As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of McLaren’s first Grand Prix win at Spa in 1968, we look back at some of the key moments of the team’s first decade – a period that saw it go from strength to strength, and eventually win the World Championship.
Tasman Series: The birth of the McLaren dream
The 1964 Tasman Series, held over eight weekends in New Zealand and Australia, represented the real birth of the McLaren team. Bruce began putting the project together in the closing months of 1963, building up two Cooper F1 chassis, and concluding a deal to run young American Timmy Mayer in his second car, with support from his brother Teddy.
The main competition came from Brabham, with owner Jack partnered by Denny Hulme, while Graham Hill also appeared in some races. The new team, which included mechanic Tyler Alexander, was competitive from the off and Bruce won the second round in Teretonga, which was also designated the NZ GP.
Two further victories contributed to him securing the title. However tragedy struck when Mayer was killed in practice for the finale at Longford. It was a terrible blow for Bruce and his small team, but they all vowed to continue – and crucially brother Teddy opted to remain involved and help run the operation. He would provided the commercial and business spark that would set the team on the path to real success.
Monaco GP: The first steps in F1
After gaining experience in the Tasman Series and sportscar racing, Bruce decided to take his team into F1 in 1966. He demonstrated he was ahead of the game by hiring aerospace engineer Robin Herd to pen the new chassis, at a time when the sport had barely emerged from the “back of an envelope” school of design.
He also understood the value of manufacturer connections, sourcing an Indy-based V8 from Ford for the new 3-litre regulations. The idea was a good one, but alas the heavy and underpowered engine was to be the weak link in the first McLaren F1 car.
Nevertheless the package made a good impression on its debut at Monaco, where outright power was less of a factor, with observers commenting on the car’s neat design and immaculate presentation, hallmarks that Bruce instilled within the team. The debut race ended with retirement, but the first pieces were in place, and McLaren was on its way.
Elkhart Lake Can-Am: The start of the Bruce and Denny show
From the off Bruce was keen to expand beyond F1, and in the mid-60s the place to be was sportscar racing in North America. Not only was there significant prize money to be won, there was also huge potential for selling customer cars. In 1964 - ’65 Bruce ran with some success, before joining the new Can-Am series in 1966.
Facing strong competition from Chaparral and Lola, he was quick in that first season with the M1B, but he failed to log a win. He returned in 1967 with the much improved M6A, and from the start he and teammate Denny Hulme set the pace. At the first race of the season at Elkhart Lake they shared the front row, and Hulme duly went on to score the marque’s first Can-Am race win.
At the end of the season, they finished one-two in the championship, with Bruce lifting the trophy. It was to be the start of an astonishing and very lucrative five-year domination of the series that really established the McLaren name in North America.
Belgian GP: The first Grand Prix win
McLaren’s first couple of seasons in F1 were blighted by lack of a competitive engine, but for 1968 Bruce put that right by making a key strategic decision. The potential of the Cosworth DFV, seen only in the Lotus 49 on its debut in 1967, was clear for all to see. Bruce made sure that along with Ken Tyrrell he was at the front of the queue to get customer examples for 1968.
He knew that he was bolting a race-winning engine into his new M7A. World Champion Denny Hulme moved from Brabham, and new papaya livery added to the sense that this was a fresh start for the team. There was immediate success with two non-championship wins, for Bruce winning at Brands Hatch, and Hulme at Silverstone.
Just a few weeks later the team scored a landmark first Grand Prix victory at Spa. It was helped by others hitting trouble, but Bruce was competitive and there to take advantage. The win signalled that McLaren meant business.
Mosport Can-Am: Life after Bruce
The McLaren team dominated the Can-Am series in 1967 - ’9, winning three straight titles. Bruce never rested on his laurels, and was always pushing to find more performance. Sadly it was while testing the latest M8D that he lost his life at Goodwood on June 2nd 1970.
Of course, his team had to continue, and under the direction of Teddy Mayer, it quickly regrouped. Dan Gurney, Bruce’s longtime friend, was asked to step in and fill his shoes in the Can-Am series. Just a few days after the accident, and despite having not driven the car before and suffering engine problems in practice, Gurney put the car on pole at Mosport. Hulme, his hands burned in an incident at Indianapolis a few weeks earlier, bravely took second on the grid.
Come the race Denny led initially, but Gurney came through to win. It was the boost that the grieving team needed, and it proved to all concerned that there was indeed life after Bruce.
