COMPANY : McLAREN : HISTORY & HERITAGE

McLaren – Motor Racing Heritage

From 2011, McLaren Automotive will launch the first of its new range of technologically advanced high performance sports cars. These cars will break new ground in driving dynamics, automotive technology, Formula 1 process transfer, and performance, but their future success lies in the roots of a company steeped in a rich motorsport history.

In the beginning...

Bruce McLaren was born in 1937 in Auckland, New Zealand and in 1963 founded Bruce McLaren Motor Racing in order to develop and race sports cars alongside his commitment as lead driver in the Cooper Grand Prix team. 

He had arrived in the UK in 1958 with the ‘Driver to Europe’ scheme that was designed to encourage antipodean drivers to compete with the cream of the world’s drivers.  His mentor was Jack Brabham who introduced Bruce to Cooper Cars, the small Surbiton (London)-based team who were poised to create a revolution with compact, lightweight Grand Prix cars powered by an engine behind the driver.  Following an auspicious start to his F2 career in 1958 he joined the F1 team for 1959 and stayed with Cooper for seven years.

Bruce made an impact almost immediately by winning the 1959 US Grand Prix aged just 22 years 80 days, at that time the youngest Grand Prix winner.  He went on to win three more Grand Prix and countless sports car victories.  Yet Bruce was no ordinary driver.  His upbringing was steeped in cars and practical engineering at his parent’s service station and workshop.  By the age of 14 he had entered a local hill climb in an Austin 7 Ulster and shown promise both as a driver and an engineer.

Back to the 1960s Bruce raced, as did most Grand Prix drivers of this time, in sports cars, Grand Touring cars and more humble saloon cars alongside his commitments to Cooper in Formula 1.  He drove for Jaguar, Aston Martin and Ford with whom he won the Le Mans 24 hours in 1966. 

He was a true competitor who excelled at innovating and developing racing cars.  It was this passion that led Bruce to start his own company, firstly to develop and race a Cooper with a rear-mounted Oldsmobile engine that helped to kick start the ‘big banger’ sports car era.  In a show of loyalty to Cooper cars Bruce engineered two 2.5 litre Coopers for the 1964 Tasman series which he won.

McLaren becomes a constructor

In 1964 Bruce and his small team built the first true McLaren sports car – the M1A – which became a top contender in sports car racing both in Europe and America.  After proving its credentials the orders rolled in and 24 examples were built.  Its successor, the M1B, was quicker still and carried Bruce’s nascent team into the inaugural Can-Am (Canadian –American Challenge Cup) championship. These cars were faster than the then current Formula 1 cars providing a spectacle of colour accompanied by the deep rumble of highly-tuned, large American V8 engines.  The inaugural year of this championship did not yield a victory for McLaren but Bruce came third in the series. 

The following year, 1967, saw the start of one of the most dominant episodes in motor sport history. 

Now in its trademark papaya orange livery, Bruce and fellow Kiwi Denny Hulme’s Can-Am cars won five of the six races with Bruce taking McLaren’s first title.  In the following five seasons what became known as the ‘Bruce and Denny show’ rolled on with Hulme winning the title in 1968 and 1970, while Bruce claimed his second title in 1969.  Peter Revson won for McLaren in 1971.  Between 1967 and 1971 the works McLarens won 37 of the 43 races including 19 one-twos.  Such dominance won many admirers and many sales of racing sports cars and, just occasionally a customer car won too.   Over the duration of the Can-Am series McLaren was the dominant victor with 43 victories, almost three times more than its closest competitor Porsche.

McLaren moves into Formula 1

Back in 1965 Bruce had already decided to leave Cooper and build his own Formula 1 car for the first season of the new 3 litre formula.   Having built a ‘mule’ chassis for testing in 1965, the first McLaren F1 car, the M2B, made its debut at the Monaco GP.  Although saddled with underpowered and unreliable engines, Bruce scored a point for sixth place in only its third race, at Brands Hatch, with a further two points later in the season.  It was a respectable start but the real mark left by McLaren’s first F1 car was the innovation it featured. 

