Feature F1 Unlocked
TREMAYNE: The day the McLaren story began – and Bruce McLaren set a record that would last for over 40 years
McLaren enjoyed a superb second half to the 2023 season with Oscar Piastri even grabbing a Sprint victory for the Woking squad. And while everyone in papaya colours will be hoping they can add to their Grand Prix wins tally next year, today is the anniversary of the first F1 victory of team founder Bruce McLaren. F1 Hall of Fame journalist David Tremayne recounts the day the McLaren story really began…
World championship finales stretching into December are nothing new. Sixty four years ago today the 1959 title was eventually wrapped up by Jack Brabham, in a US Grand Prix that was won by his fast-rising team mate – a young man called Bruce McLaren. And the irony was that the New Zealander wasn’t even meant to be in the race.
Bruce had literally blasted his way over from his homeland, winning the ‘New Zealander to Europe’ prize for 1958, impressing in Formula 2 with fifth overall in the German Grand Prix racing the pukka F1 cars, then joining ‘Black Jack’ and American Masten Gregory in the Cooper F1 team for 1959.
His first three races, at Monaco, Rheims and Aintree, yielded two more fifths and then a third, his first podium. He was a fast learner, and drove with a smooth and unruffled style that took as little out of his machinery as possible.
Those results should have been sufficient to make him the stand-out rookie of the year even though he wasn’t scheduled to compete in the final race, at Sebring in the United States some three months after the teams had last raced in Monza.
Ever conscious of every dollar, Charles and John Cooper intended to run just Brabham and Gregory, but Bruce decided to go along for the experience. And when the organisers refused to accept that Masten was fit, following an earlier crash at Silverstone in September, McLaren stepped in as substitute.
Stirling Moss put his Rob Walker Cooper on pole from Brabham’s works car, and the title battle was between them and Tony Brooks. But when Brooks had to make a cautionary pit stop after his Ferrari was rammed by team-mate Wolfgang von Trips at the start, it became a straight fight between Stirling and Jack.
Back then points were scored on the basis of 8-6-4-3-2, with an extra point for fastest lap. This favoured Jack, who only needed to finish second to secure his first title even if Stirling won.
The week had started badly for Cooper, with Brabham nursing a painful eye injury after a stone had shattered his goggles in a race in Nassau the previous weekend, and Bruce encountering engine and gearbox problems which left him only 10th on the grid. But, in what he described as his “best-ever start” McLaren left the line “like a rocket” and went into the first corner side-by-side with Stirling.
Discretion being the better part of valour, however, he let Stirling through and followed him closely, with Brabham snapping at his exhaust. Going into the next hairpin he moved across to let his team mate through, and was happy to settle into third place and leave them to fight it out for the win and the title.
But the complexion of the world championship battle again changed dramatically when Stirling retired with a gearbox problem after only five laps. Suddenly, the works Cooper team looked set for a one-two finish – more than enough to clinch the title for Brabham.
Bruce later recalled: “Stirling had opened up a gap on Jack, who had drawn away from me. Then Stirling was standing at the side of the track, looking disconsolately at the broken Cooper. Another world championship had eluded him.
“So Jack’s championship was now in the bag and, with the pair of us out in the lead, Jack gave me a thumbs-up wave and we settled down to some careful but quick motoring. This was one of the first of a series of occasions when I was able to follow him.”
But then things began to go awry for Brabham as the race went into its final stages. Bruce started to worry as he slowed to match his team leader’s decreasing pace, but found himself being caught by Moss’s team-mate Maurice Trintignant in Rob Walker’s surviving Cooper.
“With a few laps to go we were making a comfortable pace,” Bruce said. “Then John [Cooper] started to point anxiously at the signal board giving the time to ‘Trint’, who was only about 12 seconds behind. With each lap the gap dropped by about a second and I was making signals at Jack. I couldn’t have gone much faster, but if Jack had slightly increased his speed, he could have towed me along.”
Unknown to Bruce, Jack was having trouble with his car and conserving fuel. But it transpired he wasn’t conserving enough. “With two laps to go and the gap to ‘Trint’ down to about six seconds, Jack slowed and pulled to one side, waving me by,” Bruce wrote. “I was staggered and looked across at him in utter dismay. I’d slowed right down myself, so picked second gear thinking that as ‘Trint’ wasn’t too far away, I’d better get on with it.”
