go faster’ signs, so for some reason I thought I must have been catching Stewart. But when I didn’t see him I figured I must have been second.”
Not only was Stewart out of contention – his car would not restart in the pits – but McLaren’s main pursuer Rodriguez also hit fuel problems, and was no longer a threat. Happy enough to be runner-up, Bruce acknowledged the flag, and then braked and turned right at the bottom of the hill before Eau Rouge, before driving through the gates back to the paddock.
“I crossed the line, gave a bit of a wave at the chequered flag, braked hard, pulled in behind the pits and tried to drive the car back up to our transporter. Second place wasn’t too bad. I’d got boxed in quite badly at the start and had to get through most of the field, but after my previous two GPs, I was feeling really pleased.
“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 Bruce learned from a passing BRM mechanic that leader Stewart had made a pit-stop, and that he had actually won the race. “He said: ‘You’ve won, didn’t you know?’ It was about the nicest thing I’d ever been told.”
Recalling his last lap loss in 1964, he also noted: “There must be some sort of justice after all.”
Bruce had become only the third driver/constructor after Jack Brabham and Dan Gurney to win a Grand Prix in his own car, a feat nobody else has matched since. And while no one knew it at the time, it was also to be his final F1 win.
“I’m convinced after this last race that there is more magic than engineering involved in Grand Prix racing. Jackie Stewart running out of fuel on the last lap had to be very unlikely – especially with a team manager like Ken Tyrrell. He doesn’t make those sort of mistakes. – or at least he and I thought he didn’t!”
As the 1968 season went on, McLaren lost form as its tyre supplier Goodyear was left behind by Dunlop and Firestone. Other teams also made better use of the new wing technology, which had emerged during the summer.
However later in the season, things began to go Hulme’s way. Having been fifth in the wet in France and fourth at Brands Hatch he bounced back to win the Italian and Canadian Grands Prix, the latter with Bruce following him home in a one-two finish. A retirement in the USA was expensive for Denny, but he was still in contention for the title heading into the finale in Mexico City, only to go off the road after a rear suspension problem.
Hulme still finished third in the championship, while Bruce was second in the finale and fifth in the points. Meanwhile the team finished runner-up in the constructors’ table, beaten only by Lotus.
The team was on its way.