Establishing a tradition that has long guided McLaren, the car’s designer, Robin Herd, was recruited from the aerospace industry at Farnborough.  Herd had worked with a material called Mallite - endgrain balsa wood sandwiched between two sheets of aluminium in a honeycomb, from which he constructed the entire inner and outer monocoque of the M2B.  It was strong and light – a watchword for the aviation industry and a prescient and enduring quest for McLaren to this day.

It took only another season for the McLaren F1 team to make it to the top step of the podium. A feat achieved, appropriately, by Bruce himself at the 1968 Belgian GP.  The Cosworth-powered M7A was among the fastest cars of the season and was liveried in McLaren orange for the first time.  Denny Hulme won a further two races in 1968, the latter in Canada yielding the team’s first one-two. Hulme went on to win four more Grands Prix in the following years.           

Bruce’s tragic death while testing at Goodwood in 1970 would have thrown lesser teams into disarray but under the guidance of Teddy Mayer and with the support of Denny Hulme, who stayed loyal to his compatriot’s team until his retirement in 1975, McLaren was on the cusp of achieving the ultimate success.  The team’s first Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships came in 1974 when Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi won three races and took the crown in the McLaren M23.  The same model, now in its fourth season, also powered James Hunt to the 1976 Drivers’ Championship after a season-long, and enthralling, battle with Niki Lauda and Ferrari.

McLaren at Indianapolis

In the 1970s McLaren had also been very active in the USA.  Not only had McLaren created history with its Can-Am success but the team also coveted glory at the prestigious Indianapolis 500. 

Following an unlucky accident that precluded Hulme from competing with the M15 in 1970, McLaren bounced back in 1971 with the F1-inspired M16.  Powered by the ubiquitous turbocharged Offenhauser engine and presenting the first wedge-shaped car at the Brickyard, Peter Revson and Mark Donohue were both super quick but failed to take the win, Revson finishing second. 

The following year Donohue won the Indy 500, and several other USAC races, in Roger Penske’s M16B.  It wasn’t the orange car that won, but it was a McLaren. Two years later Texan Johnny Rutherford took the flag at the Brickyard in a McLaren M16 C/D and this time it was orange.  The now venerable M16 line of cars progressed into D and E specifications with Rutherford finishing second in 1975 and winning again in 1976.  Although this marked the end of McLaren’s active involvement at Indy, customer examples of the M16 continued at the 500 mile race until 1981 when Vern Schuppan’s example still managed third place.

The importance of customers

The 1980s were to see major upheaval at McLaren, setting the tone for McLaren’s Formula 1 successes. Before moving on to this significant chapter in the history of McLaren there were some important learning points from the company’s first 17 years.  First McLaren learnt that success breeds success:  with each new Can-Am car it experienced strong demand from customers who wanted the fastest cars available.  The company also learnt that it needed a production partner in order for it to be able to focus the efforts of the young company on developing its products.  Accordingly McLaren established a partnership with Trojan to build customer cars.  Between 1965 and 1976 Trojan built around 160 customer Group 7 Can-Am cars, 52 Formula 500/A cars and 25 Formula 2/B cars.  In addition McLaren made no fewer than 24 cars for USAC racing in America.

The company’s fame in the United States led it to form McLaren Engines based in Livonia, Michigan in order to be close to its racing centres and provide on the spot support.   Its experience of Indycar racing delivered tremendous experience in aerodynamics due to the high speeds generated on the oval circuits – average speeds came close to 200 mph - and in the use of turbocharged engines at a time when almost all European racing was with normally-aspirated units. All this experience would prove valuable in the new era of the 1980s with Ron Dennis at the helm.

Ron Dennis starts a new era at McLaren and revives its success

After McLaren’s purple patch in the mid-1970s, the team’s performance went downhill in 1978, 79 and 80.  It was a time that saw the emergence of hugely powerful turbo cars from the big manufacturers competing against the small teams equipped with the normally-aspirated Cosworth engine that made its debut back in 1967. So in 1980 McLaren merged with Ron Dennis’ Project 4 Racing team. 

