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Flashback: Belgium ‘68 - the first of many wins for McLaren 19 Aug 2013

Bruce McLaren (McLaren M7A Ford) 1st position. 1968 Belgian Grand Prix. Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium. 9 June 1968 Bruce McLaren (McLaren M7A Ford) leads Jacky Ickx (Ferrari 312) and Piers Courage (BRM P126). McLaren and Ickx finished in 1st and 3rd positions respectively. 1968 Belgian Grand Prix. Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium. 9 June 1968 Jackie Stewart (Matra MS10-Ford), 4th position. 1968 Belgian Grand Prix. Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium. 9 June 1968 John Surtees, Honda RA301, retired, leads Chris Amon, Ferrari 312, retired. 1968 Belgian Grand Prix. Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium. 9 June 1968 Bruce McLaren (McLaren M7A Ford) leads Pedro Rodriguez (BRM P133). They finished in 1st and 2nd positions respectively. 1968 Belgian Grand Prix. Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium. 9 June 1968 Bruce McLaren, McLaren M7A-Ford, 1st position, celebrates,1968 Belgian Grand Prix. Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium. 9 June 1968 Bruce McLaren (NZL) McLaren M7A took his first F1 victory in six years and the first victory for his McLaren team. Belgian Grand Prix, Spa-Francorchamps, 9 June 1968. Bruce McLaren (NZL) McLaren M7A took his first Formula One victory in six years and the first victory for his McLaren team. Belgian Grand Prix, Spa-Francorchamps, 9 June 1968. World © Phipps/Sutton The podium finishers (L-R) 2nd Pedro Rodriguez (MEX) BRM, 1st Bruce McLaren (NZL) McLaren, 3rd Jacky Ickx (BEL) Ferrari. Formula One World Championship, Rd4, Belgian Grand Prix, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, 9 June 1968. World © Phipps/Sutton Race winner Bruce McLaren (McLaren), celebrates victory on the podium. Formula One World Championship, Belgian Grand Prix, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, 9 June 1968

Bruce McLaren had not won a world championship race for going on six years when he arrived at the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit for the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix.

But armed with his self-built, bright orange car - the Cosworth-powered McLaren M7A - he scored what turned out to be the first of many famous victories for the team bearing his name…

Bruce McLaren was a man accustomed to challenges. As a child he’d had to overcome a debilitating disease that had left him bedridden and with one leg shorter than the other; then later, aged 20, he made the not-insignificant journey from his native New Zealand to Great Britain, armed with little more than the endorsement of Jack Brabham, to pursue a career in motorsport.

By June 1968, and the Belgian Grand Prix, McLaren was fully immersed in what was to be his defining challenge - establishing his eponymous racing team. He’d enjoyed great success as a driver -winning, amongst other things, three Grands Prix and the Le Mans 24 Hours - but he’d always thought as an engineer as much as he had as a racer.

McLaren’s first forays into car production in Can-Am sportscars had proved very successful, but prior to 1968 his team’s two-year-old Formula One programme had been hampered by mediocre engines, so much so that Bruce was happy to jump into Dan Gurney’s second Eagle whenever the chance presented itself, rather than use his own car. However, for ’68 Lotus no longer had exclusive use of the all-powerful Cosworth DFV and McLaren was able to bolt the powerplant into the back of his new M7A machine.

Denny Hulme - another New Zealander, the reigning world champion and McLaren’s new team mate for 1968 - took the car to second place on its world championship debut in Spain and fifth at the next round in Monaco, but it was Lotus who went into round four at Spa as clear favourites, having won the season’s first three rounds with relative ease.

Behind them, Ferrari, BRM, Brabham and Matra all fancied their chances around the high-speed, 14.1-kilometre track. McLaren, who’d crashed out in Monaco, was regarded as one of the safest drivers of his era and wisely opted to take on the daunting Ardennes undulations in a brand new chassis rather than a repaired one.

In Friday practice Ferrari were quick to throw down the gauntlet, with Chris Amon lapping 3.3 seconds inside of Dan Gurney’s existing lap record at an average of 150mph. Second fastest, but nearly four seconds back, was Jackie Stewart in the Tyrrell Matra - a surprise given the Scot was essentially driving with a fractured wrist. Ferrari’s Jacky Ickx and Honda’s John Surtees were third and fourth fastest respectively, ahead of the M7As of Hulme and McLaren.

Another practice shock was the performance of Lotus - Graham Hill experienced a multitude of technical bugs with his Lotus 49, while team mate Jackie Oliver spent Friday waiting for his car to arrive from England. Jack Brabham also hit problems and had to fly back to England for a new engine before setting a single flying lap. These problems wouldn’t have been nearly as bad had the second practice session on Saturday not been a near complete washout, meaning that Friday’s times determined the grid (with Brabham getting the organiser’s permission to start from the back).