Brabham later explained that he was about a mile from the finishing line when his car started to run on two cylinders. “I was shocked. I just couldn’t believe it. I automatically put the gear lever into neutral as the engine went dead. I was out of fuel! I coasted on down to the second last corner, where Bruce came alongside me, almost stopping.
“My reactions were quick, and to the point. With much arm-waving and shouting, I told him to get going. Bruce was horrified. He just couldn’t work out was wrong and had vague ideas of stopping to help me! Luckily, he got the message quickly, and pressed on.”
As Trint flew past, Jack coasted to a stop, climbed out, and started to push his car towards the flag. Bruce, meanwhile, kept his foot down, crossing the line only sixth tenths of a second clear of the Frenchman to score a memorable maiden Grand Prix win.
“It was staggering,” he wrote. “I couldn’t believe it. I was amazed, excited, and the victory lap after taking the flag must have been one of the most pleasant I have ever done. I stopped at the pits and was mobbed by pressmen and photographers, while Jack slowly pushed his car across the line to an heroic finish, nearly collapsing in the heat.”
Jack’s determination wasn’t in vain. Thanks to the high attrition rate, he still claimed fourth place – albeit five minutes behind Bruce. The world championship was his.
Contemporary reports suggested he’d had a fuel leak, but later he wrote that his car had run on three cylinders at the start, noting that “it must have lost a lot of fuel out of the overflow and the breather tube had been spilling the fuel down past the carburettor and making it run rich.”
Bruce had another suggestion: “It transpired that Jack, often a last-minute change man, had gone slightly smaller on choke tube size, which made the engine run a little bit richer, and the fact that he had been towing me in his slipstream helped save my fuel – and exhaust his.”
In his autobiography, John Cooper suggested that while he wanted to start the car with a full tank, Jack had overruled him, preferring to gain a weight advantage…
Bruce’s shock success established a new record for him as the youngest Grand Prix winner at the tender age of 22 years, 3 months and 12 days. Remarkably, that was to stand for more than four decades. It was finally beaten by Fernando Alonso in 2003 (22 years and 26 days), and then bettered in 2008 by Sebastian Vettel (21 years, 2 months and 11 days) and Max Verstappen in 2016 (18 years, 7 months and 15 days).
Though he never emulated Brabham’s world championship titles, Bruce followed his wheeltracks in establishing a team making cars in his own name, and winning with them in both F1 and the CanAm.
He never doubted the key ingredient to achieving success. “The first essential is enthusiasm,” he said. “Not just mild, but burning enthusiasm. To succeed in motor racing or any other sport, it must be the most important thing in your life.”
And of natural ability, he said: “There are hundreds with it, but there must always be the dedication to want to apply it, continue applying it, and keep improving it.”
He allied his own talent to a quiet, humble but humorous character, imbued with a quiet confidence in his own ability to achieve his increasingly ambitious goals. He developed a knack for dealing with the worst problems.
“I often force myself to go to sleep when trying to worry out a problem, or I am stuck with it all night,” he said. “I decided long ago since that solid sleep is one of the first essentials when trying to work hard. It is more a question of attitude of mind than anything else. The people who succeed in racing are those who would do so in any walk of life.”
That innate confidence was backed by an ambitious willingness to push boundaries, and though that necessarily meant that he asked a lot of these like-minded people he employed and who were often drawn to work for him, he was quick to recognise their loyalty and always led by example.
Wherever possible, he was quick to demonstrate a willingness to do any job, should the necessity arise. He would happily sweep the workshop floor, if that freed up others to do their jobs.
His employees genuinely loved him, and the day after he died on June 2, 1970, every single one of them reported for work despite being told to take time off to come to terms the magnitude of their mutual loss.
As mechanic Howden Ganley has always said, if Bruce had told them that he would like them to follow him over a cliff, they would all have done so willingly.
“I have to think in a broader area,” Bruce said of his role as team boss. “I need to know a bit about psychology – you have to if you want to get more out of people.
"I also need to know a bit about administration and, of course, engineering. But that’s mostly to make sure that a bloke knows what he’s talking about, and the job isn’t being done in the wrong way.”
Today, as McLaren move closer to their 184th Grand Prix victory with Lando Norris and sophomore Oscar Piastri, who in so many ways is reminiscent of the team’s founder, the men who have inherited and nurtured his legacy do so with a passion and quiet intelligence that Bruce himself would have admired and applauded.