Ron’s arrival was timely.  He had worked in Formula 1 since 1966 joining Cooper Cars soon after Bruce McLaren departed, then started his own F2 team in 1971.

Not only did he bring a new drive and ambition to the famous team but he also brought back a skilled designer, John Barnard.  Barnard was working in America where he designed the Chaparral 2K that won Indianapolis in 1980, but he had been at McLaren earlier in the 1970s where he worked on the M23 car that delivered two Formula 1 Drivers’ Championships (Fittipaldi and Hunt) and McLaren’s first, and to date only, Constructors’ title (1974). 

More significantly, Barnard was interested in a material new to racing car design, carbon fibre composite.  This material was used in aerospace applications but had never been applied to a complete racing car monocoque. McLaren pioneered the use of carbon fibre in motor racing with its new car, the MP4/1, and revolutionised racing car construction.  The carbon fibre chassis was built by Hercules Aerospace and brought new levels of rigidity and driver safety to Formula 1.

The MP4/1 series of cars raced for three years delivering one victory in 1981, four in 1982 and another in 1983 by which time the turbo cars were outgunning the more nimble Cosworth-powered teams. Towards the end of 1983 McLaren’s long-awaited turbo engine arrived in the form of a Porsche-designed V6 named TAG (Techniques d’Avant Garde).  TAG principal Mansour Ojjeh became a shareholder in McLaren and shared in a period of rewarding success for the company.  Ron attracted Niki Lauda out of retirement to join John Watson in 1982/3 on driving duties and both were to win races.

The 1984 season saw race wins turn into championships. Frenchman, Alain Prost replaced Watson, but it was Lauda who took his third title despite Prost winning seven Grands Prix to the Austrian’s five.  Guile and experience won over youth and pace but McLaren had won its second Constructors’ Championship and celebrated its most successful season so far with 12 victories from 16 events. The MP4/2 B repeated its championship victories in 1985, Prost lifting the driver’s trophy with five wins while Lauda managed just one before retiring.  Prost went on to win the driver’s championship in 1986 and 1989 for McLaren.

The Senna and Prost era

For 1988 McLaren entered what would be a an enormously fruitful relationship with Honda, firstly with the Japanese company’s 1.5 litre turbo engine then, when turbos were banned, with 3.5 litre V10 and V12 power plants.  Also new for 1988 was Ayrton Senna.   The explosive combination of Senna, the fastest driver in the world, and the master tactician and strategist Prost would yield two championships (Constructors’ and Drivers’).  The first season of this partnership yielded almost the perfect score with Senna winning eight races and Prost seven, leaving just one for the other teams, and McLaren scored no less than ten one-twos.  In 1989 the score was Senna six and Prost four but the latter won the title.

Into the new decade, Senna had a new team mate in Gerhard Berger and he continued to dominate winning Drivers’ Championships in 1990 and 1991 with Berger’s consistency helping the team to two more Constructors’ Championships.  The last year for McLaren and Honda was 1992 and although the team could not celebrate five championships on the bounce, they won five races and finished second.  Honda withdrew from Formula 1 leaving McLaren to use Ford and then Peugeot engines before linking up with Mercedes-Benz in 1995, a relationship that endures to this day.

McLaren’s first trip to Le Mans

In 1995 McLaren also entered Le Mans for the first time in its 30 year history. 

The company’s decision to build the F1, the ultimate super sports car (see McLaren road cars history) was never intended to spawn a racing car.  However, the burgeoning interest amongst racing teams for a GT series using road-derived cars, and the eagerness of some McLaren owners to compete, stirred the competitive spirit at Woking.  McLaren set about strengthening the iconic F1 road car for the parts that might not stand the punishment meted out in endurance racing.

The basis of the car was good – a carbon fibre tub for strength, high torsional rigidity and light weight and a 6.1 litre BMW V12 engine that issued 627bhp.  It was almost a modern Can-Am car for the road.  The resultant racing version was named the McLaren F1 GTR and from an intended production of three, nine were produced in 1995 alone. 

Weight was reduced by 90 kilos, bigger brakes and wheels, a roll cage, a faster steering rack, a reinforced gearbox, and a rear wing were added. Engine power was reduced over the standard car to 600bhp in order to comply with Le Mans regulations.  It must be the only car in the world that went to the track with less power than its road-going sibling.