On race day the skies hung heavy and black, and the race organisers had little choice but to meet with the drivers to concoct a special wet-weather starting procedure. If the heavens opened the race director would first delay the start, then if things didn’t improve in the following hour he’d send cars off at 10 second intervals.

Thankfully though, the clouds drifted harmlessly by and this rather bizarre procedure was avoided in favour of the traditional grid start. At precisely 3.30pm the flag was dropped and Amon led the field away, climbing through Eau Rouge and up to Les Combes.

Just over three-and-a-half minutes later and Amon roared past the pits, closely pursued by Surtees and Ickx. Hulme was next up, ahead of Stewart and Pedro Rodriguez in the BRM, but Bruce McLaren had slipped well down the field.

Not long afterwards Surtees took advantage of traffic to sweep into first place and then proceeded to trade fastest laps with Amon as they diced for the lead. Ickx, his V12 engine by this stage running on just 10 cyclinders, fell back and was soon passed by Stewart and Hulme.

Hulme then slipstreamed his way past Steward for third, as Hill’s unfortunate weekend came to an end when his Lotus’s halfshaft gave in. Brabham soon followed him into retirement with a sticking throttle.

All through the field the battles were raging: Surtees continued to fend off Amon for the lead, whilst behind them Hulme was under similar pressure from Stewart for third. Ickx held fifth ahead of a thrilling four-car scrap involving BRM’s Piers Courage, the private Lotus of Jo Siffert, Rodriguez and McLaren.

There then came a grave moment when something broke on Brian Redman’s Cooper coming into Les Combes, pitching the Englishman forcefully into the barriers. He was lucky to escape with a broken arm, whilst an injured marshal was airlifted to hospital.

Shortly afterwards Surtees streaked past the pits for an eighth time, only on this occasion the scarlet car that had pursued him so closely was missing. Moments later Amon’s Ferrari forlornly creeped down the pit lane and into retirement, the unlucky New Zealander thwarted once more, this time by a faulty radiator.

That left Surtees with a comfortable lead over Stewart, who had snuck past Hulme into second. But as one McLaren slipped back, the other moved forwards. Bruce McLaren had worked his way past Siffert, Rodriguez and Courage to take fifth behind the ailing Ferrari of home favourite Ickx.

But just as Surtees lead was looking unassailable, calamity struck. Part of his Honda’s suspension had come away from the chassis and though the Briton could limp on, he was not in full control and soon parked the car.

With the leaders dropping like flies, the battle for victory was now between Hulme and Stewart, with McLaren having passed Ickx for third. Lap after lap the bright orange car of Hulme fought tooth-and-nail with the pale blue Matra driven by Stewart, the pair exchanging the lead several times, much to the delight of the crowd.

Some 30 seconds behind the leaders, a similar fight was in progress between McLaren and Rodriguez over third. McLaren eventually made the position his own, only to quickly gain another place when, with 10 laps to go, Hulme made a sad exit with driveshaft failure.

No doubt disappointed by his team mate’s retirement, McLaren polished off the remaining laps to take a solid second place behind Stewart - or at least that’s what he thought.

“I crossed the finishing 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 our transporter,” McLaren would later explain.

“Second place in the Belgian Grand Prix wasn’t too bad. I got boxed in at the start and had to get through most of the field, but I was feeling quite pleased. Our crew seemed quite pleased too, and they had been jumping up and down as I crossed the finish line.

“There were so many people milling about at the back of the pits that I had to stop the car and climb out. One of the BRM mechanics, Cyril Atkins, ran up talking excitedly about Jackie Stewart’s last-minute pit stop and shouted something like ‘what a finish! You crossed the line number one!’ My number was five - I wasn’t quite sure what he was on about.”

Unbeknownst to McLaren, Stewart had been forced to make a late dash for the pits after his Tyrrell team miscalculated the amount of fuel he’d need. The Scot emerged after a top-up, but could only manage fourth at the flag, behind the plucky Ickx in third, Rodriguez in second and a delighted McLaren in first.

“(Atkins) shouted ‘You’ve won! Didn’t you know?’” continued McLaren. “I didn’t know, and it’s about the nicest thing I’ve ever been told. I had won a Grand Prix in a car with my name on the nose!”

Indeed, McLaren had become only the second driver after his mentor Jack Brabham to win in a car carrying his name.

A further 181 victories have been added to the McLaren team’s tally since that overcast June day, and the trophy cabinet at the McLaren Technology Centre now runs to an astonishing 174 metres in length. There, amongst the vast collection of cups and silverware, sits the modest Coupe de SM Leopold III Belgian Grand Prix winners’ trophy - the most significant of them all.

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