South African GP: Back to winning ways
After Bruce’s death McLaren continued to dominate the Can-Am series, and its expansion into Indycar racing continued to gather momentum. However, the core business of F1 proved to be more difficult. Denny Hulme logged three podium finishes in the later part of 1970, but he couldn’t better fourth place in 1971, and McLaren slipped to sixth in the constructors’s standings.
However, Teddy Mayer turned things around for 1972. Yardley sponsorship gave the team a new look and useful funds, and armed with a revised version of Gordon Coppuck’s M19, McLaren was competitive from the start of the season. Hulme finished second at the opening race in Argentina, and then next time in South Africa he went one better.
Having qualified fifth he was in the thick of the lead battle from the start. After Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell retired he overtook Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus to win by some 14 seconds. It was team’s first Grand Prix victory since Hulme himself won in Mexico in 1969, and significantly, the first since Bruce’s death. McLaren was back in the game.
Indianapolis 500: A first customer victory
After a disappointing Indy 500 debut in 1970, McLaren made significant progress in 1971 with the wedge-shaped M16. Roger Penske agreed to run customer cars, and his input fed back into the works team, which was still new to the oval racing game.
The co-operation paid off when Peter Revson put the works car on pole, just edging out Penske’s Mark Donohue. Come the race Revson would finish second, while Donohue retired. Both men were back in 1972, with the revised M16B, and this time they qualified second and third. Revson retired early, but Penske upheld McLaren honour and Donohue gave both the entrant and chassis supplier their first 500 wins. It was a weekend of mixed emotions for all at McLaren.
Denny Hulme won a non-championship F1 race at Oulton Park, and Jody Scheckter triumphed at the Crystal Palace F2 race in a works McLaren, but the works Indy team felt it had failed. However, McLaren engineering had proved its worth in all three categories. The Indy racing world took note, and McLaren would sell many more customer cars in the years to come.
South African GP: The arrival of the M23
The M19 was a solid performer through 1972, and was still capable of scoring podiums at the start of 1973. However the team had an ace up its sleeve in the form of car that would really put the team on the F1 map. Gordon Coppuck’s M23, which drew on the sleek wedge shapes seen in Indycar racing, first appeared at Kyalami, in the hands of Denny Hulme.
Although a World Champion, the Kiwi was never known for his pace over one lap – and indeed over the eight previous seasons he had never recorded a pole position. And yet first time out with the M23 he did just that, giving rivals food for thought. He finished only fifth in the race itself, but the potential of the new car was clear.
A few weeks later he gave it its first victory in Sweden (above) and teammate Peter Revson would add two more wins before the end of the year. The M23 would go on to win two World Championships and firmly establish itself was one of the most successful and important cars of the era.
Indianapolis 500: The first works Indy victory
After a disappointing Indy 500 debut in 1970 McLaren showed good pace over the next three seasons, but while Mark Donohue gave the marque its first win with the Penske entry in 1972, but victory in the year’s biggest race escaped the works team. And having withdrawn from the Can-Am series, in which it was so successful, McLaren’s North American arm was determined to show that it still had the winning touch.
In 1973 lead driver Johnny Rutherford had a disappointing 500, but he won races Ontario and Michigan, so Indy had to be the target for ‘74. He qualified only 25th, but on race day he came through the field to score a memorable victory with the M16C/D, adding another oval success in Milwaukee a week later. McLaren had proved that it could win both as a team and a constructor, and two years later Rutherford would score a second win.
US GP 1974: The first World Championship
For 1974 Mayer showed he meant business by hiring Emerson Fittipaldi, World Champion just two years earlier with Lotus. The Brazilian came with Marlboro and Texaco sponsorship, and a new McLaren identity was born – one that was to become iconic. It was a closely fought season, and while Ferrari usually had the quickest car, McLaren was very much in the title fight, the two teams beginning a rivalry that would play out over the following decades.
Emerson won his home race at Interlagos with the M23, and followed up with victories in Belgium and Canada, setting up a three-way fight at the finale in the USA. He went to Watkins Glen equal with Ferrari’s Clay Regazzoni on 52 points, while Tyrrell’s Jody Scheckter was the outsider on 45 – and with the 9-6-4-3-2-1 scoring system of the time, the South African had to win. The US race also saw the final F1 start for Denny Hulme, a McLaren stalwart for seven seasons.
Remarkably Fittipaldi and Regazzoni qualified only eighth and ninth, and then from the early stages the Swiss driver struggled with handling problems, dropping way out of contention. With Scheckter retiring from the race a humble fourth place for Fittipaldi was enough to clinch McLaren’s first World Championship, finally achieving Bruce’s dream 10 years after the first Tasman adventure, and four years after his death.