The GTR’s first outing was the first race in the BPR Global GT Championship at Monza, a series for professional racers and gentlemen drivers.  Three GTRs entered and owner Ray Bellm had the honour of giving his car a debut victory with Maurizio Sandro Sala as co-driver. The GTR won its first six races and then headed for the big one – the Le Mans 24 Hours.  Six McLarens entered the race with drivers ranging from ex-GP aces J J Lehto, Mark Blundell and Yannick Dalmas to long distance specialists Derek Bell and Andy Wallace.

It was a wet race that placed a premium on delicacy of touch and although the lighter prototypes were expected to be faster the conditions played into the hands of the McLarens with Lehto in particular driving spectacularly well.  At one stage in the night he was lapping ten seconds faster than any other car on the track.  In the end, the black GTR of Lehto, Dalmas and Masanori Sekiya came home first by a single lap.  The other McLaren GTRs finished 3rd, 4th, 5th and 13th with only one retiring due to a crash.

It was a remarkable achievement in that a real road car with only minimal modifications had taken on and beaten the best in the world’s most gruelling race, at its first attempt and in the first year of production.  The result also guaranteed that the McLaren F1 would claim an iconic status in the eyes of aficionados the world over. 

It also secured for McLaren a first in that it is the only manufacturer to win the triple crown – The Formula 1 World Championship, the Indianapolis 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours.  It remains a unique achievement.

The F1 story continues with a resounding victory in the BPR GT series in both 1995 and 1996 and the All-Japan GT Championship.  The F1 revisited Le Mans in 1996 finishing 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, 9th and 11th and again in 1997 with a revised long tailed GTR finishing 2nd and 3rd.

Formula 1 in the modern era

Back in the Formula 1 arena the relationship between McLaren and Mercedes Benz gelled and the driver team of Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard complemented each other for six seasons of positive results.  In this period the Finn won 20 Grands Prix and took the Drivers’ title in 1998 and 1999, while the Scot won 10 Grands Prix with another two to come after Häkkinen had retired.  In 1998 McLaren won its eighth Constructors’ Championship.

Another Finn, Kimi Räikkönen, replaced Häkkinen as Coulthard’s partner and finished second in the championship in both 2003 and 2005, taking nine victories.  He was joined by another exciting driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, for 2005/6 who took three wins for McLaren before going back to America. 

In 2007, reigning double World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at McLaren to challenge for a third title while the gifted protégé of the McLaren and Mercedes-Benz team, Lewis Hamilton, would start his rookie year alongside an established master.  Hamilton was quick ‘out of the box’ and went on to win five Grands Prix and take a close second in the title race.  Alonso also took four wins to finish third.  Alonso was to leave after just a single season, but Hamilton went on to take five more victories in 2008 and secured the Drivers’ Championship at his second attempt – the youngest ever driver to do so.

McLaren now has a heritage of 45 years, in 43 of which it has been represented at the pinnacle of the sport.  

In Formula 1, it has been on the podium on average once in every three Grands Prix. It has won no fewer than 165* of the 668 Grands Prix in which the team has competed. It has delivered 12 world championships for its drivers, Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Mika Häkkinen and, most recently, Lewis Hamilton.  It has won eight Constructors’ Championships.  As of the Spa Grand Prix 2009, McLaren has achieved 142 pole positions, 434 podiums, and 44 double wins (one –twos). 

In addition McLaren has won five Can-Am titles with 43 race wins, three Indy 500 victories, the Le Mans 24 hour race and many F5000 and Formula A races.

Notes to Editors

McLaren Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championships
1974Emerson Fittipaldi
1976James Hunt
1984Niki Lauda
1985, 86, 89Alain Prost
1988, 90, 91Ayrton Senna
1998, 99Mika Hakkinen
2008Lewis Hamilton

McLaren Formula 1 Constructors’ World Championships: 1974, 84, 85, 88, 89, 90, 91, 98

*Formula 1 race wins up to and including 2010 Australian GP